Notes: The search for sacks and defensive players to watch

The tantalizing pass-rush potential of James Head Jr. was on full display at Penn State last year, when the 6-foot-5, 261-pound defensive end ripped around a tackle to strip-sack Sean Clifford.

That was the first forced fumble of Head’s career, though. And it was one of just 2.5 sacks in two seasons for a prospect who once held offers from South Carolina, Baylor, and Michigan State.

A breakout season has yet to truly come from the big-bodied, athletic junior. But as the Hoosiers continued preparations for this year’s opener with PSU, senior Michael Ziemba was teasing its arrival.

“That man is raw, I’m not going to lie,” Ziemba said. “He’s making plays every day. We all are. I feel like we’ve all gotten so much better. But he’s about to have a huge year. He definitely is.”

Could this be the year that Head turns a corner, and, with it, the Hoosiers’ pass rush? Last year, it was Allen Stallings and Jerome Johnson who led the line with five sacks apiece, helping the Hoosiers’ total to 27. That was good for ninth in the conference.

Sacks have been an ebb and flow for IU in recent years, climbing with the emergence of one pass-rusher or another. In 2013-14, IU had just 43 sacks combined, but that number jumped to 30 in 2015, led by 9.5 from Nick Mangieri. Linebacker Tegray Scales and defensive end Robert McCray conspired to push IU’s total to 36 in 2017, but there was a sharp drop-off to 22 in 2018.

While there was an upward swing in 2019, more seems possible from Head, as well as the 6-3, 258-pounder Ziemba, who has just one career sack. The hope is new defensive line coach Kevin Peoples, a protégé of d-line guru Pete Jenkins, can elevate the pass-rushing skills of IU’s linemen.

“His pass-rush IQ is off the chain,” said Head, who then ran down a list of techniques he’s been refining with Peoples, such as “lead-stepping” and matching hips with the quarterback. “That’s going to lead you to get around better on the offensive tackle and things like that.”

Steps, hand placement, hips – there are a variety of details that can help a rusher gain leverage on a blocker. Ziemba has been impressed with the number of drills Peoples employs, rather than just starting every day working on get-offs in the chute. There is a focus on identifying weaknesses and drilling them.

If the Hoosiers can master what were once flaws, Ziemba expects big things. When asked for a sack goal for the defense, he plainly stated, “As many as possible.” Head thought along the same lines.

“Every time the quarterback steps back, we’re trying to get a sack,” Head said. “However many times the quarterback steps back this season, that’s how many sacks.”

Ready to play

While it’s obvious players like Ziemba and Head will see the field versus No. 9 PSU, a few not-so-obvious names were shouted out by coaches this week.

Peoples mentioned redshirt freshman defensive end Jeramy Passmore. The 6-foot-3, 263-pound Miami native had his true freshman season cut short by a knee injury, but he’s apparently put himself in position to see the field.

“I know he’s going to play a considerable amount of snaps,” Peoples said. “He’s done a nice job.”

That’s encouraging for the Hoosiers’ defensive end depth. Another name to watch is redshirt sophomore Jonathan King, who played tackle for IU in 2019 but has slimmed down to 260 pounds.

“His athleticism at that weight is what we are looking for,” Peoples said. “I think we’ve found a home for him.”

In the front seven, another player to keep an eye on is redshirt sophomore linebacker Aaron Casey. While Micah McFadden, Cam Jones, and Thomas Allen received stater’s snaps at linebacker last season, and even James Miller at times, that wasn’t the case for Casey. He appeared primarily on special teams.

But defensive coordinator Kane Wommack said “Ace” has put himself in position to play more.

“Probably as excited about Ace in terms of how he’s progressed over these last six months here than anybody,” Wommack said. “He’s taken his game to another level. He’s a very dynamic talent, obviously being 236 pounds, being 6-2, and being able to run like he does. But he really understands what we are doing from a run-fit perspective. He is dynamic in the passing game.

“He just needs to keep playing, but he’s going to be out there on Saturday.”

Update at ‘husky’

When the Hoosiers lost Marcelino Ball for the season, redshirt junior Bryant Fitzgerald was the next man up at the hybrid husky spot.

But as the huskies’ coach, Kasey Teegardin, laid out on Friday, there will most likely be a “by committee” approach to the position as the Hoosiers go forward. Seven players repped at the hybrid safety-linebacker spot during last weekend’s scrimmage.

“I feel like we have a lot of guys that can fill that void,” Teegardin said, referencing Noah Pierre and Jamar Johnson. Even corner Tiawan Mullen played husky in certain coverage-centric packages last year. “I’m going to lean heavy on Fitz in that position early and make sure he’s coached up and ready to roll. Fitz has done a phenomenal job. Obviously, we miss Marcelino a ton, but Fitz is ready to roll.”

Wommack mentioned that Fitzgerald missed some time earlier this summer and fall, but that he’s starting to hit a stride in camp.

“I’ve been pleased with him,” Wommack said. “But I think it’s my job to maximize our personnel and get the right people on the field for the right situations. So we’re certainly going to do that.”

Staying stateside

This past offseason was anything but conventional for anyone, but that was especially the case for IU punter Haydon Whitehead.

When the pandemic hit, the Australian was literally stranded in Bloomington.

“I may not have been able to get back into the states if I tried to go home,” Whitehead said.

So the native of Melbourne wasn’t able to hit the weights as he would have liked, because gyms were closed. There were times he couldn’t get on the fields at IU, either, and he would have to search out local parks that were open for punting practice.

“It was a little bit touch and go,” Whitehead said. “Was a little bit of a challenge, but we always managed to find something that would work, and, yeah, it allowed me to get a lot of good offseason work in.”

Whitehead was able to work on the basics, consistency with hangtime and distance. Following a season where he hit his punts an average of 42.5 yards, a career best, and landed 27.5 percent of his punts (14-of-51) inside the 10-yard line, which ranked fifth in FBS, he didn’t need to make any drastic leaps.

Regardless, Whitehead has earned the respect of his teammates.

“He’s always out there punting, he’s always out there doing extra. I think guys (notice),” Teegardin said. “You talk to the coaches in the weight room, they love the kid in the weight room.”

Teegardin then caught himself calling his 25-year-old punter “kid.”

“He’s 25, he’s a man,” Teegardin said. “And he handles his business as a man, and that’s what is awesome to have at the end of the day.”

(above photo courtesy of IU Athletics)

48 comments

  1. Tennessee had a good season going until the second half of the Georgia game and looked like they had a hangover game against Kentucky. Up until this stage of the season Tennessee was a good sign for IUFB.

    The answer on how good IU is starts this coming Saturday and it will hold signs of what kind of season IU will have.

  2. I would also add that Penix is a much better QB than Tennessee’s QB which should help IU have a better season. Georgia had their own problems against Alabama getting shut out in the second half. This has been a crazy season in football so it is hard to predict what will happen in the B1G. After all, NC got beat by FSU yesterday and lost the game by getting ripped in the 1st half. We just have to hope IU is improved and more consistent than the other teams we have seen.

    1. I hold optimism for the season and this game for sure. But unknowns are immeasurable; new coaches, DL, ST’s, TE, S and Sheridan as OC. I feel very good Coach Allen exudes positive impactful personal leadership to them. But with the inconsistent off season was it enough time to rev up to take 1 away from a top conference foe? Gonna be a interestingly fun season.

  3. There’s a common theme that runs through each of those games that made it nearly impossible for certain teams to win. Address that theme, as IU did last year with Ramsey, and IU has a chance to stay with PSU. Talent wise, IU is still in the bottom half of the Big 10. Hopefully, they’re “coached up” and can play cleanly Saturday.

    1. Since Penn State joined big ten IU has several times stayed in game with Penn State with one win.
      Sure IU will be coached up. However, so will Penn State…they will be coached up as well as most of the teams with an exception here and there (not very often) that play IU… because teams figure that is a must win game in the win column for IU opponents.

  4. Did notice UK had 33 minutes TOP (time of possession) compared to 26 minutes for Tennessee.
    Turnover difference was key as well….UK only 1 turnover to Tennessee’s 4.

    Penix can give you big plays but it can lengthen a game. Big play-making ability can also come with higher risk and potential turnovers.

    At the end of the day, maybe the optimal is a qb who can give you some ball control and smart decision making in a deliberate attack (Ramsey) while still having the potential to give you the big play (Penix) while keeping the defense honest in knowing you have enough in the arm to open things up)?

    Win the turnover battle. Keep the ball away from a team with far more depth/talent as much as possible. Have a bit of luck…Convert on some big plays.

    Can Penix engineer longer drives while making smart decisions in the style of Ramsey? Or, is he just a big play qb with potential durability issues? Would we prefer our offense on the field more….or our defense?
    We must also consider the level of competition when Ramsey was looking his strongest.
    Penix was the choice of Allen when higher competition was stymieing Ramsey. Dunk and dink and ball control wasn’t working against the elite competition without a big play potential.

    1. UT threw two INTs returned for TDs in consecutive series in the first half. They were playing from behind after that and UK ran all over them. Turnovers are killers. That’s one of several areas where we’ll miss Ramsey.

  5. We won’t miss Ramsey as Penix is better and doesn’t cause turnovers either or did you miss last season after the Ball State game; we will find this out this year if we miss him or not. I liked Ramsey but he is gone and we go with the better talented players. We will see how Ramsey does with North Western. I hope Penix is improved and can play all season and he leads IU to win against some of the best programs in the B1G, yes I know it would be though to beat OSU but you never know.

    Wait until this season is over to see if we miss Ramsey as Penix leads the team. From reports Tuttle only needs some playing time to be ready to lead the team if necessary and he has the arm to get the ball all over the field to receivers.

    1. Penix has great potential, but he needs to stay healthy, which is something he’s been unable to do so far. Ramsey was efficient, tough, smart and able to play injured. You can never have too many of those kinds of players. Like Coy Cronk, who is now slated to start at right tackle for Iowa against Purdue this Saturday, his departure wasn’t viewed as a positive by the coaches, who know we’ll miss both of them.

      1. Ramsey didn’t stay healthy his first two years either but he fought through is dings not injuries. Penix was injured and had not choice to keep playing but Ramsey was banged up and could decide to keep playing. I loved his toughness and I hope Penix is now as tough if he gets ding instead of injured. Both Cronk and Ramsey couldn’t deal with better players taking their spot but that is what happens when better players are recruited. IU coaches make no bones about competition and playing the most talented players so it shouldn’t have been news to them. I have no problem with either of them transferring and I wish both of them to have great seasons.

        1. I don’t know, V. Allen was pretty loyal to Ramsey. Always thought the kid from Arizona (Dawkins?) should have gotten a shot early after transferring from Utah.
          And Tuttle should have received more snaps last year….maybe even a shot at playing a couple full quarters after Penix’s injury.

          I doubt we know the whole story behind transfers. Maybe they didn’t completely fit an ideology? Maybe they thought loyalty/promises was sold/given and then broken? Maybe they just wanted a change of scenery? But I’m not sure it’s always as simple as who is the most talented at a given moment.
          Northwestern had to see something in Ramsey….They must believe they have a pretty talented qb since they’re committed to starting him out of the gate (sort of what I expected when we’ve gone after transfer qb’s).
          Why go after them, convince them to transfer (Tuttle, Dawkins) if you’re going to put them on pine? I’m not sure if finding the quick pine is part of the expectations when you leave a quality program to come to IU.
          Maybe Ramsey got too much loyalty until the day he knew a healthy Penix would finally steal away that loyalty from Allen?

          Be interesting to see how Ramsey fares at Northwestern…When a coach goes after a kid from a signature type position (especially one which comes with some adequate playing time under his belt), it’s nice to see the coach give the transfer a quick start out of the gate.

          1. oops…Tuttle was U. of Utah via California. Dawkins was Arizona.

            Very possible we would have lost Tuttle if Allen would not have committed early to Penix for this season’s starter.

            I would not be surprised to see Tuttle play most of this season….I’m not very confident in Penix staying healthy.

        2. To give you some additional insight and correct your misunderstanding, Cronk was told, not asked, to move inside, even though he’d started at tackle since his true freshman season. He’d also been told in his NFL evaluation that tackle was his natural position, so he wanted to continue playing there and felt as though he’d earned that after doing so much for the program, including committing to remain with it after what was a really awful injury. The response from the staff was that he was moving inside, period. No discussion, no input, nothing, even while they acknowledged he was the team’s best lineman. When he tried to press his case, they blew him off, first saying they were prepping for the bowl game and then saying he was being selfish. Of course, they thought he’d eventually go along and were shocked that he left. Sorry to get on you, but you’ve claimed to be a former coach, and saying he was beat out by a better player isn’t true at all.

  6. Back in 1890 or 1943 or there abouts IU will have to execute running the football. Out of balance depending to heavily on Penix will lead to several bad things. It doesn’t mean he can’t be the star of the show but the running game of Scott, James, Ellis and whoever have to help do their share. Plus there is a pretty high probability that Tuttle will be needed at some point…and of course the O line will have to perform and execute.

    1. Nothing opens up a passing game like a running game…Penix needs that versatility in our offense. I also think he’d benefit from some hurry-up.

  7. I like the fact there are no cupcake games where Penix could still take an awkward hit or get overused on run options.

    Good he’ll get a chance to get immediately tossed into the fires of a quality opponent. He should be focused and ready to prove his worth. Go big or go home…

  8. I loved Ramsey’s toughness, his competitiveness and as a smart game-manager. But it has been obvious for some time that Penix is far more talented and has must greater upside potential. If Ramsey had not transferred, he would have had to wait until Penix got hurt or been satisfied with garbage time. Who knows, he may have been third string behind Tuttle. He knew he was not going to be the starter at IU in 2020, so he did what he thought was in his best interests. As far as what he or his family members are rumored to have said on their way out, it doesn’t matter. It’s normal for highly competitive and proud people, or their friends and family to be a little disgruntled. Bottom line is that IU’s level of talent is better now than it was a year ago and it appears that trend will continue.

    1. He wasn’t ever going to be third behind Penix and Tuttle, but he left because he was told he wouldn’t have the opportunity to compete to start, even after leading IU to an 8-4 record and a Gator Bowl berth. Cronk left for similar reasons, even though he was the team’s best lineman.

          1. …gave up and left town to be 2nd string for KF…as listed on their depth chart …mystifying tactical career decision…

  9. Cronk will be a guard in the NFL. He’s very athletic but he’s also only 6’4″ with short arms- he doesn’t have the reach to be a NFL left tackle and doesn’t have the size to be a right tackle. Here’s what the Iowa Insider said about his recruitment: “Iowa has been churning out offensive linemen for years.” “I think Coy looked at that and he wanted to kind of up his game a little bit. They (Iowa) were talking about moving him from tackle to guard, which in the NFL he kind of projects out more as a guard than he does a tackle.” Bedford is a prototype NFL left tackle and Caleb Jones has built himself into an NFL right tackle (although they are switching sides since Penix is left-handed). My guess is Cronk wants to still show he can play left tackle and IU wanted him to move to his more natural position of guard. Bedford over Cronk is no different than Penix over Ramsey- greater potential over proven production.

    1. This isn’t true, either on what happened at IU, what’s happened at Iowa, or what he’s been told by the NFL. In spite of Iowa’s need for guards, Coy is the starting right tackle for them. And he wasn’t beat out by Bedford, he was told he had to move to shore up the interior. The coaches didn’t consult with him at all.

        1. No, you didn’t. Here are their two deeps:
          WR – Brandon Smith, Tyrone Tracy Jr.
          TE – Sam LaPorta, Shaun Beyer
          LT – Alaric Jackson, Jack Plumb
          LG – Cole Banwart, Cody Ince
          C – Tyler Linderbaum, Justin Britt
          RG – Kyler Schott, Luke Empen
          RT – Coy Cronk, Mark Kallenberger
          WR – Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Nico Ragaini
          QB – Spencer Petras, Alex Padilla
          RB – Tyler Goodson, Mekhi Sargent, Ivory Kelly-Martin
          FB – Monte Pottebaum, Turner Pallissard

          He’s the starter at RT. He’s been there for nearly two weeks. Plain as day if you knew what you were talking about. Nice try, though.

  10. Wow, you guys sound like children arguing on the playground. “Yes he did!” “No he didn’t” etc..

    Who cares why Cronk left IU? He obviously thought it was in his best interest to transfer to Iowa. Same as Ramsey going to NW. Good for them. But let’s remember, IU has benefitted from grad transfers also. It’s the new fact of life in college FB. These young men work very hard all year round, they put their bodies at risk of injury, and in exchange they want to play. In some cases, they want to continue their education, and in other cases they want to maximize the opportunity to get drafted and make big money in the NFL. Neither Cronk or Ramsey’s transfer signals that there is anything inherently wrong with IU’s FB program or the way the coaches are treating the players. Coaches must do what they believe is in the best interest of the team. Players must do what they believe is in their best interests. When those motivations are in conflict, the player is the one who’s going to leave. And it’s best for everyone that he does move on. You go to war with the Army you have.

  11. IMO, Iowa FB is a program that will soon be experiencing a decline. The scandal involving the former S&C Coach, his termination and the accusations made against the head coach’s son suggest major problems. Combine that with the rise of MN and IL and the expected resurrection of Nebraska, and it’s not unreasonable to predict that a new coaching staff will be arriving at Iowa soon. And given the current political climate involving race relations, I would not be surprised if Iowa struggles to sign highly talented African American FB players coming out of HS. My guess is that Iowa’s next head coach will be an African American and that he’ll be in place by the end of the year.

  12. For those of you who doubt my post from above.

    “The attorney representing eight Black former Iowa football players who allege racial discrimination during their time with the Hawkeyes said Monday night that the university’s rejection of their demands, which included a payment of $20 million, is not the end of the matter.

    Civil rights attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons of Tulsa, Oklahoma, had stated the players’ demands in a 21-page letter to university officials dated Oct. 5. In addition to $20 million, the players called for the firings of head football coach Kirk Ferentz, offensive line coach Brian Ferentz and athletic director Gary Barta.”

  13. And, basically, after saying “who cares” about a player transferring from Indiana to Iowa (or wherever), you give us 1000 words concerning the demise of Iowa Football.
    Who cares? If Penn State is still playing football after ‘Lysol Jerry,’ it appears college football in the Big10 is pretty untouchable. The only thing ‘touchable’ is a child with a grown man in a locker room shower.
    Not to mention, the abusive Kevin Wilson getting a gig at national title contender and the best program in the conference …
    Not to mention, the wife abuser who was the grandson of Urban Meyer’s mentor….
    etc, etc, etc, etc.
    Money rules the day and that’s why college football regularly turns the other way. Nothing shocking there.

  14. Not to mention Hendershot getting a second shot after his minor alleged choking incident….etc, etc, etc.
    Meanwhile Mellencamps beating the tar out of a kid …Innocent. No charges. Keep Mellencamp name all over facilities because he’s a big donor…
    etc, etc, etc.
    Love each other. Kumbaya. Pump fist in air. …..but don’t say “Black Lives Matter.” If you say “Black Lives Matter,” you’re a communist or part of Antifa.
    Meanwhile, plot to capture and kill the governor of Michigan. Play college football. Go Wolverines. Who cares.

    1. H4H you missed it was anarchist in the plot to kidnap the Michigan governor. Hearing three PSU players getting soft treatment for having LSD and MJ along with drug paraphernalia only getting put on ARD and clear their record if they stay clean; I think it is good they get a second chance and it is up to them to follow through. BLM made a mistake aligning themselves with the group that self described trained Marxist are leading. I am a strong advocate for black equality but not BLM group and the tactics they use.

      On to talking about game week which I hope you get back into the habit of doing. Will this be the game IU goes from giving PSU major problems and ends up defeating the Lions? I think IU is in a good position to do just that and I hope come Saturday evening we are talking about IU’s major win setting themselves up for a great season.

      1. I wasn’t the one who diverted, V. The ‘dunker’ diverted into bringing up multiple issues of injustices at Iowa after the ongoing dispute over Cronk’s position on a depth chart was settled by the simple link to the Gazette I provided as a courtesy. After my post/link which should have settled the matter, the Right Wing extremist went into another 1000 word rant…Surprised he didn’t post his manifesto again.

        Conclusion: Get the facts straight. Also, don’t know why you lumped some drug issues with players at PSU into the horrors of Lysol Jerry. Those are not in the same league of child abuse, player abuse, spousal/girlfriend abuses…and other violent deeds which put another party in true jeopardy (often with long term implications/mental suffering on the victims).
        I was always for second chances for minor stuff (e.g. the witch hunt that took place against some on Sampson’s team).

        Lastly, I think your first paragraph is extremely slanted. Anarchists? They were trained militia (more than a handful) inspired by the rhetoric of our Commander in Bunions. Thank goodness some segments of our government, along with the FBI, are not simply pawns of the king.

  15. NBA players were placing ‘Black Lives Matter’ all over their jerseys and on court signage. Many fine analysts, announcers and others covering the sport do not make the disingenuous connections to nullify and ridicule their decent intent; a non-violent message of hope to be treated as if they matter in the eyes of our courts, law enforcement and elected leaders as much as the rest of us. Stop with Marxist bandwagon malarkey. Please, it’s insulting to those who do not see equality, equal justice and a love for diversity as something “extreme.”

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