IU’s Wommack and his defense hitting stride in Year 2

Coaches are, by nature, control freaks.

So when Indiana’s Tom Allen talked about relinquishing control of the defense last season, he admitted a level of discomfort. He had moved up the coaching ranks by mastering that side of the ball, from blitzes to coverages and the like. Now he was handing the controls over to a young but trusted confidant, Kane Wommack.

But even if it seemed Allen was giving something up, there was a sense of control in how it unfolded. Having hired Wommack away from South Alabama before the 2018 season, Allen always intended to give Wommack the defense. Dating back to their days together at Ole Miss, Allen had pegged Wommack as a future coordinator.

Just not for IU’s inexperienced defense in 2018.

“There’s always a process to everything we’re trying to do,” Allen said. “I knew we were going be really, really young … and we were very, very young. I thought we were going to have some growing pains. I wanted to be able to work through that and deflect some of that and not put that on him. That’s just being very honest about the situation.”

Allen spared Wommack a year in the fire. Now, after a season of ups and downs on the defensive side of the ball in 2019, culminating with a promising effort for three-plus quarters in the Gator Bowl, the baton pass from Allen to Wommack seems more than smooth.

Just this past weekend, the Hoosiers shut out Michigan State. That vaulted IU to 19th in the NCAA in total defense, well within the top-25 standard that Allen has set for the program defensively. Last year, the Hoosiers finished at 45th in the country.

Wommack has seemingly settled in. And this week, the IU defense will have its toughest test yet, matching up with an Ohio State offense that scores 46.3 points a game.

“Kane’s done a great job preparing these guys and creating a culture of accountability on that side of the ball with how we practice and how we prepare,” Allen said, “and the attention to detail and just the things that it takes to be great in this conference.”

The results have been impressive, as the Hoosiers lead the Big Ten in interceptions (10) and sacks (12). IU is tied for second nationally in turnover margin at plus-2 per game.

Attention to detail is something that was not lost in the transition from Allen to Wommack. The son of a longtime college defensive coordinator, Dave — who was essentially the architect of the 4-2-5 scheme the Hoosiers employ — Wommack knows what it takes to do the job.

There is also an added layer of accountability that comes with being the son of a defensive coordinator who now coaches under a former d-coordinator.

“It’s my job not to be the best defensive coordinator I envision, but the best defensive coordinator Tom Allen wants for this program,” Wommack said. “I’m trying to work relentlessly to do that day in and day out.”

The “Swarm D,” as Wommack has labeled it, seems to more fit its moniker in 2020. An athletic group, especially at the linebacker and secondary positions, has played with more speed and anticipation. The defensive front has been more physical, helping hold Michigan and MSU to 13 and 60 rushing yards, respectively, in the last two weeks.

IU sits at No. 18 in the country in rush defense, allowing 111 yards per game.

Wommack, who can recall a time when he drew up a half-dozen blitzes a week with his dad, has been aggressive dialing up pressures, as well, sending linebackers, corners, and safeties. That’s just how a Tom Allen defense should operate, but Wommack holds the keys.

“Obviously, in the moment, right, you can’t be like ‘What would Tom do here?’” Wommack said, smiling. “But that being said, him and I are very in sync with what we want to do defensively. I think that takes time to get your minds wrapped around what your personnel is and what we want to accomplish. I thought we were most in sync going into that bowl preparation (in 2019) in terms of what we wanted to get done collectively.

“I think schematically we’ve carried some of that same concept and just built off of it from that game plan against Tennessee.”

IU’s pressures are just more varied now. In the past, the Hoosiers have predominantly paired blitzes with man-to-man coverage. IU has found a way to mix up coverages, forcing quarterbacks to think a little when pressures come. If they hold the ball longer, rushers can get home.

The Hoosiers are also disguising their blitzes, surprising signal callers with pressures from the perimeter.

“That’s where our interceptions and takeaways have increased exponentially from where we were a year ago,” Wommack said.

Even as IU’s unit has had success, that hasn’t prevented Wommack from finding things to critique. Michigan was able to rack up 243 yards on nine “explosive” plays two weeks ago, and Michigan State was able to produce 100-plus yards on just four plays, including a 27-yard run and a 27-yard pass for backup quarterback Payton Thorne.

Allen has made it a point to not second-guess his coordinators, whether it’s Wommack or offensive play-caller Nick Sheridan. He’s not interjecting frequently on the headset in-game. He’s trying not to second-guess, either. But Allen has definitely made his thoughts known if things need to be changed.

“He’s fiery as all get out on the sidelines on game day,” Wommack said. “When we’re doing well, he’s going to praise what we’re doing, and when we’re not, he’ll let you know that part, too.”

While Allen’s mantra for IU football is “love each other,” it can be tough love when things don’t go right.

“I’m hard on him, I’m tough on him, and he knows it,” Allen said. “Sometimes it’s tough to coach the position and call that side of the ball, that the head coach used to coach and call. But I’m so proud of him, and I think he’s done a great job.”

Wommack has proven valuable to Allen, freeing him up to just be a head coach. But the experience of coordinating under Allen has been invaluable for Wommack, too.

“For me to be able to use him as a resource and, certainly, just to have that constant accountability in what we do throughout our week of preparation and certainly on game day has made me a better coach,” Wommack said. “The time I’ve been able to transition under him has been a big deal for me.”

Watch list for Allen

On Tuesday, Allen was one of 24 FBS coaches named to the 2020 American Heart Association Paul “Bear” Award Watch List.

Allen has the Hoosiers off to a 4-0 conference start, the program’s first such record since 1987. In the Big Ten, Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald, Ohio State’s Ryan Day, and Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst are also nominees.

The winner will be announced live on Jan. 13 during a virtual awards ceremony benefiting the American Heart Association.

One comment

  1. Now that the defense has experience and has better players it shows on the field. It is good to see IU defense showing up in the top 20 in the nation. The PSU game hurt the defensive numbers but looks like it was just the first game issues. The defense will be tested this week and how well they stand up will determine how the game will go for IU. If the defense creates take aways and gives the offense short fields to work with IU has a great chance to win. If the defense can shut down OSU’s offense early it may lead to them getting frustrated and making mistakes.

    There are many ways a very good defense can influence games and IU has one this year that has helped win the games.

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