Positional Series: Defensive Backs

With a starting corner position still up for grabs, the secondary features one of camp's most heated battles. A pair of converted safeties are challenging for that spot as the coaching staff continues to emphasize stopping the run.

Expected to Start

Left corner: Tim Bennett/JR/5-9/190
Right corner: Michael Hunter/RS SO/6-1/190
Strong safety: Greg Heban/RS SR/6-1/205
Weak safety: Mark Murphy/JR/6-2/210/

Bennett has made the transition this fall from safety — which he played as recently as the spring — to corner. Last season he played in 11 games, starting three times. He made 17 tackles, 12 solo, with one sack and three pass break ups.

The defensive coaches are hoping Hunter can step in and have a positive impact on the secondary after redshirting last season. As a freshman in 2011, he played in all 12 games with three starts. In that year he made 13 tackles, nine solo, with two pass breakups.

Heban is by far the defense's best playmaker. The former walk-on started his career at corner, then moved to nickel back to start 2012. After playing the nickel for the first five games, he started the final seven at safety. He led the team with 91 tackles and three interceptions and tied for the team lead with eight pass break ups.

Murphy started 11 times last year, finishing fourth on the team with 70 tackles. He also had a sack, three tackles for loss, a fumble recovery and two pass breakups.

In the Two-Deep

Left corner: Brian Williams/RS JR/6-0/190
Right corner: Ryan Thompson/SR/5-10/195
Strong safety: Brandon Grubbe/RS JR/5-11/208
Weak safety: Antonio Allen/FR/5-10/205

Others in the Mix

Kenny Mullen/JR/5-10/181
Tregg Waters/SR/6-0/200
Rashard Fant/FR/5-10/162

Dawson Fletcher/SO/6-0/207
Jake Zupancic/RS JR/5-11/209

Of the corners listed in this category, Fant is the most intriguing. The coaches have raved about his cover skills, saying he might already have the best on the team. But at 162 pounds, his limitations are obvious. Defensive coordinator Doug Mallory and cornerbacks coach Brandon Shelby have said they might try to "hide" Fant in packages that feature more DBs to take advantage of his cover skills while limiting his exposure to the run game.

Help on the way

Donovan Clark/South Side HS/Fort Wayne, Ind./5-10/170

Clark, a three star recruit, is the only defensive back in the class of 2014 to this point. He is ranked as the No. 53 cornerback in the nation by Scout.com.

Position coaches

Corners:Brandon Shelby

This is Shelby's third year coaching the cornerbacks. He got his start in 2006 as a defensive assistant at Oklahoma when Kevin Wilson was offensive coordinator there. Prior to Indiana, he spent 2010 as cornerbacks coach at Louisiana-Monroe. He also made stops at Portland State University in 2009 and San Diego in 2008, coaching the secondary in both cases. Shelby was an All-Big 12 defensive back at Oklahoma, where played from 2001-04.

Safeties: Doug Mallory

Mallory is in his third year as co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach. He has more than 25 years of coaching experience with stops at eight schools. This is his second stint at Indiana. He coached defensive backs and special teams from 1994-96, when his father Bill was head coach.

Positional strengths

1. Playmaking ability

In Heban and Williams, the defense boasts two natural playmakers. Heban was an outfielder in high school and was on the IU baseball team for one season. He brings those skills to the secondary, where he has a nose for the ball. In short, Heban is an all-around good safety: he can cover, make plays on the ball and play the run.

Williams tied Heban for the team lead in pass break ups with eight and also added an interception. He was IU's best cover corner last season.

2. Physical presence

What was considered a weakness last season has become a strength in preseason camp. Both Bennett and Thompson are converted safeties, so they bring a physical presence to the cornerbacks that has been lacking in Wilson's first two years. The defensive coaches hope those two can use their experience at safety to bolster the run defense on the edge. One thing is certain: the have the bulk to tackle. Bennett is 5-9 but 190 pounds; Thompson is 5-10 and 195 pounds.

Allen, perhaps the most coveted freshman as a four-star recruit, is pushing for playing time because of his physicality. He is best known for his punishing hits in high school, and that seems to be what the coaches want in their safeties as IU tries to improve on the Big Ten's worst rushing defense from a year ago.

Whether or not these roster moves result in better run defense from the secondary remains to be seen. But the physicality is certainly there.

What Needs to Improve?

Coverage Skills

Indiana's run defense in 2012 was an obvious glaring weakness, but the pass defense wasn't much better. The Hoosiers allowed 232 yards per game through the air, which ranked ninth in the conference. They simply allowed too many big plays over the top and in the middle of the field. The defensive coordinators have stressed the importance of limiting the big play during camp.

Indiana's secondary also tied for the fewest interceptions in the conference (seven) and allowed the most passing touchdowns (23). Of course the DBs are not entirely at fault — the poor run defense left the secondary vulnerable in single coverage when the defense tried to pack the box — and so much of what they do is predicated on the pass rush. Still, the interception and touchdown numbers suggest IU's corners lacked the speed and athleticism to adequately cover quality Big Ten receivers.

Kevin Wilson's Take on the Unit.

"They're more physical. They're showing up in the run game. There's some competition and guys like, ‘Hey, if I'm not playing I'm not pouting about it, I'm fighting to get on the field.' Timmy Bennett's really helped out there a lot, nice physical presence and is learning. I think he'll have a chance to be a solid player for us…but they're doing good."
—Wilson on the corner backs.

The Players and Coaches Weigh In, Too

"Simple, but it's consistency. Because when you're consistent the team is going to trust you to do what you're supposed to do. And I think that's the biggest thing that as a defense that we have to improve, is you have to consistently do your job so that therefore guy next to you can trust that you're going to do your job."
—Shelby on what it will take for one the cornerbacks to win the vacant starting job.

"When they came into the meeting room, it was a different approach. As a corner we see things as just covering routes and eliminating routes. They came with the whole new physical approach: coming up in the run, jamming the receivers, getting off the block, not letting them off the press. They brought it to us where as corners where we didn't really see it that way… now this camp, it showed that we put two and two together and make it a good project."
—Kenny Mullen on what the converted safeties, Bennett and Thompson, have brought to the cornerback position.

Overall Analysis

Aside from Greg Heban and Tim Bennett, no one is a lock to start. The secondary is incredibly fluid and features some of the most heated position competitions in camp. At a recent practice Wilson mentioned Williams, Thompson, Hunter and Mullen as all in play for the starting corner spot opposite Bennett.

Both Williams and Mullen have starting experience, so that could work in their favor with the position battle. In the preseason media guide, the right corner spot lists Hunter "or" Thompson as the starter. Fant has been nursing a hamstring issue in camp but could still make an impact down the road.

Don't be surprised if Allen starts at some point this year, either. But as the coaching staff puts the emphasis on stopping the run, it begs the question: will the pass defense suffer? It remains to be seen how well guys like Bennett and Thompson can actually cover, or if someone like Allen can stay disciplined and not overplay when hunting for a big hit.

Either way, this is the most talent and depth Indiana has had in the secondary in the Wilson era. Shelby said the physicality of the corners has improved and that the unit has so far limited the deep ball, something they were burned by last year. If they can do those two things — stop the run and keep the ball in front of them — this could be a vastly improved group in 2013.

Follow Joe Popely on Twitter at Twitter.com/joepopely

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