Since taking the head coaching job at Indiana, Kevin Wilson has made it a point to play the best players at each position, regardless of age. That broke rank with the previous regime, which believed in redshirting almost every freshman regardless of their ability to immediately contribute at the collegiate level.
In 2011, Indiana played 16 true freshmen, tied for third in the nation. Last season, 11 true freshmen saw the field. So it should come as no surprise that Wilson has already played eight true freshmen through three games this season.
Wilson now has the benefit of working with Indiana's most talented recruiting class to date. Among the class, two true freshmen — safety Antonio Allen and linebacker T.J. Simmons — have stood out above the rest and have made an immediate impact.
"We're just happy to contribute this early, just taking it all in," Simmons said.
Allen and Simmons are roommates and "talk all the time," Simmons said. Both said they are surprised to have played as much as they have this season.
Simmons, a three-star recruit, does have the advantage of having been at IU longer than any true freshman. He graduated early from high school to join the Hoosiers for spring ball, which has hastened his development.
"It's just really experience," Simmons said. "The game speed — when I first got here it was really out of control but now the game has slowed down and I know a lot of schemes, I've seen a lot of formations. It just put me a step ahead."
The move has certainly paid off. After coming off the bench to make a game-high nine tackles in Indiana's season-opening win over Indiana State, Simmons has started the last two games at middle linebacker.
He is tied for third on the team with 21 tackles and has a half-tackle for loss.
The defensive coaches had hinted in preseason camp that Indiana's best defensive lineup could involve playing Simmons in the middle, supplanting David Cooper, who started at 12 games at middle linebacker last season.
Cooper has moved to the outside but has not missed a beat. He leads the Hoosiers with 27 tackles.
"I like playing middle," Simmons said. "And with Cooper in, because he was a middle linebacker last year, he helps me because he remembers all the stuff and he helps me with my communication and echoes the calls and stuff.
"It's like having two middle linebackers and two leaders on the field."
Co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach William Inge praised Simmons' leadership and playmaking ability. He said that as Simmons' position coach, he wants so see more consistency at the point of attack.
"There are some time he has an opportunity to make a play at the line of scrimmage," Inge said. "I think raising expectations he can make it for a loss."
Because of their ballhawking instincts and high energy, Inge said both Simmons and Allen represent the type of player Indiana wants to recruit more of. Most of Indiana's recruit scouting for the 2013 class focused on improving depth on defense, a perennial area of concern for the Hoosiers. Of the 23-man class, 15 play defense.
"We've got a lot of good freshman on defense that they recruited, it's just that we didn't learn our plays," Allen said. "We only had two weeks with the coaches to really get the plays and we had didn't have time in the summertime to learn them because we were doing the sprints and stuff.
"But I think when we get all these plays down on the freshmen, the defense is going to be pretty good."
Unlike Simmons, Allen has yet to start. He has seen quality time off the bench, though. Allen has 13 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and a fumble recovery.
He is pushing for playing time because of his best-known attribute as a football player: the ability to deliver punishing hits.
"The thing with Antonio is what really shows up is just the maturity level and the physicality that he displays when he's on the field," said Doug Mallory, defensive coordinator and safeties coach. "He's one guy that when he hits the ball carrier is going to stop in his tracks, and he's a tough kid, gets after it pretty good."
Allen said he does remember one punishing hit from practice, when he creamed freshman running back Myles Graham near the sideline, forcing off Graham's helmet. His style of play often brings comparisons to former Indianapolis Colts safety Bob Sanders.
"Bob Sanders, he's a good role model, but I just want to be myself," Allen said.
Like Allen, Simmons is also considered a physical force. Just try to imagine Simmons and Allen bearing down on the ball carrier at the same time.
"It would be pretty bad for him," Simmons said with a smile.