A defensive secondary that allowed 250.7 passing yards per game – last in the Big Ten – with experienced starters last season now has little experience.
Indiana will be replacing four starters by sorting through a group of defensive backs that lacks a true upperclassman among them. It returns just one total start in redshirt sophomore Chase Dutra, who shared snaps at times with former Indiana safety Mark Murphy last season.
Still, what second-year defensive coordinator Brian Knorr has seen out of Dutra and others has been pleasing enough, especially from the first-year players.
”I’ve also been very impressed with our secondary kids,” Knorr said. “Jameel Cook, Jonathan Crawford, two talented safeties who we really feel like they will be in the mix… I think this is a special group as far as skill level and I think they can go out and play how we want.”
Returning players like redshirt sophomores Rashard Fant and Noel Padmore had limited experience as redshirt freshmen last season, playing behind former Hoosier defensive backs Michael Hunter Jr. and Tim Bennett. Fellow redshirt sophomore Ben Bach, who recently earned a scholarship, will also be in the mix.
However, it’s been the first-year players like Cook who have been getting the most attention.
Co-defensive backs Brandon Shelby said at the team’s media day in early August that the newcomer defensive backs have been diving into the playbook. Fant noticed this first-hand with Devonte Williams.
”Especially Devonte,” Fant said. “He came over the third week of summer, and by the end of the week he knew the playbook better than most other freshman defensive players.”
Padmore said he felt like all the freshmen defensive backs know the playbook really well.
“They knew it better than when I did coming in (as a freshman),” he said.
Fant said he’s been encouraging those players to learn other positions. It was evident Friday morning, as Cook rotated between safety and cornerback during drills.
Learning other positions benefitted both the freshmen and Fant, especially when, during a drill Friday, the bandit went through the wrong gap. Fant said beforehand, he told the bandit to get in a different gap on the next play. Fant said it helps them because then they know the bandit will do his job.
”They’ve been doing a great job and playing well,” Fant said. “I’m very comfortable with them on the field at any point in time.”
The comfort level was established quickly because only two returning defensive backs recorded a tackle last season.
Fant was one of the those players, while the other, redshirt sophomore Donovan Clark, has been limited throughout the summer by a back injury and might be forced to redshirt this upcoming season as a result.
The inexperience also means that many of the freshmen will be in the fold competing for a starting spot in the secondary. So far, Knorr said he’s been excited about the group and not disappointed with any of them.
”Typically, your freshmen right now are going to be third-teamers,” Knorr said. “But some of these guys are pressing right now to get in the lineup and actually play quite a bit of football.”