The Indiana defensive line group was a pleasant surprise in 2016, and with most of the players back and some talented newcomers arriving this fall it has a chance to be even better in 2017. IU D-line coach Mark Hagen recently met with the media and talked about his players and how they are coming along individually and as a group in spring ball.
Q - Talk about the loss of Ralph Green on the interior of the defensive line and how you will go about replacing him? Who is stepping up as the guy who can fill his shoes on the D-line?
MARK HAGEN: He (Green) was certainly a large body and a veteran. A guy that probably played his best football as a senior last year, so that is a big void for us at the three-technique, that tackle position on defense.
Jacob Robinson is a guy that started to transform into more of an inside player for us last year. He has kind of moved into that role as a starter even though he started some for us last year. Now we’re searching for the guy to back him up. Is that going to be Jerome Johnson? Is it going to be Ja’Merez Bowen, who has played both the tackle and the nose position? Are you going to look to a LeShaun Minor? I think there is a great opportunity for a young guy like that with Juan Harris being a nose for us.
One of the exciting parts of spring practice is you lose some trustworthy guys and some veteran guys like a Ralph Green and Pat Dougherty, and you look to patch up those holes and move forward to the next year.
Q - What kind of attributes do you look for in a guy that will play nose tackle? How tough is that position to play?
MARK HAGEN: I think with an inside guy, number one, you have to have physical and mental toughness because as an interior defensive lineman it is the only position where you get hit on either side on every snap. You might line up a certain way but you could be hit on your right side or your left side, so it’s a physical and mental mindset. You certainly have to have the size and the strength. It is a tough position to play, but our guys have embraced it. We have kind of a lunch pail mentality with our group.
With us specifically, our tackle in theory is the more athletic of the two positions. Nate Hoff is our starting nose, and he is as big and as strong as they come. He does a great job of punching a hole on the offensive line. What you like is that tackle, that three-technique, to be a little bit more versatile as a pass rush guy.
Q - Talk about the development of Robert McCray and how pleased you are with where he is as a player? Where does he fit on the D-line?
MARK HAGEN: When I came in last year I was really trying to learn our personnel, and I know he had moved inside some the previous season, but as I looked at our roster and started to identify body types and overall athleticism, I learned pretty quickly that he was probably going to have stay on the edge for us even though he’s a bigger edge guy. I think he’s doing a good job.
I think the biggest thing with Robert is just being able to practice. He’s been so nicked up during his career. It happened last spring when he lasted two or three practices and then he hurt his foot. And then the same thing in fall camp, he made it through three or four practices and then he got the collarbone and that set him back. He is a guy that even though he has played every season, he hasn’t had a prolonged period of time where he’s been able to practice and get those extra reps. Knock on wood he’s able to get that right now. He was able to knock the rust off a little bit last year, but I’ve challenged him because he’s one of our more talented athletes on the defensive line, he needs to ratchet his game up a couple of notches. He’s capable of doing it and I think he’s responded in a positive way so far. He needs to keep gaining on it because he’s a guy that can create negative yardage plays for us. He is one of our few guys that in a 1-on-1 situation can get to the quarterback.
Q - There are three young and inexperienced guys on the defensive line in Allen Stallings, Jerome Johnson and Juan Harris. How are they doing so far in spring ball?
MARK HAGEN: I think the effort has been good. I think Allen (Stallings) just needs to become more confident in his assignments. I think he has got the skill-set to be a good football player for us. He’s playing at about 80 percent right now because he’s thinking, he’s not playing fast.
Our two young tackles, they’re getting baptized in terms of an up-tempo, fast pace and after two or three snaps they’re kind of searching for that breath. There is some give and take with them, and I’ve challenged them both and they both have responded. Juan especially needs to continue to get in better shape and drop his weight a little bit. Jerome is kind of learning a new position. We had him at the nose last year and he’s out at the three-technique right now.
So all three young guys are doing a good job, but it is a work in progress because it doesn’t happen overnight.
Q - How challenging is it to develop a pass rusher? Do you have to recruit for that, or can you turn a guy into a pass rusher?
MARK HAGEN: I think it’s both. Certainly it’s easier if you recruit a guy that has just that natural ability to bend and twist. He’s got the speed, he’s got the quick feet, the change of direction, it makes it a lot easier. I think when you don’t have as much as that you’ve got to get creative.
For us last year because we had such few natural guys…I think Nile Sykes was a guy that could create his own pass rush, Robert McCray at times could, but beyond that we didn’t have a lot…Allen Stallings was a young guy. So we had to get creative with either blitzing or running twist games up front.
We’re trying to develop it in practice but it takes time. But it certainly makes it easier when they’re a higher level of athlete coming in.