Kelley L Cox, USA Today Sports

Healthy Dutra, improved Bryant bolstering safety corps

Indiana has no shortage of experience at the safety position for 2017. A healthy Chase Dutra and fast improving Khalil Bryant only make for a deeper group for coach Noah Joseph.

It's going to be an abundance of riches for safeties coach Noah Joseph this year. Perhaps no other position on the Hoosier team is as loaded with experience and options.

Starters Jonathan Crawford, Tony Fields and Marcelino Ball are back. Former starter Chase Dutra is healthy and back to his old self if late 2016 play in an indication. If that's not enough, sophomore Khalil Bryant is having a big spring and junior Zeke Walker played in every game last season.

"It makes life easier because you can really teach the nuances of the game and get guys a lot better at their fundamentals and technique, instead of talking big picture scheme stuff, " Joseph said this week.

It also means a lot of rotation and fresher legs at the end of games.

"That's the whole idea," Joseph said. "Look at last year, there were times in the fourth quarter when we were up in games, whether it's the bowl game you're talking or different situations, where we made some plays in the first half and in the second half, we weren't able to make those plays because we were a little bit tired. So hopefully now once you get some of the rotation going, guys are going to be a little bit more fresh in the second half."

Dutra played in 10 games last year as a reserve following a sophomore season where he started and played in eight games, registering 61 tackles. He had to be handled with kid gloves all fall after suffering a Lisfranc (foot) injury that kept him out of spring practice and severely limited his fall practice reps.

"I haven't had a full season in two years," Dutra said. "I'm healthy and I feel great. It's a huge relief and (spring practice) allows me to enhance my game and get back to the basics."

It wasn't easy learning Tom Allen's new  defensive set up from the sideline.

"He was trying to learn (the new defense) through watching on film and not actually going through it in practice," Joseph said.

"At the beginning of the season I was still rusty but towards the end I really started to get the feel of the game back, flow, how I used to play. I was excited for spring ball just to continue that."

He seemed to have shaken off the rust in the Foster Farms Bowl game against Utah. That night he recovered a fumble and registered five tackles. 

"It felt good going into the offseason with a positive game under your belt," Dutra said. "Mentally you just feel good. You want to attack the winter workouts more and go into spring with the same mentality that you want to get those close games that we lost last season."

"The game is slowing down for him now and his understanding of the defense has picked up tremendously," Joseph said.

Bryant improving rapidly

Sophomore Khalil Bryant seems to have played himself into more of a role this spring. Last year as a true freshman, the 5-foot-10, 205 pound Jacksonville, Florida native saw action in 11 games but mostly on special teams.

"(I like) how much depth we have," Dutra said. "With Khalil (Bryant) stepping up--he's probably the most improved in our spring ball in general."

Joseph was on board with that statement.

"From my point of view, not that anybody asks, the two most improved players would be Khalil Bryant and (tieght end) Ian Thomas," Joseph said. "I don't know which one is one or two, whatever, but both of those guys have really stepped up their game. 

"Khalil was always a good tackler. Now he's just playing fast and some of the attributes that we liked that attracted us to him are coming out and he's just playing ball out there. He's a natural football player and he's been fun to watch."

Scrimmage feedback

The Hoosiers have played scrimmages the last two Saturdays as they gear up for next Thursday's Cream vs. Crimson game.

Despite all the depth he enjoys, Joseph wasn't happy with this past Saturday's play, at least not at the outset. 

"I thought the offense brought it to us Saturday. I didn't think we were ready to play," Joseph said. "The thing that I did like about it is we started slow but we did a great job defensively of finishing. 

"One thing, and from my perspective it is bad, but we haven't taken the ball away enough in the two scrimmages we've had. But on the other side the offense has done a good job of taking care of the football."

Dutra still is very confident about the defense.

"In spring ball, Khalil Bryant has really stepped up. A lot of DBs have stepped up. It's good with guys like me, Tony (Fields), Jon (Crawford), have had quite a few reps....feels good to have depth like that.

"We have a lot of experience in our whole secondary and linebackers and you have Rob (McCray) and Greg (Gooch) up front. Having us form that group (over time) and having that bond as a defense, it feels really good."

The group is certainly challenged each day. The secondary now has to face a bigger receiving group with 6-foot-4, 220 pound Simmie Cobbs back in the fold after going down for the year on his first play last fall. 

With 6-foot-3, 210 pound starter Nick Westbrook and 6-foot-4, 210 pound Donovan Hale joining Cobbs, new wide receivers coach Grant Heard has some of the size he enjoyed at Ole Miss.

"Coach Heard, he's telling them to 'play big, play big,'" Dutra said. "You can tell Simmie has taken that on as a big receiver. He's more physical now in attacking the ball."

The tempo certainly hasn't slowed down under new offensive coordinator Mike DeBord.

"I call it unrealistic," joked Dutra. "We'll see when game time comes around and the real officials get out there. I always think they go way too fast. Sucks being on defense but at the same time it does get us ready for games in the season when people do try to tempo us."

Safety priorities

Joseph sees one thing his group has to do better before things get going for real against Ohio State on August 31st.

"We need to be more physical," Joseph said. "When we hit people, they have to fall backwards. To really have a physically presence on the football field this fall."

Then he has a pair of other goals that apply more to important intangibles.

"I think the biggest goal was to not know the defense, but understand the defense," Joseph said. "I think guys are understanding the calls. Why were making those class. Where they fit within the scheme. 

"The other thing is trying to get more vocal with leadership. It's still not where we need to be, but we're getting there."


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