Today we complete a two-part series by taking a look at the Hoosiers' "To-Do" list on the defensive side of the ball. After giving up over 400 yards per game on defense, it's no secret there is room for improvement. However, with seven defensive starters lost to graduation, this off-season improvement won't come easy.
Off-Season To-Do List
All's Well That Ends Well
They say everything starts up front on defense so it only makes sense to begin here. Last August hopes were high for the Hoosier defensive line to tear up the record books. The senior defensive end duo of Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton had the set the bar extremely high with their play in previous seasons and the sky seemed to be the limit. Flash forward to the present and the hype has subsided after a season that saw just 9.5 sacks from the duo. That's certainly nothing to sneeze at, but it's nowhere near the production that optimists set their sights on.
But, there's no escaping the fact that losing Jammie Kirlew, a two-time Hoosier MVP and second all-time on IU's tackles-for-a-loss career list, is going to sting. Losing NFL prospect Greg Middleton only doubles the pain. While their sack total may not have soared this past season, their overall play set the bar awfully high for whoever replaces them. Finding those replacements will be a top priority this spring.
Ready to move up one spot on the depth chart are juniors Fred Jones, Darius Johnson, and Eric Thomas. Jones and Johnson spent most of the season injured and unable to play, but the staff is very high on them and thinks they can step in next year. A lot of lip service is also being paid to Javon Cornley, a 6-foot-5, 223 pound redshirt freshman with a great tool kit.
However, the coaching staff has also already hinted at being creative in filling their needs at the position. There's always a desire for an interchangeable line with players that can slide to the outside with ease in certain situations. So don't be surprised if sophomores Mick Mentzer and Nick Sliger take some snaps at defensive end this spring. Both have prototypical frames for the position and with an off-season spent honing their physique could become valuable pass-rushers. Black and sophomore Adam Replogle will receive the large majority of snaps at tackle this season, freeing up the second-stringers to fill in wherever needed.
With the loss of Kirlew and Middleton many are expecting a big drop-off along the front line, but this unit is actually shaping up as a strength. Bigger problems lie behind the front line…
Secondary a Primary Concern
Indiana's defensive backfield has been a liability for so long it's hard to remember a game without a big gainer surrendered. Losing both starting safeties and the team's best cover corner to graduation hurts. The audition for roles in the secondary this spring will feature more faces than a Hollywood casting call. Veterans and freshmen alike will be given long looks this spring and fall.
The obvious candidates for starting spots are junior Donnell Jones at cornerback and…well, that's actually the only clear incumbent in the Hoosier secondary and even his grip on a position isn't iron-clad. Senior cornerback Adrian Burks made a strong push for a starting job with his play late in the season and senior Richard Council has plenty of experience there as well. Names to watch for, though, include redshirt freshman Lawrence Barnett, a coach's favorite, and junior Andre LaGrone, a steady climber. Among the newcomers Andre Kates is the best bet to see plenty of playing time.
The biggest "To-Do" of the entire off-season, though, revolves around finding answers at safety. The loss of long-time starters Nick Polk and Austin Thomas leave the Hoosiers with a gaping hole in their proverbial safety net. Indiana has long been the victim of huge plays so the value of finding the right men to patrol the back line can't be overstated.
An easy solution lies in the return of former safety Mitchell Evans to the defensive side of the ball. The Hoosiers have an embarrassment of riches at the receiver position compared to their thread-bare secondary so it's an obvious solution. It won't take a natural football player like Evans long to get back to making hits instead of avoiding them.
Many nostalgic fans would like to see former Mr. Football and Florida Gator Jerimy Finch regain his form during his senior year at safety, but a more likely alternative is former Warren Central teammate Chris Adkins. As a true freshman in 2008, Adkins quickly gained a reputation as one of the team's hardest hitters. This past season he dealt with injury, but his technique has improved steadily nonetheless. An off-season of putting on additional muscle should have him primed for a key role in the secondary.