Written By Nathan Comp (@NathanComp1)
After much anticipation all spring leading up to today, the Indiana football team concluded its spring practices with their annual spring game. Unfortunately, looming threatening weather kept the game from being played outside and was instead played in Mellencamp Pavilion’s indoor practice facility. The game was closed to the general public and instead allowed only a small crowd of the player’s families and media. The standard spring game format was utilized in the first half of play, as the Cream and Crimson squads (drafted earlier this week) faced off and the special teams units were given an opportunity to put points on the board at the conclusion of quarters. A final score was declared, with Team Crimson defeating Team Cream 37-28, at the end of the first half. The second half utilized a running clock and teams were split into offense and defense.
Although the 65 combined first-half points on the scoreboard reflect anything but a defensive showcase, Indiana’s defense impressed with their performance today. Only two offensive touchdowns were allowed; a majority of points were scored in between quarters when the team’s field goal units went back and forth and served as the media timeout between quarters. Here’s what stood out on a defense that graduated eight defensive starters last season.
A huge question mark coming into this spring was how the defense could replace the heart and soul of the past, linebackers Tegray Scales and Chris Covington. For so long the position was an obvious strength, but now many younger and inexperienced guys are being given much greater roles. Today, they stood tall to the task.
Linebacker Mike McGinnis wasted no time in making his impact for the Cream squad today. In the first three plays, McGinnis had tallied two solo tackles. He finished the game with an estimated 4.5 and could always be seen near the ball when the whistle blew. He played with high energy from the first snap and was one of the guys on Coach Allen’s mind when Allen said, “I feel like our guys came in focused and executed well as early as pregame and our team meeting.” At halftime, McGinnis was rewarded for his efforts with an LEO Award, given for his performance throughout the spring.
Coach Allen can also be happy with his son’s performance today and throughout the spring. When asked who impressed him throughout spring, “I would say Mike McGinnis and Thomas Allen really improved a lot at the linebacker position, and that to me is a huge void for us in our defense.” Thomas Allen finished the day with 2.5 tackles for the Crimson team in their victory.
Linebacker Raekwon Jones finished the day with 2.5 tackles and went home with two spring practice awards: Most Outstanding Defense and Strength and Conditioning Defense. Despite their performances, Coach Allen still sees the linebackers as a position of emphasis for the upcoming season. “I would say my concern is the linebacker role. I just know how critical the linebacker play is for any defense, and as young as we are, there's just a lot of question marks. Yeah, spring was good and they did some good things, but we've got a lot of work to do there. We're counting on some younger guys to come in here and give us depth at those positions, guys that aren't even on campus yet, so that would be my biggest concern.”
Although the safety position is led by senior and vocal-leader Jonathan Crawford, the players surrounding Crawford are much less proven. Today, both Bryant Fitzgerald and Juwan Burgess showed flashes of greatness.
After being ruled ineligible last season, Fitzgerald came into the season with the biggest chip on his shoulder. He made up for this today by making plays all over the field. Tallying 3.5 tackles, Fitzgerald could be seen not only as a lockdown defender in the defensive backfield, but also in his ability to recognize run plays, get to the line of scrimmage, and make tackles. His athleticism continues to impress.
Juwan Burgess had the two highlight plays of the day. The highlight that would have made headlines was his ferocious hit on receiver Justin Berry early in the second half. After catching a curl pass from Nick Tronti, Berry turned upfield and was met by a speeding Burgess that stopped him in his tracks. This added on to Burgess’ highlight reel, who also had a key 3rd down pass breakup on a deep ball by Peyton Ramsey intended for Luke Timian. He finished with 2.5 tackles in the first half.
Coach Allen spoke about both Fitzgerald and Burgess after the game. “You look at a guy like Juwan Burgess, I thought he flashed today. He's a gifted, gifted player, but he's young, and he missed the whole season. Same thing with Bryant Fitzgerald. Those guys are special players -- that's why I kept them in there [in the second half].” Their continued improvement and experience will help anchor the defensive backfield alongside Jonathan Crawford.
Marcelino Ball was sidelined for eight games last season because of injury. Because of this, he self-admittedly came out a bit slow to start the spring season. “It’s been five or six months since I’ve played. The first week or two kind of felt like I forgot how to play, but after time it comes back. I’m still making mistakes, but I give myself a little leeway for being out for so long,” said Ball. Regardless of his slow start, Ball is beginning to regain his stride. And with his physical toolset, he remains a player opposing offenses will have to identify before each snap.
In an interesting note, despite Ball’s field presence and attention-grabbing personality, even as a third-year player he sees himself as one who leads by action rather than voice. “I’m trying to be quieter because I feel that making plays, showing effort, and things like that will make your teammates follow your example. I’m trying to stay in my zone and lead by example right now.” Either way, he stood out as a top performer on defense, and a player Coach Allen identified as “a very valuable component to our defense.”
Despite having to replace a majority of the defensive starters for the 2018 season, the Hoosier defense has made significant strides this spring. Continuing to improve and play with aggression throughout the summer will have the defense ready for the fall and should please defensive-minded Coach Allen.