Written by: TJ Inman (@TJHoosierHuddle)
Our series of looking at the top five opposing units the Indiana Hoosiers will have to face in 2017 continues with a look at opposing secondaries. These rankings combine the safeties and corners for each opponent and I must say, I’d put Indiana’s secondary against pretty much any on the schedule. There should be plenty of opportunities for Richard Lagow and his excellent group of pass catchers to excel if they execute well and cut down on turnovers. Without further ado, let’s get to the rankings. We start at the top with the rock solid Wisconsin Badgers.
1. Wisconsin Badgers
The Badgers are, once again, having to adapt to a new defensive coordinator and they must replace Leo Musso and Sojourn Shelton. However, there is now a track record of success that leaves me assuming they’ll be a rock solid, if not elite, unit for yet another season. Former Wisconsin safety Jim Leonhard is now the defensive coordinator after Justin Wilcox left to become the head coach at Cal (a season after he replaced Dave Aranda who left to be the DC at LSU) and there is some concern about his lack of experience as a defensive play-caller. Still, there’s no doubt he knows what it takes to have a good secondary and the Wisconsin Badgers will be relying on a quartet of seniors plus a well-regarded corner transferring from Hawaii. D’Cota Dixon and Natrell Jamerson are the safeties and Derrick Tindal and Lubern Figaro return as senior corners. The Hawaii transfer, Nick Nelson, had 15 breakups in 2015 and he drew rave reviews from offensive and defensive players alike for his play on the practice field during his year of sitting out in 2016. The front seven should provide enough of a pass rush and there is plenty of young depth ready to step in if there’s an injury or two. While there is not a top-end star in this group, the Badgers are a tough group to move the ball on because they rarely surrender big plays and that’s largely thanks to their reliable secondary.
2. Ohio State Buckeyes
The Ohio State Buckeyes have been a top ten defense for the past three seasons and defensive coordinator Greg Schiano is one of the premier DCs in the nation. While they have to replace three of their top four defensive backs (Hooker, Lattimore and Conley) for the second straight season, there is enough talent to be fairly certain the Buckeyes won’t suffer much regression. Damon Webb is a solid senior that will likely start at safety and provide some veteran leadership. Corners Denzel Ward and Damon Arnette played quite a bit last season and figure to be solid plus there are a number of blue-chip prospects waiting to prove themselves in Scarlet and Gray. Jeffrey Okudah and Shaun Wade were both top twenty corners in high school. The best thing going for this secondary is probably the dominant defensive line they’ll be playing behind. A ferocious pass rush can go a long way towards masking any inexperience or deficiency in the back. While I fully expect this group to be very strong by November, it will be an area Richard Lagow and the IU passing attack should look to test early and often on the opening night of the season.
3. Penn State Nittany Lions
What a truly bizarre season for the Nittany Lions. They went from a vanilla and, if we’re being honest, often boring, squad to one of the more interesting and exciting offenses in college football. While they were at it, their defense alternated between being pretty solid and unable to stop a nose bleed. The Nittany Lions were 2-2 and barely beat Minnesota in their fifth game before really taking off and earning a spot in the Rose Bowl. Brent Pry had mixed results in his first season as PSU’s defensive coordinator. They finished the season as the 14th ranked defense in S&P+ but they were eviscerated in their three losses, surrendering 48 points per game. Those shootouts resembled pre-Tom Allen IU games as the PSU offense had to score every possession just to keep pace. The secondary was a part of those collapses so I won’t pretend this is an elite unit but they should be very solid and the goal should be to limit the big gains they too often gave up in 2016. They might start four seniors: corners Grant Haley and Christian Campbell and safeties Marcus Allen and Troy Apke. Haley and Allen are definitely the two standouts. Beyond that, things get dicey. While they have recruited pretty well at safety and corner, the depth pieces have zero experience and it’s entirely unknown how the pass defense would fare if any of the starters go down with a significant injury.
4. Michigan Wolverines
The Wolverines lost an immense amount of talent following the 2016 season. While the majority of those personnel losses are being filled by four and five-star recruits, the secondary was hit particularly hard and the players stepping up to fill those roles aren’t as highly-regarded. Jabrill Peppers, Channing Stribling, Jourdan Lewis, Dymonte Thomas and Delano Hill are all gone from the top-rated pass defense in 2016. Tyree Kinnel is the most experienced returner and he only had 12.5 tackles last season. They’ll likely be relying on true freshmen Ambry Thomas and Benjamin St-Juste right away and inexperienced options like Lavert Hill, Drake Harris and David Long. The only reason I even have them fourth is because of defensive coordinator Don Brown and an extremely talented defensive line/linebacker group that should provide some assistance by rushing the passer effectively. Plus, if I’m being honest, there are not any secondaries the Hoosiers will face that have the talent (as of now, on paper) to push Michigan down the list.
5. Maryland Terrapins
It was very difficult to come up with a fifth secondary to put on this list. In short, Richard Lagow and the IU receiving corps should be quite excited to go against quite a few pass defenses on the Hoosiers schedule because heading into the season, things don’t look pretty for the majority of the squads IU will face. So, why choose the Terrapins in this spot? I have some faith in DJ Durkin and I believe the ceiling for the talent he has recruited is higher than the secondary units for Michigan State, Purdue, Rutgers, Illinois and Virginia, each of which ranked in the bottom part of S&P+ pass defenses in 2016. The Terrapins appear to be well positioned to be pretty good in the secondary in 2018 but, with a little bit of luck in development and health, they might accelerate that timeline and be a top 50 pass defense this campaign. JC Jackson and Darnell Savage form a pretty good junior duo and there are a trio of former four-star recruits ready to contribute in Tino Ellis, Deon Jones and Makquese Bell. Given how poor the Maryland run defense figures to be, the pass defense will need to be very strong to keep the Terrapins in games against their better opponents. The Hoosiers gashed them on the ground last year and I’d expect them to try and do more of the same when they play in College Park this season.