Written By Alex Compton
Last season’s defense was far from acceptable, and there were very few solid areas of the unit. While they were prone to give up big plays, the linebackers were generally considered to be the “strength” of the defense last season. The 2016 group will be almost identical to one in 2015, which is either a good or bad thing depending on your viewpoint. While the defense hasn’t been good, it doesn’t mean it can’t improve this season.
With a new scheme and more talent coming in, there is really nothing preventing this team from improving on that side of the ball. If IU wants to take that next step, the defense needs to be better. A solid defense in 2016 would likely be led by the linebacking corps, as this is where the most talented defenders on the roster will line up snap after snap. Let’s take a look at what IU has at their disposal in 2016:
T.J. Simmons (#2)
Having appeared in all 37 games during his three seasons so far, Simmons certainly has the experience required to anchor a young defense. In 13 starts last season, Simmons was able to rack up 73 total tackles, 6 tackles for loss, and three sacks. The 73 tackle mark was one tackle higher than the number he posted as a sophomore. He came in at #3 in total tackles last season, and should be in the top three again as a senior this coming season. Priding himself on scouting and preparation, Simmons is a great role model for some of these talented, but inexperienced players to follow. Simmons will be the #1 middle linebacker again this season barring anything unforeseen.
Tegray Scales (#8)
With Tom Allen presumably still figuring out how he wants to utilize the defensive players this season, Scales’ role is unclear. He has played a ton of outside linebacker in two seasons due to his great speed and coverage ability. If Allen lines up with a 4-2-5, Scales will have to work on stepping up in the hole and stuffing the run game instead of playing a little bit more on the edge. While his role is unclear at this point, it is very clear that Scales is a special talent. As a sophomore last year, Scales had 64 tackles, 3 sacks, 5.5 tackles for loss, and 2 interceptions. He took a great jump in his sophomore season after a stellar freshman campaign, and I would expect a similar type of jump from last season to this one. He’s versatile, which should make him a favorite of Tom Allen here at IU.
Marcus Oliver (#44)
While Simmons, Scales and Oliver anchor the defense, but Marcus Oliver is the anchor. After missing most of 2014 due to a torn ACL, he came back better than anyone could have expected. In 13 starts as a team captain last season, Oliver totaled 112 tackles, 4 forced fumbles, 6.5 tackles for loss, and 2 interceptions. Due to his exceptional play and leadership week in and week out, he was recognized as the defensive teammate of the year, and was named to the honorable mention All-B1G team. For a defense that has been extremely unpleasant to watch over the last few seasons, Oliver has always been a bright spot. He always just seems to be in the right place at the right time, which would explain how he has either forced a fumble, recovered a fumble, or picked off a pass 10 times in those games. Oliver will be huge for this defense, as the experience he brings to the table with the aforementioned Scales and Simmons will go a long way in determining just how much this defense can improve.
Ready For A Jump?
Dawson Fletcher (#29)
After spending most of his freshman and sophomore seasons on special teams and then redshirting after his sophomore year, there is no doubt that Fletcher earned his snaps as a junior. He appeared in all 13 games, and amassed 25 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, and 1 fumble recovery. Fletcher is a fifth year senior that has played both safety and linebacker so far at IU. His safety speed and linebacker tackling ability make him an interesting guy to look out for in Coach Allen’s “Husky” position.
Clyde Newton (#41)
As a senior, Newton also brings a ton of experience to the table for the 2016 defense. As a junior last season, Newton started every game, and ended up with 50 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 1 forced fumble, and 1 fumble recovery. He made a huge jump from his sophomore to junior season, and this would be the one guy I would look at when deciding whom the x-factor of this group could be in 2016. With great size and strength, Newton has shown the ability to play great run defense while also being able to get more up field and pressure the quarterback. If he blitzes less in 2016, Newton could be a guy that ends up in that 70-80 tackle range.
Dameon Willis Jr. (#43)
After redshirting during his first year on campus in 2014, Willis Jr. finally got his feet wet last season. While he played mostly special teams, Willis Jr. put up some intriguing numbers in what were very limited snaps. He did appear in all 13 games, and had 16 tackles, 1 forced fumble and 1 fumble recovery. He has the tools to be an effective run stopper, but the only thing that will truly show us what he can do is more snaps. Whether or not he will get them remains to be seen.
Chris Covington (#4)
Covington is an interesting guy. He was recruited to IU as a linebacker, but was moved to quarterback before his freshman season. With little quarterback depth in 2014, Covington appeared in 5 games as the signal caller. Covington came on in relief of Nate Sudfeld in the Iowa game after he was hurt (missed the rest of the season), and ended up tearing his ACL, costing him his own season. Once he recovered, Covington spent the next offseason switching back to linebacker, which was a position he had a chance to make a bigger impact at. He was a solid special teamer, and appeared in the final 8 games of the year. Although he only had 4 total tackles, he proved to be a good pass rusher and zone coverage man. With clear athleticism for someone so big, Covington could be a guy that finds some snaps in the “Husky” position. Spending this offseason back at his natural linebacker position should help him immensely in 2016 and beyond.
Reakwon Jones (#12)
Reakwon Jones has the chance to be really, really good. He came to IU last season and redshirted, which allowed him to add muscle and become familiar with a college-level scheme. Jones was the scout team player of the week six times last season, and features a skillset similar to that of Tegray Scales. If he can prove himself to be athletic enough, Jones would be an interesting guy to watch for at the “Husky” spot in Allen’s defensive scheme.
It is also worth mentioning that there are some members of the secondary that could end up playing the “Husky” or LB/DB hybrid position. A few candidates for this spot would include newcomers Jayme Thompson and Brandon Drayton, as well as safeties Kiante Walton and Mario Swann.