Position Preview: Defensive Line
Written By: TJ Inman (@TJHoosierHuddle)
Our next position preview as look ahead to the 2018 season focuses on the defensive line. Position coach and co-defensive coordinator Mark Hagen is a wizard and a real asset to the program and it’s hard to imagine the Hoosiers having anything other than a solid line with Hagen in charge. This personnel group has the chance to be more than just solid but there are certainly some question marks as IU must replace steady Nate Hoff and a pair vastly improved players in Greg Gooch and Robert McCray. We’ll split this into four different sections: tackle starters, tackle contributors/rising talent, defensive end starters, defensive end contributors.
Defensive Tackle Locks For Main Rotation
This is far from easy as there are at least four candidates that could very easily be seen as starters. I’m choosing the two that I feel are the most likely combination. I’m going with Jerome Johnson and LeShaun Minor. Johnson is a redshirt sophomore from Mississippi that had a very solid freshman season, earning BTN.com-All Freshman honors. He recorded 18 tackles with 3.5 TFLs and appeared in all 12 games. Johnson is a space-eater at 6’3” and nearly 300 pounds. Minor is another young player that impressed in his freshman season. From Ben Davis High School in Indianapolis, Minor is 300 pounds and appeared in the first six games of the season before suffering a season-ending injury. He had eight tackles with 2.5 TFLs. I like the combination of size and athleticism that this pair offers and I believe there’s a significant amount of upside for both.
I really wanted to pencil Juan Harris into the starting lineup next to Jerome Johnson but there’s a massive amount of unknown surrounding Harris. He redshirted the 2017 season after an injury and it’s unclear what kind of shape he’ll be in when the Hoosiers take the field. Harris has the size and ability to be an NFL defensive tackle but his weight was a concern when he came to IU and it will continue to be until proven otherwise. He has really impressed in practice and his ability to move belies his size (Harris is 6’3” and likely near 400 pounds). If he can consistently be in game-shape, he’ll be a force for the Hoosiers and wreak havoc on opposing offensive lines. He’s a true “wild card” along the line and his progression will go a long way toward determining how good the IU front can be.
The fourth player that will certainly receive starter consideration is senior Jacob Robinson. The Westfield, Indiana native will understandably enter the spring as a favorite to win a starting position after starting all twelve contests at tackle in 2017. He tied for the most tackles among defensive linemen and was a steady force along the line for Mark Hagen’s crew. I think Johnson and Minor have higher ceilings but there is no doubt Robinson is a quality player that will have a big role up front. Those are the only four guys that I could conceivably see starting at the beginning of the season but there are a few other tackles that will probably see some playing time.
Defensive Tackle Contributors
Ja’merez Bowen is a redshirt senior that played in nine games last season and had ten tackles. He’s a big body at well over 300 pounds but he lacks the explosiveness off the line we’ve seen (albeit in limited viewings) from Johnson and Minor.
One of the most pleasant surprises of the 2017 season was the play of Mike Barwick Jr. Now a senior, the Ohio native came out of nowhere and appeared in all 12 games, including one start, and was productive. He had 24 tackles with two sacks and was a source of energy every time he entered the game. Barwick doesn’t have ideal size for a tackle but he found a way to be productive when he got his chance and I expect more of the same in 2018.
The only incoming freshman that will play at tackle is Shamar Jones, a 3-star prospect from Pennsylvania. It would be really surprising if he did not redshirt the 2018 season.
Defensive End Starters
The Hoosiers need a couple of standout pass rushers. While the overall quarterback pressure and sack totals were good in 2017, much of it came from scheme. What IU would love to have is a couple of guys that can line up and beat the opposing tackle one-on-one consistently. To find and develop those guys, IU’s staff has brought in a lot of defensive end prospects over the past couple of recruiting classes and it’s time for some of those guys to start producing. The first player I am projecting as a starter is returning from a bicep injury that kept him out the entire 2017 season: Nile Sykes. The Illinois native had five sacks in 2016 despite limited playing time and he’s one of the better bull rushers on this squad. Sykes is 250 pounds and I think he’ll be lining up at the “BULL” position in 2018.
The second starter at end will likely be Allen Stallings. The junior had 25 tackles, including three sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss, in an encouraging sophomore season. He came in a very raw prospect but his athleticism and quickness are obvious and if he can continue to progress, he could have a very productive junior year. The foursome of Sykes, Stallings, Johnson and Minor would be a nice starting group for Mark Hagen to mold.
Defensive End Contributors
As I wrote before, IU’s coaching staff has focused on this position in the past couple of classes so the list of potential contributors is quite long. We don’t know which players will step up and emerge but the potential for this position to be one of great depth is present. We’ll begin this section with a pair of redshirt freshmen: Alfred “Lance” Bryant and Tramar Reece.
Bryant is 6’2” and weighs 250 pounds. He was a two-time scout player of the week in 2017 and was highly productive during his high school career in Texas. Tramar Reece is a terrific athlete with great size. At 6’4”, he has the ideal length for a pure pass rusher. I’d expect both of these guys to be worked into the rotation in 2018.
A returning contributor, albeit a limited one, is Brandon Wilson. Wilson looks the part but he’s now a redshirt junior and he’ll need to show more speed and explosiveness if he is see increased playing time in 2018. While Reece and Bryant both redshirted, another freshman actually saw the field in 2017.
Michael Ziemba surprised a lot of people by playing in the final ten games of the season and contributing with four tackles. He was mostly used on special teams but he saw a bit of time at end as well. Walk-on Gavin Everett transferred to IU from Western Illinois after starring at Center Grove High School. He saw his first significant action in 2017, stepping up with seven tackles and a forced fumble. I wouldn’t expect Everett to see an increase of snaps in 2018 but he could certainly replicate the valuable time he gave the Hoosiers.
IU has a few incoming freshmen, including early-enrollee James Head. Head is a talented prospect from Florida and going through spring practice will give him a huge advantage when the 2018 season begins. His 6’5” frame is perfect for a pass rusher and I think Head will see a lot of snaps this season. Another newcomer from Florida was added on National Signing Day as the Hoosiers snagged the services of Jonathan King, a 6’1” and 240-pound prospect from Tampa. King chose the Hoosiers after originally committing to Oregon and over offers from Maryland, Ole Miss and several other high-quality programs. I wouldn’t put him ahead of Head because he’s not enrolling early but I think he has a chance to play in 2018 and certainly has a bright future.
Madison Norris, a speedster and athlete from the Indianapolis area and Gavin McCabe, a bruiser from Illinois, are the other two freshmen ends in the class and I think they’ll both likely redshirt barring a rash of injuries. Tom Allen and company are still pursuing another pass rusher so they are clearly not quite content with the current depth chart. Defensive end is a position with a lot of talent but it would be a lie to pretend like this group doesn’t have a lot of questions to answer before we can confidently say it is a position of strength.
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