Written By Nick Holmes (@HoosierHolmes)
Entering the 2015 season, all the prognosticators, including us at Hoosier Huddle predicted that Indiana would struggle mightily defending the pass. Unfortunately, that did not begin to describe the Hoosiers complete inability to slow down any of their opponents’ aerial attacks. Out of 127 Football Bowl Subdivision teams, Indiana was second to last, giving up a putrid 313 passing yards per game.
Honestly, this was not a particularly difficult predication to make, as the team entered the season with four new starters in the secondary. To make matters worse, the only player with starting experience in the defensive backfield, Chase Dutra, was sidelined for the first three weeks of the season.
The Hoosiers enter the spring session with plenty of question marks, but a plethora of semi-experienced options, a much better place to be than they were a year ago.
Over the next six weeks the coaching staff will need to assess which of the returning players best fit into new defensive coordinator Tom Allen’s schemes.
In addition to the new hybrid secondary player (Husky), it remains to be seen how the Hoosiers 4-2-5 defensive alignment will affect the play of the corners and safeties. Is there a greater or less of an emphasis on the field verse boundary cornerbacks? Rashad Fant, the team’s unquestioned number one cover man, thrives as the team’s field cornerback. Will the team look for a bigger body to place opposite of Fant on the boundary side of
There were not many bright spots for Indiana’s defensive backfield in 2015, but if there was one, it was the true freshman safety out of Largo, Florida. He led the team with four interceptions and finished second with 76 tackles. What made his inaugural season even more impressive is that he was the only player in the secondary to start all 13 games for Indiana. Factor in that he was fresh out of high school and there’s no wonder Indiana fans are excited about this young man’s future in the Cream and Crimson. I think it goes without saying, he’s penciled, no penned in as a starter in 2016.
The other mainstay in the secondary was cover cornerback Rashard Fant, who played in all 13 games for the Hoosiers in 2015, starting in 12. Fant’s 22 pass breakups were best in the conference and tied for second in the nation. He was the team’s unquestioned leader at cornerback, regularly finding himself matched up against the conference’s elite pass-catchers.
He came up with his first career interception on the biggest stage, at Yankee Stadium, making a great grab along the sideline and tapping down both feet to return possession to the Hoosiers. I think it is safe to say that he will once again be the Indiana’s number one cornerback this fall. The one area that the junior needs to focus on is turning some of those PBUs into INTs.
Very little is known about the former Gamecock who transferred to Bloomington last summer, other than that he was a four-star recruit who was high on Indiana’s list coming out of the high school in Georgia.
“We recruited Wesley; coach Brandon Shelby has a strong relationship with him, and he contacted us when he left South Carolina," Hoosiers coach Kevin Wilson said. "We welcome him to our program. He's a talented young man, and he will be a quality contributor."
Rated 120 on ESPN’s class ratings in 2014, he has yet to see the field at the collegiate level, so it remains to be seen what type of impact he will have. What we do know is that he is listed at 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds, a similar size to Fant. If he is able to live up to those lofty rankings, the Hoosiers might have another good cover corner on their hands.
One new player that Hoosier fans are excited to see this spring is the former Buckeye and Junior College transfer, Jayme Thompson. The Ohio native made his way back to Big Ten country in December, allowing him the opportunity to take in some of the Hoosiers bowl practices. However, because the Hoosiers have changed the defensive formations, most of what he saw in practice might not be applicable going forward.
As this is a new scheme for everyone on defense, Thompson is on even footing with his peers. As long as he can grasp the nuances of Allen's coverages, there’s a good chance he will find himself as a starter on Opening Day 2016 at FIU, at least that’s what Hoosier fans are hoping.
After a strong season in 2014, Hoosier fans were hopeful that safety Chase Dutra could provide some much needed leadership in a very green defensive secondary. As it would turn out, Dutra would begin the season on the shelf, dealing with an apparent ankle injury. And even after he made his way back out onto the gridiron, he was never quite himself, lacking the same burst and closing speed he showed in 2014.
Now, recovering from ankle surgery, Dutra finds himself in the thick of a heated battle with numerous talented, experienced athletes for playing time at safety. If he is able to regain form, he will stand a solid chance of cracking the two deep at the spot, possibly being a good fit for the Husky position, given his size, coverage skills and ability to land hits on ball carriers.
The Matrix made his way to Bloomington with quite a bit of fan fare. Hoosier Nation was anticipating what he might bring to Indiana’s backfield. What Indiana’s fans did not know is that he would be starting his career out on the other side of the ball, in the defensive backfield. After spending most of his prep career demoralizing opposing defenses, Williams found himself trying to slow down playmakers on the other team.
Coach Brandon Shelby and the rest of the coaching staff were so impressed by his ability, that he was named the starter in the Hoosiers second game of 2015. Unfortunately, his freshman campaign came to end just three games into the season due to a knee injury. While he doesn’t have the length of some of the other members of the secondary, he is solidly built, making him a strong candidate for the boundary role. Just like most, if not all of our candidates on this list, this is a crucial next month and a half for Williams, maybe doubly so having not played defense extensively in high school. This is a golden opportunity for him to pick up on the nuances of the position.
One player who does not get enough recognition for their performance last season, more specifically the team’s final few games, was the true freshman from Illinois. With injuries mounting in the secondary and playing time being scarce at wide receiver, the coaching staff approached Thornton with the opportunity to move to defense. Jumping at the chance, he quickly made he his presence known by delivering some big hits on opposing wide receivers. He got to know the feeling other defensive backs got when they lined up a big hit on an opponent.
He, much like Williams, has a golden opportunity to continue his development as a cornerback, giving the Hoosier coaching staff another talented option to work with this spring. The next few weeks he will find himself working on his backpedaling, locating the ball and keeping an eye on his cover. And in the event that fails, he will need to learn to quickly forget a play that does not go his way and be prepared for the next down.
Andre Brown Jr.
Of the many players that the team tried opposite of Fant in 2015, the former high school quarterback Brown started in more games, eight, than anyone else at the spot. Seeing action in nine games before going down with a season-ending injury, Brown will look to work his way back into the two deep this spring. He, much like Thornton and Williams, will benefit from this spring time as he continues to hone his coverage skills. Another advantage Brown has is his length and size. Listed at 6-foot, 194-pounds, he definitely brings some much needed strength and length to the boundary side of the field.
A fan favorite before ever stepping onto the field, many members of Hoosiers nation envisioned the Maryland native transforming into the next Richard Sherman. Fair or not, there was plenty of reason the comparison was made. At 6-foot-3, 190 pounds, he certainly possessed the frame that would lend one to immediately think of the Seahawks great. Unfortunately, Green never quite caught on in the way many had hoped, although he was dealing with some injury issues before the season ever got underway, putting him behind some of his fellow teammates. The former four-star recruit enters this spring on even footing as his fellow teammates, at least in regards to how Allen views him. There’s little doubt that having a cornerback with his size to match up against some of the conference’s best wide receivers would be a huge luxury. Now he just has to prove he deserves to be out there.
Another player called into action due to injuries was the safety from Florida. After redshirting in 2014, Dawkins was thrust into action against the Buckeyes, playing in nine games total and starting the team’s final three contests. He, like so many others on our list failed to do anything to stand out from the crowd, so it is quite difficult to say what his role will be this upcoming season. What we do know is that he gained some invaluable experience along the way which gives the coaching staff a baseline to which to judge him by during the spring. Some good practices over the next few weeks could push him back into the forefront of the coaches minds, improving his chances of playing meaningful snaps in 2016.
One of the few players to have stayed healthy in Indiana’s secondary the past couple of seasons, Fields saw action in all of the Hoosiers games in 2014 and 15. Fields will once again be providing valuable depth at safety in 2016, but if he wants to carve out an even bigger niche he will need to impress Allen and prove that he’s a good fit for his new defensive formation. It would behoove me not to mention his pick-six against the Demon Deacons, a play that ended up being the difference in the important out-of-conference victory.
Another experienced member in the secondary, Walton saw regular action as a freshman in 2014. Getting the nod to start in the Hoosiers first two games of 2015, Walton saw his sophomore season was cut short due to injury. Fortunately, Walton he was granted a medical redshirt, giving him back his lost season. At 6-foot-2, 205-pounds, he could be a prime candidate for the Coach Allen’s Husky position.
Continuing our look at secondary players who were shelved before the season was over, freshman safety/nickelback Jameel Cook. During the 2015 season Cook saw action in eight games for the Hoosiers, his biggest and most memorable play coming against FIU where he had a victory clinching pick-six to put the Panthers away. He’s another player with good size and coverage skills that could make a solid candidate to play in the Hoosiers new Husky role.
Turn the clock back 365 days and the Hoosiers did not have much in the way of options at cornerback. All through spring practice Padmore was getting a lot of run with the one’s and two’s. However, once the calvary made it to campus, Padmore found himself on the outside looking in at the two deep, seeing action primarily on special teams. He will face an uphill battle once again to see the field in 2016.
After a fairly promising freshman season, the Fort Wayne native was forced to take a medical redshirt in 2015 with what was being reported as a back injury. It remains to be seen if he will be back on the field for the Hoosiers the season. If he is able to recover, he will find the competition to be a little stiffer at corner than it was the last time he trotted out onto the gridiron.
Regularly confused for Nate Sudfeld on the sideline by ESPN and Big Ten Network cameramen, the walk on out of Illinois was one of the team's more consistent players in the secondary. Not particularly flashy by any means, Bach provided a fairly steady hand opposite of Fant on the boundary. Playing in all thirteen games for the Hoosiers in 2015 and starting in the New Era Pinstripe, Bach will find himself in a heated battle with so many other options at cornerback this spring. Another guy with good length, he could be someone else who might fit the Hoosiers new Husky role.
As mentioned throughout, this is the first offseason and spring session for many of these guys, the first major opportunity for many of these players to develop their skills, harness their ability and demonstrate to the coaching staff that the deserve to see the field in 2016. Outside of Fant and Crawford, any number of players could wind up as starters in the teams other three secondary positions. And as we saw last season, it’s very likely large majority of those players could see the field at one point or another. I think it’s fairly safe to say that predicting a two deep with these group is nearly impossible at this point with so many guys coming back from injuries. Regardless of injuries, Coach Shelby and Joseph have quite of few more talented options to work with this spring than they did last year.