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Indiana at Missouri: Hoosier defense still searching for play-makers after move to 3-4

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Indiana moved to a 3-4 in the offseason and has plenty of size, but the front seven isn't making nearly enough plays to be successful so far.

Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, we discussed a dangerous, explosive Indiana offense. Now let's talk about a defense that tends to create danger and explosiveness for itself in a different, less positive way.

From my 2014 Indiana preview:

The Indiana defense was by no definition good over the first half of the 2013 season. The Hoosiers allowed 444 rushing yards to Navy, 340 passing yards to Penn State, and 623 total yards to Missouri. In three of six games, they allowed at least 6.1 yards per play. Hell, they allowed 6.1 per play to Michigan State, and before the Spartans really found their offensive groove, no less.

So yeah. Not good. However, the defense made just enough plays to avoid completely wrecking the team's early chances. The offense was strong and capable of keeping up in shootouts. But it had almost no hope of keeping up over the second half of the season. [...]

Indiana was undefeated when allowing fewer than 41 points in 2013 ... but allowed fewer than 41 points only five times.

To no one's surprise, then, Wilson made a coordinator change in the offseason. Doug Mallory is out, and Brian Knorr is in. Knorr is an interesting choice. A 50-year-old Ph.D at Jim Grobe's University of Underdog Tactics, he served as Grobe's defensive coordinator at both Ohio and Wake Forest and was regarded highly enough to briefly succeed Grobe at Ohio in 2001. He brings to Bloomington a pretty fun 3-4 defense, and he inherits a unit that kind of fits the size profile of your normal 3-4.

His Demon Deacons ranked 44th in Def. F/+ last year, and let's just say that the No. 44 defense combined with Indiana's offense would win quite a few games. Baby steps first, though.

DT
Adarius Rayner (6'2, 307, Jr.) (3.0 tackles, 1 QB hurry)
Darius Latham (6'5, 318, So.) (1.0 tackles, 1 PBU, 1 FR)

NT
Ralph Green III (6'5, 307, So.) (3.0 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 QB hurry)
Nate Hoff (6'2, 305, RSFr.) (3.5 tackles, 1 TFL)
Christopher Cormier (6'2, 310, Sr.) (1.0 tackles)

DE
Bobby Richardson (6'3, 286, Sr.) (5.0 tackles, 3 TFL, 3 sacks, 1 QB hurry)
Shawn Heffern (6'6, 270, So.) (1.0 tackles, 0.5 TFL)

When a team moves from a 4-3 base defense to a 3-4, the first thing we tend to look at is the size of the linemen. Are they big enough to occupy blockers and free up linebackers to make plays?

While we don't yet know if Indiana has the requisite play-making linebackers, the Hoosiers certainly have the size up front, especially after everybody packed on a few pounds in the offseason. The top seven returnees from last year average 6'4, 291; the top three returning tackles average 6'4, 320. There's beef here.

The defensive line seems to have the steepest learning curve when moving from 4-3 to 3-4, and while the size is right, we're definitely seeing some issues here. It's not necessarily that the defensive line isn't making enough plays -- you don't expect a three-man line to rack up the tackles for loss, and honestly, Bobby Richardson is a pretty impressive weapon in that regard. No, it appears the early problem for Indiana is that the Hoosiers might not be making enough of the mundane plays. No lineman has more than 5.0 tackles in two games, which is fine if linemen are freeing up linebackers to flow to the ball. That's not really happening, at least not before the ball gets 5+ yards downfield.

BANDIT
Nick Mangieri (6'5, 260, Jr.) (5.0 tackles, 2 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 INT, 1 PBU, 2 QB hurries)
Zack Shaw (6'3, 250, Jr.) (3.5 tackles, 1 TFL)

SLB
Flo Hardin (6'1, 230, Sr.) (11.5 tackles, 2 PBU, 1 QB hurry)
Clyde Newton (6'1, 230, So.)

MLB
T.J. Simmons (6'0, 230, So.) (11.5 tackles)
Kyle Kennedy (6'3, 237, Jr.) (1.0 tackles)

WLB
David Cooper (6'1, 236, Sr.) (12.5 tackles, 1 TFL)
Marcus Oliver (6'1, 241, So.) (8.0 tackles, 1 PBU, 1 FF)

(Freshman Tegray Scales isn't on the two-deep but has 8.0 tackles and 0.5 TFL so far.)

And at the very least, there are options at linebacker. If we're including DE-turned-OLB Nick Mangieri as a linebacker, last year's top seven tacklers all return. Only Mangieri and David Cooper had more than 3.5 tackles for loss, and for all we know, any of three three-star freshmen could quickly work into the rotation, but there are at least options.

The tackle totals here are what you'd expect from a four-linebacker unit. Forisse Hardin, T.J. Simmons, and David Cooper are the leading tacklers on the team, and that's fine; the problem: they've combined for one tackle for loss and one hurry. Nick Mangieri seems to be taking to the Bandit role (part-OLB, part-DE) pretty well, but if he's not making a play, nobody is. That has to change moving forward. (It would be preferable if that changed after Saturday.)

CB
Tim Bennett (5'9, 185, Sr.) (9.0 tackles, 4 PBU)
Kenny Mullen (5'10, 185, Sr.) (2.0 tackles)

FS
Antonio Allen (5'10, 205, So.) (9.5 tackles)
Tony Fields (5'11, 203, Fr.) (2.0 tackles)

SS
Mark Murphy (6'2, 215, Sr.) (4.5 tackles, 0.5 TFL)
Kiante Walton (6'0, 208, Fr.) (1.0 tackles)

CB
Michael Hunter (6'1, 192, Jr.) (7.5 tackles, 1.5 TFL)
Rashard Fant (5'10, 170, RSFr.) (1.5 tackles)

More from the preseason preview:

Good sign: cornerback Tim Bennett was first in the country with 21 passes defensed last season. He only intercepted one pass while breaking up 20, but he still got his hands on more passes than any other defender in the country.

Bad sign: Bennett also made 67.0 tackles, an obscenely high number for a cornerback that suggests that either a) he was tremendous in run support or b) his man was also catching a lot of passes. That Bennett had 3.5 tackles for loss is encouraging when it comes to the former, but knowing what we know about Indiana's pass defense, there was plenty of the latter at play as well. Almost no defense gave up a higher frequency of big pass plays than Indiana, and that takes the shine off of Bennett's prolific break-up abilities.

Bennett and Michael Hunter both return; again, they've at least proven aggressive, if prone to breakdowns. But for the first time, Indiana might actually have a full two-deep of players worthy of playing time in the back. Four of last year's top five return, including four-star sophomore Antonio Allen, and they are joined by four-star redshirt freshman Rashard Fant, two high-three-star redshirt freshmen, and three high-three-star true freshmen.

Youth doesn't tend to solve breakdown issues, but there is more athleticism on this defense, top to bottom, than has been the case at any point in the Wilson era. That's something.

If Indiana can take anything encouraging from its defensive performance against Bowling Green -- and to be sure, allowing 571 yards, 45 points, and 113 plays isn't particularly encouraging -- it's that the Hoosiers snuffed out big plays for the most part. BGSU averaged just 5.1 yards per play, and while that's only a good thing if you're eventually forcing mistakes and getting off the field, it at least hints at improvement from the big-play perspective. And since Missouri has been more based in big plays than efficiency in the passing game, that could be interesting to follow. If Indiana is able to prevent 30-yard gains, can Mizzou remain patient and move the ball five yards at a time like BGSU did?

Special Teams

K
Aaron Del Grosso (5'10, 195, Fr.) (10-10 PAT, 0-2 FG <40)
Griffin Oakes (5'10, 201, RSFr.)

P
Erich Toth (6'3, 200, Jr.) (5 punts, 29.2 average, 1 fair caught, 2 inside 20, none returned)
Nick Campos (6'0, 193, So.)

KR
Damon Graham (5'10, 190, Jr.) (2 returns, 17.0 average)
D'Angelo Roberts (5'10, 207, Sr.)

PR
Shane Wynn (5'7, 167, Sr.)
J-Shun Harris II (5'8, 162, Fr.) (2 returns, 9.0 average)

This wasn't a great special teams unit, and now it's lost its strong-legged kicker (who was at the very least automatic under 40 yards) and handed the kicking and punt return duties to freshmen. It might improve, but through two games it still isn't a very good unit.

BTBS preview tomorrow!