Few head coach coaches in the country have as difficult a job as Brian Knorr, Indiana’s newly hired defensive coordinator. He’s tasked with fixing an historical woeful defense that allowed nearly 40 points per game in 2013. But that’s not where the horror ends, it’s just the beginning.
In the past five seasons, the Hoosiers have given up at least five touchdowns per game. Knorr’s first objective is to simply get a respectable unit on the field. In Kevin Wilson’s three seasons in Bloomington, Indiana has improved its win total each year, from one to four to five.
The last two years featured successful offenses capable of lifting the Hoosiers to their first bowl game since 2007. But they were undermined by a creaky defense that gave up 35 or more points 10 times. For the season, Indiana allowed more than 500 yards per game and in eight Big Ten contests, it surrendered a conference-record average of 560 yards.
It left Wilson little choice but to cut ties with Doug Mallory.
“When you look statistically, we weren’t very good,” Mallory told reporters after being dismissed. “We’ve got some good young players coming back. Great attitude, character kids. Just wanted to be a part of it.”
Instead, that responsibility falls on Knorr. His first order of business in the spring was installing a 3-4 defense. It’s resulted in some players having to switch positions, but Knorr is a big believer in the scheme, having had success with it at Wake Forest.
As offenses become more explosive, not many defensive coordinators have found a consistent neutralizer. Wisconsin is the only other Big Ten school that uses a 3-4, and the Badgers saw positive first-year returns in 2013. Knorr has preached being multiple in the current era, pointing out the levels of complexity in Big Ten offenses that used to be mundane and plodding.
“The No. 1 thing is our confidence on defense. You can’t just snap your fingers and get it,” Knorr said after being hired. “That’s something we’ll have to grow and work on, not just this spring, but in winter workouts.”
Knorr’s track record brings instant credibility to Indiana’s beleaguered defense. Wake Forest’s 2013 unit ranked 38th nationally, 34th against the run and 32nd in yards allowed. At each of his previous stops – Ohio University and Air Force – Knorr took over underwhelming defenses and propped them back up not only to respectability but among the best in their conference.
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|10/18||Michigan State (HC)|
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A major factor in Indiana’s struggles last season was youth – the defense was stockpiled with freshmen and sophomores that were essentially thrown to the wolves. The end result was being gashed for big plays and giving up a handful of touchdowns – at least – each Saturday.
Fast forward one year and the Hoosiers welcome back 10 starters. The recruiting class also was heavy on defensive help, supplying depth for a unit that sorely needed it. Defensive linemen Darius Latham, Ralph Green and Bobby Richardson provide Indiana with a powerful trio up front.
“Some of our strengths are up front. I was pretty excited when I watched film on them,” Knorr said. “We were a little more speed conscious in the ACC, but the Big Ten being such a physical conference, it’s a little different recruiting, a little bigger kid. We won’t have as many [defensive backs] as we’ve had on the field in the ACC. We’re looking for a more physical player.”
The 3-4 scheme sets up nicely with the Hoosiers’ personnel. Linebacker is arguably the deepest position on defense. David Cooper, Marcus Oliver, T.J. Simmons, Flo Hardin, Clyde Newton and Nick Mangieri are first-team type players that can rotate and the unit above water.
In the secondary, Greg Heban is the only departure from last year, but safeties Mark Murphy and Antonio Allen missed spring drills. Still, players and coaches see a more physical, ball-attacking defensive unit.
Indiana’s offense is a double-edged sword. Sure, it’s nice to put points on the board, which the Hoosiers did frequently last season – they ranked ninth nationally in total offense – but the quick strikes put the defense on the field with little rest. Getting of the field on third down became kryptonite for Indiana.
The spring featured 1s versus 1s to force the defense to face its weaknesses head on – high-octane offense, no rest, few substitutions, etc. What Knorr discovered was a newfound confidence.
“It’s a challenge in college football. The rules continue to favor the offense,” he said. “It’s a challenge to be a defensive coordinator. But it’s exciting, especially in this league. There is a tremendous diversity in schemes in this conference.”
“The rules continue to favor the offense. It’s a challenge to be a defensive coordinator. But it’s exciting, especially in this league. There is a tremendous diversity in schemes in this conference.” – Brian Knorr
There’s no mistaking what the objective for the 2014 Hoosiers is: a bowl game. Six wins is the magic number, and with Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan, Iowa and Missouri on the schedule, a postseason berth appears daunting.
But the offense should give then a chance in every game. Wide receivers Cody Latimer and Kofi Hughes may be gone, but Shame Wynn is still there to harass opponents. The spring game offered a glimpse of what he can do in the fall – five receptions for 141 yards.
Pair him with running back Tevin Coleman and a two-headed monster at quarterback and the Hoosiers’ offense gives off the appearance of scarlet and gray, not crimson and cream.
Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson helped Indiana establish school records in points and yards per game. Sudfeld completed 60.2 percent of his passes for 2,523 yards with 21 touchdowns and nine interceptions. The dual-threat Roberson had a 60.1 percent completion percentage for 1,128 yards with 15 touchdowns and four interceptions. He also rushed for 423 yards and five touchdowns.
As far who will start in 2014, it’s anyone’s guess. But it’s also irrelevant because both will play.
“Really with Tre, just getting him to relax and throw the ball, he’s very good,” offensive coordinator Kevin Johns said. “What happens is he gets nervous, he grips the ball too tight, he over strides – little things. He tries too hard to be honest with you. But when that kid just goes out with a smile on his face and relaxes, he’s capable of some very big things. As is the other guy as well, but Tre throws the ball very well when he can just relax and play.”
And in Tresselian fashion, there are concerns about the Hoosiers’ kicking game. School-record holder Mitch Ewald is off to the NFL. But if the offense stays efficient and the defense pushes toward the middle half of the Big Ten, kicking will be of little consequence.