Indiana's secondary only intercepted five passes last season, including this pick against Penn State by Forisse Hardin (4), who is now a linebacker.
Self-awareness is a crucial trait in a football player. He must be able to know his responsibilities and how they shift instinctively, to move without thinking, so that he can do his job while helping his teammates do theirs.
Too often last season, Indiana’s secondary found itself wholly lacking in that quality. Players were too concerned, perhaps consumed, with their own checks and reads to consistently perform those tasks well, much less help one another through them.
“A lot of us are young guys, we were worried about ourselves initially. If we didn’t know our stuff, we couldn’t help anyone else,” sophomore safety Mark Murphy said. “Now that we all know what we’re doing, we’re more willing to help and communicate with others.
“Now that we can all be on the same page, we can execute.”
According to basic statistics, Indiana was respectable against the pass last season: 215 yards per game allowed, good for 47th nationally, and just 84 plays of 10 or more yards allowed, less than Nebraska, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Penn State.
But those numbers mislead.
First, they are couched by the fact that Indiana finished 118th against the run in 2011, allowing 243.7 yards per game. The Hoosiers finished 116th in pass efficiency defense, a rating that takes into account several factors, including completion percentages, touchdowns allowed, interceptions pulled in and the rate at which both types of plays occur. Indiana managed just five picks all season, three from the safety spot and two from cornerback Greg Heban.
Perhaps most telling are the explosive plays (passing plays of 20 yards or more) allowed statistics. Indiana was 71st nationally with 40 passing plays of 20 yards or more allowed. The Hoosiers were 76th in plays of 30 yards or more (19), 104th in plays of 40 yards or more (13) and dead last in plays of 60 yards or more (seven) and 70 yards or more (four). No other team in the nation allowed so many long passing plays.
Too often last season, Indiana's secondary was burned by big plays. The Hoosiers allowed more passing plays of 60- and 70-plus yards than any other team in the country.
That final deficiency, Murphy said, was rooted in the same inexperience that plagued Indiana’s secondary all season long. Without the mental strength built by first-hand knowledge, Murphy said he believes Indiana’s defensive backs were just too susceptible to mistakes.
“It was just, let’s say mental busts. If one guy screws up, it’s going to look bad for the rest of the defense, and I think that’s a big part of the problem.” Murphy said. “I know physically, we have the athletes, we just need to make sure we’re consistent with our play, because one slip-up, one big play, one person can ruin the game.”
In an effort to bolster that pass defense against disheartening mistakes, Indiana sought out junior college help this offseason, eventually adding four players from that level to its roster.
At corner, Antonio Marshall and Tim Bennett have only joined the team this fall. Both, according to co-defensive coordinator Mike Ekeler, are “still swimming,” still adjusting to their new responsibilities, not unlike running back Stephen Houston one year ago.
Tregg Waters came in to play safety, but he has since switched down to the nickel spot, to provide depth there behind Heban.
And Ryan Thompson, while sometimes still prone to the hiccups of unfamiliarity and inexperience, finds himself in the mix for one of the starting spots at safety. IU coach Kevin Wilson said recently that Thompson might be performing better than any of the other six JUCO transfers added on the defensive side of the ball.
“Ryan’s coming on. He’s still got a lot of room for improvement. He’s still feeling his way out there a little bit,” safeties coach and co-defensive coordinator Doug Mallory said. “Some of that’s just not clicking as quickly as it needs to, but again, he’s coming. I think he’s getting better. He’s getting a lot better overall feel for what we’re trying to get accomplished, and he shows flashes of being a good football player.”
Thompson and the other transfers mix into a unit that, while inexperienced and beaten up a year ago, returns nearly plenty of institutional knowledge in 2012. Sophomores Kenny Mullen and Michael Hunter and redshirt juniors Lawrence Barnett and Heban all return at corner, while Drew Hardin, Alex Webb and Murphy all remain at safety.
A year ago, many of those players spent the season working slowly through Indiana’s defensive concepts, struggling to grasp much beyond basic techniques, reads and coverages. A year on, Murphy said that’s no longer the case.
“We have more stuff to mix in there,” Murphy said. “We couldn’t throw as much in last year, especially because the coaches had just been here in the spring, into the summer. Now we can build on that, so I’d say there are a lot of different types of coverages and types of bluffs we can throw in there, to complement our different packages.”
The weary adage about freshmen is that they become sophomores. But the staff change and roster turnover made rookies out of even third-year players in Wilson’s first season in charge.
With another 12 months to turn experience into wisdom, and wisdom into action, Murphy is confident Indiana’s pass defense will improve.
“I’d say last year was a lot of learning experience. A lot of us got thrown into the fire. We were a real young team,” Murphy said. “And now that we’ve learned it a lot, we know what’s expected, I think it’s going to be a lot more of applying it to the game situations and then executing."