Jon Fabris (right), Indiana's new defensive ends coach, says his position group still has significant strides in can make in focus and competitiveness between now and the Hoosiers' Sept. 1 season opener against Indiana State.
Hired in January, defensive ends coach Jon Fabris has been tasked this spring and summer with coaching up as young of a position group as Indiana might have on that side of the ball.
The Hoosiers only produced 18 sacks last season, and perhaps as or more alarming to Fabris was a rushing defense that allowed 243.7 yards per game, last in the Big Ten by some distance.
Youth pockmarks the depth chart at defensive end, but Fabris has already made a strong, positive impact, according to the players working under him. The veteran defensive coach took time after practice to speak one-on-one with InsideIndiana.com about how his group is coming along in the fall.
Question: You talked in the spring about wanting your defensive ends to show initiative and carry over what you taught them into the summer. Have you seen that carryover manifest itself in the improvement you’d hoped for?
Answer: Not that there hasn’t been some improvement, but not anything that’s been just earth shattering. We still have the rest of this week, which I think is very important. These next three days after today are critical, that we don’t just waste those days. We’ve got to use them wisely.
You can always get better fundamentally, but you can always even get tougher — just a better, smarter player, where you’re not playing the offense’s entire playbook. There are so many things that can tell you what an offense is going to do if you just open your eyes. A lot of players don’t play with their eyes, and that’s what you’re trying to get them to do.
It’s like anything else. Great hitters sit on one pitch. Great football players only sit on one or two plays. He’s not playing the whole playbook. That’s what you’re trying to get your players to understand. I’ve got a lot better chance for success if my coach whispers into my ear that it’s either this or that, as opposed to there’s 26 different things. Hopefully we’ll keep improving that way.
Q: I know sacks are a stat that jumps our to most people, but you’ve talked about the importance of being a strong unit against the run from defensive end. How have your players improved on that focus?
Bobby Richardson (95) was something of a revelation at end as a freshman last fall, but Fabris said even he must work hard to get the most out of the rest of the preseason.
A: Were working on it, but we’re still not where we need to be.
You ask anyone, from a high school player to a NFL player: ‘What do you enjoy most about the game?’ If you ask a defensive end that question, they’ll say rushing the passer, hitting the quarterback. Ninety-eight percent of them will say that. But if you don’t do the dirty work on the early downs, the run downs, you’ll never get to that situation. All they’re going to do is throw when they want to, play-action passes, and you have no chance. If you don’t want to d the dirty work early, you’re not going to have any fun on later downs.
But there’s also ways of pressuring the quarterback, other than just getting sacks. Sometimes a hit on the quarterback is better than a sack, because a hard hit on him, I’d rather have that than a sack. You can get pressures, you can bat balls down — there’s all kinds of different ways that you can be productive in the passing game, other than just sacks.
Q: You’re working with a lot of younger players, freshmen and sophomores. Are some of those young guys embracing that defend-the-run-first mentality?
A: Well, I don’t know if they’re embracing it. It’s just human nature to go to the path of least resistance, and when someone’s trying to double-team you, that’s a whole lot less fun than when you’re rushing someone who’s backing up. Even today, we had a drill, and there were different levels. Some guys were doing things good, other guys were not.
It’s too much up and down right now. We’re not consistent enough. Indiana State is a team that will run the football, and if you’re not ready to stop that, you’re just going to be always in 3rd-and-2, 3rd-and-3. You’re never going to get them in 3rd-and-8, and that’s a good place to be. We need to be good possession on downs and get off the field. You want to get turnovers, but if you can just have some 3-and-outs, the field position game is now in your favor and helps your offense. That’s what it’s all about.
Q: Sophomore Bobby Richardson played a lot last year and did some good things as a rookie. How much has he improved, in your eyes, through the spring, summer and fall camp so far?
A: That’s still up in the air. I see things that are good, but he, like the rest of them, is inconsistent. Can you maintain not only your performance, but your focus and your intensity level, which leads to your performance, and not just be a sometimes-player, a guy that shows up when you want to?
Part of it’s being young. Part of it’s being inexperienced. Part of it’s just breathing hard, being worn out. You’ve got to fight through that stuff. But we’re not where we need to be, not by a long shot, because you know what? Things we do in week two of practice may help us in week five. To me, it’s a progressive thing. You’re constantly trying to get better and not hit a wall.
That’s true for them. It’s also true for us as coaches. If we kind of get into the same-old, same-old, that’s the way they’re going to be. You’ve got to kind of up the ante a little bit the next day at practice, give them something they’ve never done before, make it more demanding, new drills, anything to keep it fresh and going.
We’ve got to become a lot more competitive in that way, where we hate to lose. Not that we’re just out here, in the right spot. Yea, you’re in the right spot, but what are you doing in that right spot? Do you have the right mentality in that right spot? What you do is important, but how you do it, to me, is more important.
Q: Is it tough with some of the younger players, simply because they kind of have to learn on the fly?
A: There’s no doubt of that, and there was nobody for the young guys to really learn from, because they’re all inexperienced. They’re all young. You said something about Bobby playing last year. He’s green as a gourd. Just because you played doesn’t mean you played well. He’s got a long way to go, as the rest of them do.
I don’t even know who the starters are. They don’t either. But it’s going to be somebody, and I know who I’m looking for, and I know who’s going to start, what kind of qualities he’s going to possess. And it’s not going to be the guy that necessarily is the biggest or the fastest or whatever. We’ll see.
Q: When do you think you’ll pick those starters?
A: (Smiling) Might be pregame warm-up.