Big Ten: Indiana Hoosiers
Last season we saw some outstanding defensive performances from Big Ten teams, especially when it came to pass defense. The conference had four teams in the top 15 for interceptions, four in the top 25 for sacks and five teams in the top 25 for pass breakups. Teams within the conference are hoping to duplicate that production this season and continue to disrupt opposing offenses.
Which team, though, will have the best pass defense in the conference? We continue our look at the best defensive groups within the Big Ten by answering that question.
The Badgers’ defense led the conference last season in interceptions, had the second-most pass breakups, the second-best third-down conversion percentage on passes, the second-best touchdown-to-interception ratio and the third-best opponent passer efficiency rating. Losing Shelton, Musso and linebacker T.J. Watt will sting, but there is still plenty to work with remaining on this defense.
Safety D'Cota Dixon and cornerback Derrick Tindal return, and Wisconsin is adding Hawaii cornerback transfer Nick Nelson. Outside of the secondary, the staff also has linebacker T.J. Edwards and defensive end Chikwe Obasih coming back and is adding junior college defensive end Andrew Van Ginkel.
Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard should have this unit rolling again this season.
Next in line: Ohio State lost a ton of production in the secondary to the NFL draft with Malik Hooker, Gareon Conley and Marshon Lattimore moving on, but there is still a ton of talent on this roster. Putting Ohio State in this spot is somewhat of a projection based on potential, but the staff has proven they can bring in new faces season after season without skipping a beat.
What will help the Buckeyes offset some of the losses in the secondary is how many returning starters they have along the defensive line. The pass rush next season should be outstanding, as most of the starting defensive line is back this season, as are as linebackers Chris Worley and Jerome Baker.
On top of that, Ohio State recruited some of the top defensive backs in the 2017 class, including five-stars Jeffrey Okudah and Shaun Wade. The staff also added junior college corner Kendall Sheffield, and all three should be able to contribute this season to help keep this pass defense in top shape.
Don’t sleep on: Northwestern is in under the radar this season, but the Wildcats return a ton of starters on defense. Cornerback Montre Hartage led the team in interceptions last season and will be back to try to top his five picks from 2016. Safeties Godwin Igwebuike and Kyle Queiro are also returning, along with cornerback Keith Watkins II, which should equate to a tough secondary on the field. Indiana is in a similar boat, returning five starting defensive backs as well as team sack leader Tegray Scales. The Hoosiers made some impressive leaps under now head coach Tom Allen, who was leading the defense in 2016. If Allen can continue to improve and develop his players, Indiana could have a solid pass defense in 2017.
Developing the deep threat was a common theme among Big Ten teams this spring. As the conference continue to leave its reputation for boring offenses in the dust, a pack of talented pass-catchers should have chances to shine this season.
Most of the league’s top teams return starters under center this fall -- and most of those starters have some healthy competition to keep them honest during the summer workouts. This week we’ll be highlighting the best groups on the offensive side of the ball at several positions as well as some other teams and players that are worth watching closely. Next up is a look at the best receiving corps in the conference.
Best of the best: Penn State is stacked with veteran options in the passing game this fall. Seniors DaeSean Hamilton, Saeed Blacknall and Mike Gesicki will set the pace for the passing game and provide plenty of size as well. Hamilton has played in 40 college games already and has catches in 38 of them. Gesicki is a candidate to be the league’s best tight end in 2017. He had five touchdowns and 48 catches as a junior last year.
There is rising talent in Happy Valley as well. Juwan Johnson’s spring might have been as promising of a step forward as any player at any position in the Big Ten. His 6-foot-4, 218-pound frame provides yet another big target for quarterback Trace McSorley through the air.
Next in line: Indiana might not have the depth at wide receiver that rosters like Ohio State's and Michigan's (both teams could end up with very dangerous passing attacks) can claim, but the Hoosiers have a one-two punch that could be as tough to cover as any in the Big Ten if both are moving at full speed. Nick Westbrook and Simmie Cobbs Jr. are both tall and fast and able to bring down most balls thrown in their vicinity.
Cobbs missed almost all of 2016 with an ankle injury after racking up more than 1,000 receiving yards the previous season. Westbrook had 995 receiving yards in Cobbs’ absence last season, which is more than any other receiver returning to the Big Ten next season. Indiana could also add a speedy smaller option if J-Shun Harris gets healthy after missing both of the past two years with ACL tears.
Don’t sleep on: Nebraska features a good mix of experience and young studs. If all of them hit their potential, they could have more options than most defenses are equipped to handle. The group starts with De’Mornay Pierson-El and Stanley Morgan Jr., both of whom impressed coaches this spring with increased speed and the way they handled a transition into leadership roles.
The Huskers are hoping that pair will be complemented by some incoming freshmen with impressive resumes. Keyshawn Johnson Jr. and Jaevon McQuitty didn’t get an opportunity to do much during their first semester on campus. Joining them will be blue-chip prospect Tyjon Lindsey. If a couple of the young guys are ready to contribute, new quarterback Tanner Lee will be able to spread the ball. One concern that could slow them down is the roster’s lack of experience at tight end.
Defending Big Ten champion Penn State is loaded with experience on offense. Quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley are preseason Heisman Trophy contenders. They'll play behind a veteran offensive line and with a standout tight end in Mike Gesicki.
The one question about that unit going into the spring was at wide receiver. Not necessarily in depth of talent, as the Nittany Lions bring back accomplished players Saeed Blacknail and DaeSean Hamilton at the position. The question was more along the lines of who would become the true No. 1 wideout, someone who could replace the production of Chris Godwin?
The answer to that question might be one of the biggest breakout players in the Big Ten this spring: Juwan Johnson.
The redshirt sophomore created major buzz around the program all spring, earning raves from coaches and teammates and winning Penn State's most improve offensive player award. He showed the public what the fuss was about with seven catches for 81 yards in Saturday's Blue-White game.
Johnson played mainly on special teams last season, though he did start on offense against Purdue. He finished the year with two catches for 70 yards.
"I've been patient the past two years," Johnson told reporters Saturday. "It's time for me to step up and play a role on the team."
It shouldn't come as a surprise that Johnson is ready to make an impact. He's a former ESPN 300 recruit who's listed at an impressive 6-foot-4 and 218 pounds. He could become a top target for McSorley, who often sought out Godwin (59 catches for 982 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2016) during key situations.
"He has just has taken a very mature approach, a very aggressive approach all offseason," Penn State coach James Franklin said. "He's playing with a lot of confidence right now, and I think we all know he's got some special physical abilities. It's all kind of coming together for him right now."
Here's a look at some other breakout players from around the league this spring now that every team has wrapped up its practice sessions until fall camp (in alphabetical order):
Ohio State CB Damon Arnette: Whoever emerges in the secondary for the Buckeyes is a good bet to become a star. Arnette had some struggles as a redshirt freshman last season but performed very well all spring to become the front-runner to start opposite Denzel Ward. Given how much pure talent Ohio State has at the position, that's saying something.
Wisconsin WR Quintez Cephus: The sophomore -- who had four catches for for 94 yards as a true freshman -- turned in some big practices for the Badgers this spring. It was an emotional spring for him after his father was shot and killed. Cephus is in line to replace Robert Wheelwright as the team's No. 2 receiver.
Michigan LB/S Khaleke Hudson: It's unfair to compare Hudson to Jabrill Peppers. But Hudson might well be the guy who replaces Hudson at the Viper position, one where he'll be asked to do many of the same things Peppers excelled at. The early returns have been positive, as Hudson looked like a playmaker during an active spring game performance.
Minnesota S Jacob Huff: The junior has no career starts but has played as a backup the past two seasons. He showed up in a major way this spring at a position of need for the Golden Gophers. "All he does is make plays," head coach P.J. Fleck said of Huff.
Michigan State CB/WR Justin Layne: He made an impact as a true freshman in the Spartans' secondary, even returning an interception for a touchdown. Layne played on offense and defense during the spring game, catching a touchdown pass at receiver. Could he be a true two-way star this fall?
Nebraska slot receiver JD Spielman: The MVP of the scout team offense last year, Spielman looks ready to contribute where it counts this season. He impressed coaches most of the spring and went out and grabbed a 30-yard touchdown among his four catches in the spring game.
Indiana TE Ian Thomas: New offensive coordinator Mike DeBord intends to use the tight ends more than the Hoosiers have in previous seasons, and Thomas should be the biggest beneficiary of that strategy. A standout in junior college, Thomas had only three catches last season but snagged a touchdown in the spring game, a potential sign of things to come.
Iowa RB Toren Young: Akrum Wadley is the No. 1 tailback, but the Hawkeyes like A) spreading the carries around and B) occasionally putting Wadley out in space. Young and Toks Akinribade are both in the mix for work this fall, but it was Young who ran for 96 yards and a touchdown in the spring game. "I liked the energy he ran with and the toughness he ran with, and he's pretty much been doing that all spring," head coach Kirk Ferentz said.
The Big Ten had a banner year in 2016, with four teams jockeying for spots in the College Football Playoff until the final days of the regular season.
The postseason didn’t go so well for the league, as only one of its four New Year’s Six bowl participants (Wisconsin) brought home a victory. That brought out the usual Big Ten skeptics who wondered if the conference had been overrated all along and whether 2016 was just a fluke.
There’s no guarantee of a repeat of last year’s success in 2017. But there is one simple yet large reason to be very excited about the league’s fortunes this fall and beyond: the Big Ten has the best roster of head coaches of any conference in America.
A grand statement like that naturally requires lots of evidence to back it up. So here goes.
Start with Ohio State's Urban Meyer. He’s no worse than one of the two best coaches in college football, with only Alabama’s Nick Saban as serious competition. Meyer has three national titles, the highest winning percentage among active coaches (.851 -- third-highest all time among those who coached at least 10 years) -- and an absurd 61-6 record with the Buckeyes. Enough said.
Michigan's Jim Harbaugh also belongs on the short list of best coaches in the land. Though he has never won a national title, he’s the master of the program turnaround. He’s gone 32-7 in his last three seasons in college, including Stanford, and was the NFL coach of the year during his time in San Francisco. Whether you like his online shtick or find it annoying, dude can coach 'em up as well as anyone.
Penn State's James Franklin joined the ranks of the elite coaches last year by leading the Nittany Lions to a surprise Big Ten title. Franklin had already worked wonders at Vanderbilt, of all places, and he silenced his doubters en route to winning Sporting News national coach of the year honors in 2016.
Though Michigan State is going through some turbulent times right now after a 3-9 debacle, Mark Dantonio has firmly established himself as one of the top coaches. His Spartans won at least 11 games five times in the six years prior to last season and made the playoff in 2015.
That’s four cream-of-the-crop coaches right there. What other league can claim that?
The ACC might come the closest, with Clemson’s Dabo Swinney and Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher owning national titles and Louisville’s Bobby Petrino being one of the top offensive minds around. But unless you’re buying into North Carolina’s Larry Fedora or Virginia Tech’s Justin Fuente as elite, the list pretty much stops at three.
The Big 12 has Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, TCU’s Gary Patterson and legendary Kansas State boss Bill Snyder. Maybe first-year Texas coach Tom Herman lives up to the hype. Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy has done good work but hasn’t quite reached the level of the Big Ten’s top four.
In the Pac-12, Washington’s Chris Petersen belongs on any short list of top coaches. Stanford’s David Shaw is highly accomplished, and Colorado’s Mike McIntyre won several national coach of the year honors last year. The jury is still out on USC’s Clay Helton, though he did beat Penn State in the Rose Bowl.
What about the SEC, you ask? Saban rules, obviously. But who’s the second-best coach in that league? It might be Florida’s Jim McElwain. Or Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen. Would either school’s fan base trade them for Harbaugh? You betcha.
It’s not just the top tier that makes the Big Ten coaching roster so special, either. Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst is quickly rising up the ladder toward elite, having gone 21-6 in two years at his alma mater. His middling 19-19 record at Pitt before returning to Madison must be considered in relation to the mess he inherited there.
Chryst is also a perfect fit for the Badgers, just as Pat Fitzgerald is at Northwestern and Kirk Ferentz is for Iowa. Fitzgerald’s 11-year run in Evanston seems unusually long except when compared to Ferentz, who’s going into Year 19 with the Hawkeyes while showing signs of slowing down.
Nebraska's Mike Riley is one of the most respected coaches around, and while it’s fair to question whether he was the right fit for the Cornhuskers, he has won 10 of his last 14 games in Lincoln. Illinois' Lovie Smith has plenty to prove as a college coach but had a strong track record in the NFL.
The Big Ten also added two of the hottest young coaches in the country this offseason in Minnesota's P.J. Fleck, who led Western Michigan to a 13-0 record and Cotton Bowl appearance last year, and Purdue's Jeff Brohm, who went 30-10 at Western Kentucky with one of the nation’s most dynamic offenses.The story is still being written for Indiana's Tom Allen, Maryland's D.J. Durkin and Rutgers' Chris Ash, though all three were outstanding defensive coordinators.
Add it all up, and you’ve got the best lineup of coaches in any conference.
“I think it’s outstanding,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve gotten a huge commitment from all of our teams to do whatever it takes to be successful. It’s a special time to be a part of the Big Ten.”
Richard Lagow sat in the locker room at Levi’s Stadium in late December preparing for the Foster Farms Bowl against Utah. Before taking the field, he reached for his cellphone to get a dose of what had become his regular reminder to keep the past year in perspective.
Lagow transferred to Indiana, his third FBS school in four years, the previous winter. He won the starting quarterback job for the Hoosiers in August. He led Indiana to a 6-6 regular-season record with a few near misses against big-time programs.
He threw 19 touchdown passes, but also added 17 interceptions. The regular season ended with a win over rival Purdue and a second consecutive bowl trip. A week later, the school parted ways with coach Kevin Wilson amid allegations that he had mistreated players.
Lagow traded a few text messages with a friend, and her replies, as they often did, gave him a spark of inspiration. “Yo,” he called to one of the team’s equipment managers. “I need a Sharpie.”
Lagow printed the name “Kara” in long, black letters on the towel hanging from his belt. He snapped a quick picture of it and then trotted out to the Levi's field in Santa Clara, California.
Kara is Kara O’Neal, a friend of Lagow’s from high school who was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia last May. She had quietly managed a less aggressive form of the cancer with regular oral chemotherapy treatments since she was 16, around the time she and Lagow first met.
O’Neal watched Indiana’s bowl game from a hospital bed in Dallas. She had been there for a few days for reasons that escape her now. There have been enough visits to Medical City Dallas Hospital in the past 10 months that they start to blend together. She and Lagow exchanged a few messages about staying positive as a crazy year reached its conclusion, which prompted him to ask for the Sharpie.
“I had no idea he was doing that,” O’Neal said. “He texted me right before the game and sent me a picture. That meant so much to me.”
When Lagow returned to the locker room after losing on a last-minute field goal to the Utes, he had a long message waiting for him about the value of persistence and battling with all of one’s might. The sting from the loss quickly evaporated.
“She always thanks me for keeping her spirits up and reminding her to fight,” Lagow said. “But I see it as the complete opposite.”
Their friendship grew into a tighter bond after O’Neal’s cancer forced her to leave college at the University of Arkansas and move back to Texas for more intense treatment and regular doctor visits. Lagow checked in regularly, and while on obviously different scales, O’Neal says they discovered her battle with cancer and his battles on the field were “so relatable.”
O’Neal had a bone marrow transplant on Sept. 23. It was a major step toward being cancer-free, but the pain in the days that followed was “a little rougher than I think I thought rough could be,” she wrote in a blog she keeps about her journey with cancer. She stayed in the hospital for 28 days and then returned twice a week throughout the rest of the fall and winter. She’d often sit for hours while magnesium and blood transfusions pumped into her body through a port surgically implanted in her chest.
The day after the procedure, Lagow threw five interceptions in a five-point loss to Wake Forest, a low point in his first season with the Hoosiers. The team lost three of its next four games. Lagow says he kept things in perspective by talking to O’Neal every couple of days to get updates on how she was feeling.
“When this relationship first built into what it is now it was more just me shocked with her having to come back from Arkansas and having to deal with what she was doing,” Lagow said. “It was me wanting to keep her positive. It really just turned into her keeping me positive.”
Lagow had his teammates sign a football this winter to lift O’Neal’s spirits. He sent it along with a handwritten note, which started a weekly ritual of trading letters with one another. O’Neal’s transplant left her with a tremor that made her handwriting “look literally like a first-grader’s.” Writing with pen and paper helps her recover from the tremor for when she eventually returns to school.
— Richard Lagow (@RichardLagow) March 27, 2017
A couple of the letters hang in Lagow’s locker this spring above a picture of O’Neal wearing eye black and boxing gloves below a bald head. He started spring ball a month ago with a new offensive coordinator and a head coach who was sending out the same message of positivity that Lagow gets from his new pen pal. He said he has made progress this spring in cutting down on interceptions and working to cement his spot as a team leader ahead of his final college season.
O’Neal had the port removed from her chest in late February. Her hair is slowly starting to grow back. Just last week doctors cleared her to travel outside of the Dallas area for the first time since the May diagnosis. She is escaping from Texas for a couple days this weekend in Washington, D.C., and already has ideas on the next trip she wants to plan -- a fall Saturday in Bloomington.
Mike DeBord is back home again in Indiana. And the Big Ten.
Home was the compelling reason why DeBord left his job as Tennessee’s offensive coordinator this winter to take the same post with his home-state Hoosiers. The 61-year-old was contemplating retirement before Indiana coach Tom Allen approached him with the opportunity.
“I had told [Tennessee] coach [Butch] Jones that I wanted to get closer to my family and yet I still wanted to coach,” DeBord said. “It’s amazing how these doors opened up.”
DeBord grew up in Muncie, Indiana and played football at Manchester College. His brother, Eric, was a four-year letterman for Lee Corso at Indiana, and DeBord said he’s followed the Hoosiers program closely most of his life.
Now, Indiana is banking on a pair of home-grown coaches to lead it to the next level.
Allen is a New Castle, Indiana native who was elevated from defensive coordinator to head coach when the school fired Kevin Wilson in December. DeBord remembers visiting Allen’s father, himself an Indiana high school football coach, in 1979 to learn about the split-back veer. DeBord got to know the younger Allen when he was an up-and-coming high school assistant at Ben Davis in Indianapolis in the late 1990s.
Allen said at the time of DeBord’s hiring that he wanted someone to “be the head coach of the offense and to run that room.” He has fully entrusted that side of the ball to DeBord.
“He hasn’t even walked into our [offensive] staff meeting one time,” DeBord said. “That’s great trust on his part. It’s also a great responsibility for me, and I appreciate that.”
DeBord inherits an offense that was known for putting up lots of yards and points under Wilson, an offensive-minded head coach. He says he’s not planning on changing a whole lot of what the Hoosiers succeeded at. But he does want to fix some things, like the team’s poor turnover and red-zone statistics from 2016.
“Our biggest emphasis is taking care of the ball,” he said. “They had a lot of yards last year, but they didn’t score a lot of points. We spend all week in the red zone. That’s where it starts. You’ve got to practice it and have a package you feel good about.”
DeBord is a familiar name to Big Ten fans. He spent one year as the offensive line coach at Northwestern in 1992 and later was an assistant at Michigan from 1993-1999 and again from 2004-07. In his first year as the Wolverines’ offensive coordinator, the team won the national championship in 1997.
After some stints in the NFL, he was working in the Michigan athletic administration before Jones coaxed him back into coaching at Tennessee in 2015. The Volunteers averaged 36.4 points and 443.7 yards per game last season, and quarterback Joshua Dobbs led the SEC in touchdown passes and pass efficiency. Nebraska had a difficult time containing Dobbs and the Vols’ offense in a 38-24 loss in the Music City Bowl.
“I’m proud of the way we improved our offense there,” DeBord said. “We were really rolling in the last half of the season.”
Yet DeBord also faced constant criticism from fans during his two years in Knoxville. As a longtime offensive coordinator, he was not surprised.
“I don’t think the fans get after the defense too much, but they all can call plays,” he joked. “I understand that it comes with my job, with my business. Honestly, I don’t pay any attention to it.”
DeBord has a tough act to follow in Bloomington, where fans have gotten used to fast-paced, high-powered offensive attacks. Should the Hoosiers fail to continue those ways, the fingers will again be pointed first at the offensive coordinator.
But DeBord is confident in his plan and the fellow Hoosier he’ll be working for. He’s excited not just to back home, but to do something special there.
“I really think this program is ready to take the next step,” he said.
Last week on the blog, we took a look at the reasons why several contenders would win the Big Ten title in 2017, including Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin. We also examined some sleeper teams.
It was all very optimistic, as things tend to be this time of year. Now it's time to play the role of pessimist. We're here to tell you why your team won't win the Big Ten title in 2017.
The country-pop band Big & Rich will perform before the Scarlet Knights' spring game next month. Sorry, Piscataway. After a dismal 2-10 season, it's going to be a long time before any championships are comin' ... to your city.
Jeff Brohm will make things interesting and exciting in West Lafayette again. Eventually. Bear Bryant couldn't lead this team, which has won two Big Ten games in the past three years, to a title this season.
Hey, this is a program that's won two of the past four league championships, so it wouldn't be a total shock to see the Spartans rebound from 3-9. Except that the program currently is mired in turmoil. There's going to be a very strange vibe around the spring game, which might be the first time we find out officially who's still on the roster while a sexual assault and Title IX investigation swirls. The trend line here is not good.
The Illini have some young talent coming in, but they may be hard pressed to surpass last year's 3-9 mark in Lovie Smith's second year. The two-deep was razor thin this spring, and basically the entire defensive line must be replaced. Things may get worse before they get better in Champaign.
You've got to like the direction of D.J. Durkin's program after he brought in a very solid recruiting class. Again, though, we're talking about 2017, and this team is going to be very young and without a proven quarterback. Plus, there should be a five-year mandatory championship probation for wearing these uniforms.
The Hoosiers have thrown a scare into several of the league's best teams the past couple of years. But it has almost always just been a scare, which is why Tom Allen is using the slogan "Breakthrough" this year. Even if Indiana finds a way to win some more of those close games thanks to an improved defense, it just doesn't have enough talent to get to the top of a loaded East Division.
Crazier things have happened for the boys in purple. Like 1995, for instance. Or actually making -- and winning -- a game in this year's NCAA tournament. The Wildcats will have one of the league's best backfield duos in Clayton Thorson and Justin Jackson. Yet they've been just a bit too inconsistent to believe they can make a championship run.
Every day is elite in P.J. Fleck's universe. But with a very young team, no experience at quarterback and a brand new coaching staff, this year could prove mediocre at best. And to win a title, the Golden Gophers need to beat Wisconsin again before we all die.
Maybe this is the year. (Note: I copied and pasted that sentence from every preseason article written about the Cornhuskers since 2002). It's hard to win a championship with four losses , and that's exactly how many games Nebraska has dropped in seven of the eight past years. Where's the top-shelf, All-America-type talent? Will the team show up in the big games away from home?
There's a new starting quarterback and hardly any receivers anybody's heard of. Penn State and Ohio State are among the crossover games (though both are at Kinnick). The Hawkeyes have to go to Wisconsin. There's enough here for Iowa to win eight games and trigger a $500,000 bonus for Kirk Ferentz, but hide your eyes at bowl time.
Eighteen starters are gone -- 18! If anyone besides Urban Meyer can get that much youth up to speed, it's Jim Harbaugh, and his four-hour practices will age anyone quickly. Still, that's an uphill battle. And last time we checked, Ohio State is still on the schedule.
Speaking of the Buckeyes, it's always dumb to bet against them winning the Big Ten. Except that Ohio State has somehow won only won one Big Ten championship in the past six years. Meyer has lost only three league games while in Columbus, but they have come at the most inopportune times. The offense also has to prove it can throw the ball more than a few yards downfield.
The Badgers are like a metronome. You can set your watch to their consistency. They're the West favorites until someone proves otherwise. But can they beat whomever comes out of the East? They lost to Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State last year. The offense always seems to come up a bit short in those huge games. Alex Hornibrook is promising, but he's not Russell Wilson.
The returning experience is outstanding and the Trace McSorley-Saquon Barkley combo is as good as it gets anywhere. Yet the Nittany Lions also caught some breaks last year with their schedule, with how that Ohio State game turned out and the East tiebreaker situation. This year, they have to go to the Horseshoe, not to mention the viper pit known as Kinnick Stadium. Michigan at home will be no picnic. Defending a title is much tougher than coming out of nowhere to win one.
Rashard Fant spent the past weekend with his attention torn between two Indiana towns.
The senior cornerback was in Bloomington where he and his Hoosier teammates started spring practice Saturday. He just as easily could have been up the road in Indianapolis as part of a deep class of NFL draft hopefuls in the secondary.
Fant kept an eye on the 40-yard dash times and other data posted by his recent peers throughout the week to see how he would've stacked up had he decided not to return for a final season of college football. He said he was most recently timed at 4.36 seconds in the 40, which if accurate would have been one of the top five times in Indianapolis. His recent stats on the field put him in similar company.
Fant finished third among all FBS defensive backs in passes defended during each of the past two seasons. He collected a combined 39 total pass breakups in those two seasons -- more than anyone else in college football during the same stretch -- while flying relatively under the radar amid a well-stocked group of cover cornerbacks in the Big Ten.
"Some people would say 'he’s not that good he’s just on a bad defense,' but now you know they can’t say that anymore," Fant said in a phone interview over the weekend. "I got some respect, but I’ve got to keep going. It’s a good thing have those great corners to chase."
Fant considered jumping to the NFL this year, but his return gives Indiana's defense two things it hasn't had in recent memory. Along with linebacker Tegray Scales, another veteran defender who didn't get the attention his remarkable stats warranted last fall, the Hoosiers have a pair of first-team all-conference-caliber players who put a pro career on hold to return to Bloomington. They also have a chance to make another leap forward as a group after significant improvement in 2016.
First-year head coach Tom Allen helped the defense climb from No. 117 in points allowed to No. 57 in one season as defensive coordinator before he was promoted in December. Fant and cornerbacks coach Brandon Shelby think the experience the defense returns, especially in the secondary, gives them the potential to double down and shed the reputation of a program that only wins by scoring a lot of points. That would make for a 180-degree turnaround from where the defense was when Shelby first arrived at Indiana nearly seven years ago.
"When I came into Bloomington I had a head full of hair and now I’m bald," Shelby said. "It’s been a long process, but it was a good steady process. ... We’ve got everybody back except for one person. Let’s see if we can’t get Indiana as one of the top 25 defenses in the country."
To get there, Shelby said Fant will have to play a key role in getting the secondary to work together. Last year, the back end of the defense flourished by focusing on winning its one-on-one battles. This season, Shelby wants Fant to take the next step in his development and start seeing the whole field and how the defense fits together.
Shelby traveled to Georgia this winter to sell Fant and his family on spending another year in college. Along with telling Fant he could benefit from another year at the training table to add to his 175-pound frame, Shelby’s main recruiting pitch was about developing a deeper knowledge of the game and learning to deal with adversity when more people are watching.
"He’s (always) going to be fast, but development and maturing one more year I think in the end will pay off," Shelby said. "You’ve got to get a little vulnerable. You can’t just do your job, you’ve got to make sure you set the standard for the future guys coming along."
Fant said he and Scales talked to each other about leaving a legacy in Bloomington when they decided they both would return. Not many defensive players in Indiana’s recent past would have much of a desire to talk about how they’ll be remembered for their team on the field.
In January, shortly after they made the decision to return, Allen gave several members of the team a short, motivational book called "One Word that Will Change Your Life" and then had each player pick a word he wanted to focus on during the 2017 season. After some deliberation, Fant landed on "cherish."
"We have (our words) up around our lockers and our homes and our Instagram or Twitter bios. I think it’s a great thing," he said. "I decided I want to cherish the moments I have left here and cherish each day and every opportunity, cherish the moments with my family members and cherish being the underdog."
He would be wise to soak those moments up while he can. Another year at his current pace will put an end to his time at Indiana and his time as an underdog.
It's March, and it's championship week, so basketball and brackets have taken over the sports world.
That also has us thinking about which Big Ten basketball players might be able to make the transition to football. It's not unheard of. All-Pro tight ends Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez each played college basketball. Late last month, LSU power forward Brian Bridgewater said he'd like to join the Tigers football team in the fall.
With that in mind, here's a starting five and a sixth man from the world of Big Ten basketball hoops who would be fun to see on the gridiron:
Purdue's Caleb Swanigan: The Big Ten's no-doubt player of the year and Wooden Award candidate is a beast in the paint and likely would be in the trenches, too. He's listed at 6-foot-9 and 250 pounds after dropping more than 100 pounds since eighth grade. Think Jeff Brohm would like to see the man they call "Biggie" at left tackle or perhaps stuffing runs as a nose guard?
Iowa's Ahmad Wagner: The 6-foot-7 sophomore had interest from Big Ten schools as a football player out of Wayne High School in Huber Heights, Ohio. He even received a football scholarship offer from Kentucky after hauling in 58 catches for 1,082 yards and 17 touchdowns as a senior. He played with Wisconsin reserve guard D'Mitrik Trice, who was a star quarterback at Wayne.
Michigan State's Miles Bridges: If anybody could make a Gates/Gonzalez-type transition to tight end, it might well be Bridges. With great footwork and balance for a 6-foot-7, 230-pounder, Bridges would be a nightmare for opposing defenders to cover. And since Tom Izzo is known to use football pads in practice, maybe the new sport wouldn't seem so unfamiliar for the Spartans freshman.
Maryland's Melo Trimble: At 6-foot-3 and 185 pounds, Trimble could make an interesting wide receiver for D.J. Durkin's squad. Or maybe a safety. Doesn't really matter what position he plays. Trimble is a gamer who's unafraid of big moments, which is why he'd likely succeed in football as well.
Indiana's OG Anunoby: He's currently out with a torn ACL, but the Hoosiers' 6-foot-8 forward is one of the most explosive players in college basketball when healthy. Can't you just see him rushing the passer as a terrifying defensive end? It's not that outlandish, given the bloodlines. Anunoby's older brother, Chigbo, is a defensive tackle for the Cleveland Browns.
Northwestern's Nathan Taphorn: Hey, if he can make that perfect 90-foot pass for the game-winning layup against Michigan, then maybe the 6-foot-7 Taphorn could be a backup to Wildcats quarterback Clayton Thorson. Even Thorson had difficulty recreating Taphorn's throw.
One of the first things Indiana players usually hear when they reach the practice field is Tegray Scales' voice.
The senior linebacker often likes to swipe the microphone coaches use to bark instructions. Scales doesn't plan what he's going to say beforehand. Some days he might lead a cheer. Other times, he'll crack on a teammate or challenge someone to a wrestling match.
"We practice early, and sometimes it's kind of dead or people are still asleep," Scales said. "So I'll get on the microphone and start talking a lot of smack. I try to spice things up a little bit."
Only a player whom other guys respect could get away with that sort of thing on a regular basis. Good thing Scales' performance on the field is so loud that no microphone is needed.
He led the nation in tackles for loss last year, with 23.5. He also finished 15th in the FBS –- and first in the Big Ten –- with 126 total tackles. That earned Scales second-team All-America recognition from SI.com, making him the first Hoosiers linebacker since 1987 to win any kind of All-American distinction.
Still, he might be the best defensive player that most of the country knows nothing about. If he put up those kinds of numbers in, say, the SEC, he might be talked about as a Heisman Trophy candidate. But he did it in the relative football outpost of Bloomington.
"I go to a school that's not fully established yet," he said. "We're still trying to break through. So I'm not going to get as recognized as much as other people would if they had the same season I had. It's one of those deals where you have to keep your head down and keep working."
And that work will continue at Indiana this spring and fall. While two of his teammates -- fellow linebacker Marcus Oliver and running back Devine Redding -- chose to forego their eligibility and enter the NFL draft, Scales decided to come back to school. He submitted his paperwork to the league's underclassman advisory board and heard concerns about his size (he says he's currently at 228 pounds on his listed 6-foot frame) and his ability to shed blocks at the next level.
So he opted to work on those things at Indiana, which provided an enormous lift for first-year head coach Tom Allen.
"He was the catalyst for our defense, not only on the field in his production, but really in the very beginning, when I got here," Allen said the day Scales announced his decision. "I challenged our team to make changes in their mentality and the way they prepared. He's been bought in from Day 1."
That Scales ever suited up for the Hoosiers at all was a mild surprise, given that the Cincinnati native out of Colerain High School had offers from programs such as Oklahoma, Louisville, Wisconsin and West Virginia. He liked the idea of staying close to home so his many cousins and nieces and nephews could watch him play. He also figured he could see the field right away, which he did en route to earning freshman All-America honors.
"I knew coming to Indiana that I had a chance of coming in and playing early, and I knew we were going to play against some top teams," he said. "I wanted to make a difference, make a change."
He led that effort last year as the Hoosiers' defense, which had been one of the worst in the country for several years, vaulted to 45th nationally. As a sideline-to-sideline presence, Scales perfectly fit Allen's 4-2-5 scheme that allows linebackers and safeties to run downhill and make plays. But the defense didn't funnel ball carriers specifically toward Scales.
"Not a lot, no," co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach William Inge siad. "It just ends up where he's in the right place at the right times and doing the right things. I would say it's more his preparation, his attention to detail and the will and desire to be the best.
"He's exactly what you want."
Scales likes to have fun before practice (pro tip: don't accept his wrestling challenges, as he was one of the top high school wrestlers in Ohio), but he's also become a serious leader for the Hoosiers.
"He's the lion in the room," Inge says.
That lion roars on the microphone in the mornings. If he continues to do so on the field on Saturdays, perhaps more national recognition will follow.
"It's one of those 'If they don't know, they're going to find out' types of deals," Scales said. "So I'm going to keep bringing it."
The shock may have worn off by now at Indiana. But if somehow it hasn’t, the Hoosiers have a full spring ahead of them to solidify that Tom Allen is firmly in charge. And they're hopeful he takes them the next level in the Big Ten.
Kevin Wilson’s abrupt resignation after another season that seemed to reflect progress for Indiana in the rugged East Division certainly came as a surprise, and Allen’s promotion wasn’t expected despite his impressive work rebuilding a leaky defense. But that was four months ago, with a bowl game and winter conditioning in between. Allen now gears up for a stretch of practices that will leave no doubt that Indiana is embarking on a new era.
Can he keep the momentum rolling? His opportunity has arrived.
Spring schedule: The Hoosiers open their first spring practice under Allen this weekend, and they will wrap up with a primetime Cream and Crimson game on April 13 at 7 p.m. Indiana is expected to have Jon Gruden on hand as part of the festivities as camp wraps up under the lights.
What’s new: The new guy in charge is familiar to the Hoosiers, but he’s in a new role after serving as Wilson’s defensive coordinator last season. And while that’s obviously the most notable change, the staff as a whole has undergone a fairly significant overhaul as part of the transition from the previous era. The Hoosiers will have a completely new group leading the offense, with former Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike DeBord now in charge and bringing in a few of his old proteges from his time at Michigan. He will attempt to put his stamp on what has been a high-scoring attack over the past few seasons. After Allen helped bring noticeable improvement on the other side of the ball last season, the offense will be squarely under the microscope during spring camp.
Three things we want to see:
1. Another step forward defensively: The defense was better across the board a year ago, as Allen providing a long-awaited boost. There’s still a talent discrepancy between Indiana and the powerhouses on its half of the conference, but at least defensively, it doesn’t appear to be quite as wide as it used to be. Allen appears to have brought a system that works with him to Bloomington. With a handful of veterans and one of the nation’s best undervalued defenders in Tegray Scales returning, the Hoosiers should be in position to build and grow yet again.
2. How the offense develops: DeBord didn’t always receive the most glowing praise for his work at Tennessee, and with Wilson building one of the best offenses in the Big Ten over the past few seasons, the bar is going to be high for him as he gets rolling. But he did engineer an attack that averaged more than 36 points per game, and if DeBord can manage that with the Hoosiers as the defense continues to improve, there shouldn’t be any reason to complain. Doing that with a completely new coaching staff, new playbook and terminology isn’t going to be easy, but that’s what makes spring practice so crucial for a team trying to make up ground in the East.
3. Fewer turnovers from Richard Lagow: There’s not much doubt that Lagow can be a productive passer for the Hoosiers after finishing second in the league in yards per game and throwing for more than 3,300 yards during his first campaign as a starter. But Lagow simply has to be more careful with the football after tossing 17 interceptions, which he can address in a number of ways during these key spring workouts. Familiarity with the playbook, improved decision-making and an uptick in accuracy after completing less than 58 percent of his attempts last season could all go a long way for Lagow and help the Hoosiers remain a threat offensively in the new era.
The developmental work at Position U is over, and now it's up to the scouts, coaches and general managers to sum up the work.
There's no easy way to hand out those unofficial titles for the best programs around the country or the top Big Ten school to crank out stars in specific spots on the field. How much does college production count? Is it just about churning out draft picks or how much weight should be given to production at the next level? Quality or quantity?
Sorting through those claims to the crown will have to wait another day. But based on annual invites to the NFL scouting combine which opens this week in Indianapolis, there are hints that some schools have a position that the talent scouts want to see every year -- which is at least the beginning of a claim to Position U.
This time around, here are three units with players on the market who are trying to build on a legacy.
Ohio State defensive backs: The Buckeyes have emerged as the league's current kings of the combine looking back over the last four seasons overall. And while rival Michigan actually has more overall attendees this year, once again Ohio State's loaded draft class in the secondary is in line to steal the show. Since Bradley Roby left early and became a first-round pick in 2014, the Buckeyes have sent eight cornerbacks and safeties to the combine to flash their speed, versatility and ball skills ahead of the draft. And now Malik Hooker, Gareon Conley and Marshon Lattimore are all pushing to either solidify a first-round grade or sneak into that position after earning their invitations to Indianapolis. There's not much doubt that Ohio State has stamped itself as DBU in the Big Ten recently, and this year could strengthen the claim that it has become that nationally as well.
Wisconsin offensive lineman Ryan Ramczyk: The latest blocker off the assembly line in Madison might not be ready to do much physically after undergoing offseason hip surgery, but he'll still draw plenty of attention from teams looking to shore up the protection and run blocking up front. Ramczyk can still show off his football intelligence and answer questions about his rehabilitation, and even if he hadn't emerged as a star last season, simply having ties to a program that has become a staple at the combine would likely help his case. The Badgers have a rich history producing linemen, but even just looking at a smaller time frame they've been represented at the event every year since 2011 -- with eight blockers ultimately drafted from OLU. Ramczyk is about to add to that total no matter what he can do physically at the moment.
Indiana running back Devine Redding: The tradition is undoubtedly richer at Wisconsin when it comes to running backs, and even this season it is sending a pair of rushers to the combine to add to the legacy. So that crown is probably safe with the Badgers, but the Hoosiers are at least making a strong push for short-term consideration with Redding continuing a run that started with Tevin Coleman and was followed up by Jordan Howard last year. Again, that's a small sample size and part of Indiana's case relies on how well those rushers have performed at the next level. But Redding has a chance now to build on that by going up the road from Bloomington to work out and show that he has the same kind of ability that has translated so well from Indiana's aspiring RBU on to the pros recently.
With spring practices beginning across the Big Ten, we're taking a look at some of the strengths and weaknesses that could shape the division races in 2017. Earlier this week, we examined the biggest strengths of each team in the East Division. Today, it's time for the weaknesses.
Indiana: Short-yardage offense. The Hoosiers converted only 71.4 percent of their red zone opportunities into scores in 2016 and were 121st nationally in scoring touchdowns inside the opponents' 20. Third-and-short and fourth downs were also a problem. New head coach Tom Allen has made fixing this a priority this spring.
Maryland: Pass protection. The Terrapins were more like turnstiles when it came to keeping defenders off their quarterback in 2016. Maryland surrendered an unconscionable 49 sacks in 13 games, more than all but one team in the FBS. The program is making strides under D.J. Durkin but won't go very far until that number improves substantially.
Michigan: Running the ball against good opponents. The Wolverines' 2016 rushing stats look good on paper. But they piled up a lot of yards against inferior teams. When Michigan absolutely needed to run the ball against outstanding defenses last year, it often stalled. See the 2.5 yards per carry against Florida State, the 2.1 ypc vs. Ohio State and the 2.8 vs. Iowa -- not coincidentally, all losses. The offensive line needs to get stronger in order to stand up against the best defenses on the schedule.
Michigan State: The pass rush. The Spartans managed just 11 total sacks in 12 games a year ago, the fewest of any Power 5 team. And that was with Malik McDowell in the lineup for much of the year. Mark Dantonio turned to playing several freshmen and sophomores on the defensive line late in the season, which could speed their development for this fall. But if Michigan State can't put pressure on the quarterback, the rest of its defense will continue to be ineffective.
Ohio State: The downfield passing game. J.T. Barrett struggled to get the ball to his receivers in the vertical passing game last year, as the Buckeyes averaged just 6.8 yards per pass attempt (88th in the FBS). New offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson and quarterbacks coach Ryan Day were brought in to fix the passing issues, and Barrett will need to build chemistry this spring with a fleet of young wideouts.
Penn State: Third-down conversions. There's not much to complain about from the 2016 Nittany Lions' season, though third downs were strangely troubling for much of the year. Penn State converted just 32.6 percent of its third downs last year and was just 7-of-20 on third downs against Wisconsin and USC. With Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley back, there's no good reason for that to continue in 2017.
Rutgers: Quarterback play. We could go a number of different ways here after the Scarlet Knights' disastrous 2-10 campaign. No unit is blameless. But a lack of playmaking ability behind center was a chief culprit in why Rutgers averaged just 9.9 points per game against Power 5 opponents and was shut out four times. Job one for new offensive coordinator Jerry Kill is to find a quarterback who can move the offense.
With spring practices beginning across the Big Ten, we're taking a look at some of the key players and position groups that could shape the division races in 2017. Today, we'll examine the biggest strengths of each team in each division. Check back Thursday for a look at each team's biggest weakness.
Here's a look at the East:
Indiana: The back seven. Yes, the Hoosiers are best known for their offensive prowess, but their biggest strength might actually lie on the other side of the ball. Tegray Scales is back to lead the linebacker group after finishing with an FBS-best 23.5 tackles for loss last season. Marcelino Ball is also a force as a hybrid defensive back after recording 75 tackles as a true freshman. Throw in returning veterans and head coach Tom Allen's 4-2-5 scheme, and this might be the basis for Indiana's success in 2017.
Maryland: The running backs. The Terrapins quietly finished fourth in the Big Ten in rushing last season at nearly 200 yards per game. The potential is there for more in 2017. Ty Johnson ran for 1,004 yards on an insane 9.1 yards per carry as a sophomore. He'll be rejoined by Lorenzo Harrison, who averaged 7.2 yards per carry in nine games before earning a suspension. Maryland is bursting with big playmakers in the backfield.
Michigan: Quarterback depth. After losing a boatload of valuable seniors and sending 14 players to the NFL combine, the Wolverines have question marks going into the spring. Quarterback isn't really one of them. Wilton Speight played well in his first year as a starter, completing 61.6 percent of his passes and finishing with an 18-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He has a big edge to keep the job, but he also has talented youngsters Brandon Peters and incoming freshman Dylan McCaffrey behind him, along with veteran John O'Korn.
Michigan State: The linebacker group. Despite the loss of leader Riley Bullough, the Spartans should be able to count on this position group as an anchor in 2017. Jon Reschke and Chris Frey have lots of experience, and Andrew Dowell is on the rise. Yet another Bullough brother, Byron, will be pushing for playing time as well.
Ohio State: The pass-rush. Nick Bosa would start for just about any team in the Big Ten, and quite likely in America. But his playing time is in question for the Buckeyes, who bring back starting defensive ends Tyquan Lewis -- the league's defensive lineman of the year in 2016 -- and Sam Hubbard. That's a crazy amount of talent coming off the edge, and it doesn't even include senior Jalyn Holmes or blue-chip signee Chase Young.
Penn State: The offensive backfield. Running back Saquon Barkley and quarterback Trace McSorley ranked 1-2 in our list of the top 25 returning Big Ten players last month. So it's kind of a nice advantage to have them in the same backfield, and it makes the Nittany Lions' run-pass option plays even more devastating. Miles Sanders is an excellent backup choice and change-of-pace guy behind Barkley, too.
Rutgers: The kick-return game. So the Scarlet Knights didn't have any discernible strengths during a miserable 2016 campaign, but at least Janarion Grant is back after suffering a season-ending injury early last fall. Assuming he's healthy, he should reclaim his reputation as one of the top return men in the country. He has eight career combined kick and punt return scores, tied for the most in FBS history.
The 2017 season is still several months away. But we never stop looking forward here at the Big Ten blog.
It might be ridiculously early, but we’re examining what will be the must-win game and the potential trap game for each league team this fall. Up next: the Indiana Hoosiers.
Must-win game: Oct. 28 at Maryland. As new head coach Tom Allen looks over the schedule for his first year running the Indiana program, there should be five games that make him feel pretty good about coming away with wins (FIU, Georgia Southern, Illinois, Rutgers and Purdue). There are a handful of good opportunities to bump that total to six and match the efforts of his predecessor Kevin Wilson in the last two years. Maryland (a 32-26 win for the Hoosiers last year) is on that list. A victory over the Terps also would bring the added benefit of helping the Hoosiers maintain their status as a step above the Big Ten newcomers in the East Division despite being in a transition year with a first-time college head coach. In what should be a fairly even matchup, Indiana has to show it isn’t taking a step back.
Trap game: Nov. 11 at Illinois. Among the list of opponents that should make Allen feel comfortable, the Fighting Illini might be those dangerous because of where they fall on the schedule. Going on the road after hosting Wisconsin the previous week could produce a weary roster for the Hoosiers in what would be their fifth straight weekend with a Big Ten game. Illinois coach Lovie Smith will have had the majority of a second season in Champaign to get his defense up to speed. If the game turns into a low-scoring battle, one or two mistakes could end up costing the Hoosiers. A loss might mean sweating out bowl hopes through the season finale at Purdue.