No team in college football underscored the importance of defensive play more than the Indiana Hoosiers in 2013. A high powered offense that averaged 508.5 yards per game and 38.4 points per game (No. 9 and No. 16 in college football, respectively) was undone by a defense that allowed a Big Ten worst 527.9 yards per game and 38.8 points per game. The Hoosiers ultimately went just 5-7 and missed out on the postseason yet again.
Head coach Kevin Wilson made some changes in his coaching staff this offseason and brought in a new defensive coordinator and defensive philosophy to continue his rebuilding effort at Indiana. The Hoosiers return a lot of players from the 2013 squad (though whether that’s good or bad remains to be seen) and will be working on transitioning from a 4-3 to a 3-4 this fall. Can the defense step up and get Indiana bowling in 2014?
Indiana was one of the few teams in the country last season who were able to make a two-quarterback system work. Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson split time in 2013 with Sudfeld throwing for 2,523 yards and 21 touchdowns and nine interceptions while completing 60.2 percent of his passes. The more athletic Roberson was no slouch either, throwing for 1,128 yards and 15 touchdowns to four interceptions while completing 60.1 percent of his passes. He also rushed for 423 yards and five touchdowns while taking fewer sacks than Sudfeld.
That varying styles helped both quarterbacks find a role in the high-powered Indiana attack last year and could keep both of them in the mix for reps in 2014 as well. There was very little separation between the two during spring practices that would indicate one taking control over the position for this fall. That likely means another dual-quarterback offense for the Hoosiers next season, though that seemed to work quite well for them in 2013.
Whoever is under center, though, will have the talents of one of the nation’s most explosive runners at their disposal with Tevin Coleman returning in the running game. Last season, Coleman was dynamic with the ball in his hands, averaging 7.3 yards per carry while rushing for 958 yards and 12 touchdowns. His speed makes him a home-run threat every time he breaks into the second level of the defense as he has the ability to pull away from just about any safety in the Big Ten.
The receiving corps will undergo quite a bit of turnover as four of the top five pass-catchers from 2013 are now gone from the program. Senior Shane Wynn is the team’s leading returning pass-catcher after recording 46 catches for 633 yards and a team-high 11 touchdowns in 2013. He’s joined by fellow seniors Nick Stoner and Isaiah Roundtree, whose experience in the program will hopefully offset their lack of production. Last season, the duo combined for just 26 catches for 362 yards and two touchdowns.
Another concern for the receiving corps is an overall lack of height. Wynn (5-foot-7), Stoner (6-foot-1), and Roundtree (5-foot-11) lack the size to go up and fight for passes, particularly in the redzone. Last season, the role of big-bodied pass-catcher was filled by 6-foot-6 tight end Ted Bolser who wrapped up his senior season with 35 catches for 320 yards and six touchdowns.
Look for Indiana to get tight ends involved again in 2014 with sophomore Danny Friend (6-foot-5) and freshman Jordan Fuchs (6-foot-6) getting some hard looks despite never catching a pass between them heading into 2014.
But as Indiana learned last season, no amount of offense can overcome horrendous defense. The Hoosiers need a lot more out of their D in 2014 if they hope to get bowl eligible and it starts up front. One of the keys to making the switch to a 3-4 defensive alignment is having the size in the defensive line to hold up against opposing offensive linemen and allow the linebackers to roam free. Indiana has some serious beef up front led by senior defensive end Bobby Richardson, who recorded 29.5 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss last season.
The linebackers will be asked to do a lot more this season and will have the depth to get it done. Indiana will welcome back the top seven tackling linebackers from 2013 led by inside linebacker David Cooper. The senior will be asked to lead the unit after recording 68.5 tackles, including six tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks, in 2013. Another name to watch is converted defensive end Nick Mangieri who will be playing outside linebacker in 2014. He finished second on the team last season with three sacks and has the length at 6-foot-5 to be disruptive off the edge.
In the secondary, Indiana gets three of four starters back in 2014 but will be hoping for them to be less active this fall. Last season, three of the top four tacklers on the team were in the secondary, meaning that the tackles were happening much further downfield than the team would like. Still, they have excellent experience as a group, led by senior safety Mark Murphy, who recorded 67.5 tackles with an interception, and cornerback Tim Bennett, who had 67 tackles, an interception, and a nation-leading 20 pass breakups in 2013.
While the Hoosiers are most likely going to be a much better team on the field, a brutal schedule might keep them from making it to a bowl game in 2014. Their home schedule is manageable with only the Michigan State Spartans posing a major challenge, but their road schedule is gruesome and will seriously test how mentally tough the Hoosiers are this season.
In non-conference play, Indianan takes on the defending MAC champion Bowling Green Falcons and SEC East champion Missouri Tigers on the road in back-to-back weeks this September. In conference play, the Hoosiers hit the road to take on the Iowa Hawkeyes, Michigan Wolverines, Rutgers Scarlet Knights and Ohio State Buckeyes, creating the possibility for an 0-6 record away from home for Indiana this season.
If Indiana can get marginal improvement out of their defense and still a game or two on the road, this should be a bowl team in 2014. Even if they don’t, the Hoosier offense will be one of the most exciting groups to watch this fall. Look for Indiana to win anywhere from five to seven games this season and possibly play in just their second bowl game in the last decade.