Only a couple of months removed from a condensed, action-packed season, Indiana coach Tom Allen is grateful for a gift that spring practice provides.
“I love spring ball because when you get in the season, you’re always getting ready for a game, so you have that deadline, it kind of drives things and makes you go through things at a certain tempo,” Allen said. “Here, you have a lot of time to teach, a lot of time to go through and be very, very thorough on your fundamentals and technique and the things we believe separate us.”
That time is something the Hoosiers didn’t quite get in 2020, because, like every college football team, their spring practices were cut short by a pandemic. IU managed well enough, tying a program record with six conference wins, earning a berth to yet another post-New Year’s Eve bowl.
But, undoubtedly, valuable time was lost last spring, especially for younger players who were trying to work their way up the depth chart. Summer training was altered, taking away IU’s first opportunity to fully maximize the resources strength coach Aaron Wellman could bring to the table. There was less time to build depth, less time to build scheme, less time to drill down on technique — all things Allen wants to focus on this time around.
Everything isn’t completely back to normal. IU’s athletes and staff are still being tested for COVID-19. Coaches will still be wearing masks on the field. But at least the Hoosiers have that time on the field. Some goals are still on the table, including winning that last game of the season. Allen has identified “chase” as the program’s motto for 2021, and that chase begins now.
“Looking forward to just getting back on the field with our guys,” Allen said. “A lot of guys back from the 2020 season, as you know. Anxious to see these guys run around a little bit.”
That goes for both coaches and players. IU brings in some new pieces, including grad transfers in defensive end Ryder Anderson (Ole Miss) and receiver D.J. Matthews (Florida State). But there is also a new defensive coordinator, Charlton Warren, as well as the return of running backs coach Deland McCullough.
The latter two will add new voices to the mix. Allen has never coached with Warren, who was a defensive coordinator at Air Force before becoming a secondary coach for Nebraska, North Carolina, Tennessee, Florida, and Georgia. Warren has a reputation as someone who can be heard from a field away at practice.
“Just love his leadership style, love his organization. Attention to detail is very, very high-level, and very meticulous, which is what I love,” Allen said. “Anxious to see him out there, holding the guys accountable, seeing his energy at practice. I know he’s going to have that.”
Those two assistants aren’t the only changes to the staff. Allen announced Monday that special teams coordinator Kasey Teegardin, who has coached the hybrid “husky” position, has added the “bull” position to his duties, as well. Last season, IU moved linebacker D.K. Bonhomme to that spot as essentially an outside linebacker in IU’s 4-2-5 front. Bonhomme, Lance Bryant, and Michael Ziemba are listed as outside linebackers on the roster, as well, cementing a significant change to Allen’s defense.
Rather than just having two hand-in-the-dirt defensive ends, IU will employ a hybrid linebacker/defensive end at “bull,” and Teegardin will be their coach. The bull position, much like the husky, could allow the Hoosiers to not only recruit some versatile athletes for the position but also develop players who will be attractive to NFL teams.
“The way I look at it, a guy who can play that position, when he goes to be drafted, all 32 teams can evaluate that young man,” Allen said. “Whether you’re in a three-down or four-down look, that guy is going to have the skillset to do both of those things. It’s like anything else, when you’re trying to envision what you’re building or your team, it’s not just about ‘Let’s do what’s best for us to win games now, but how can we recruit the best players to play certain positions?’
“That’s the growth of that position, as we try to be able to help us on our team, as well as go recruit guys to go fit that role.”
In another staff move, Allen also announced longtime cornerbacks coach Brandon Shelby has gained the title of assistant head coach.
That’s not an insignificant title. Along with McCullough, who is the associate head coach, Allen now has a cadre of assistants who can help him lead the team. Both Shelby and McCullough want to be head coaches at some point.
“I really need his help and support to get the pulse of our team and being a great voice to our players and understanding situations off the field, even on the field, even things in the facility-wise, giving me a great temperature and pulse of our team,” Allen said of Shelby. “It’s like everything we do here, we’re all in this together.”
Position of strength?
Coming into spring practice, Allen was asked to list positions he considered a strength or a weakness.
He pinpointed the three-technique defensive tackle spot as one place where there should be intense competition, given seniors Jerome Johnson and Jovan Swann have moved on. Part of the reason Caleb Murphy (tight end) and Gavin McCabe (offensive line) have moved back to the defensive side is to improve the Hoosiers’ depth up front.
Allen also wants to see IU’s younger receivers step up. Even if Ty Fryfogle and Miles Marshall are back, and Matthews has arrived, there is a large group of freshmen and sophomores who need to fortify IU’s depth there.
But when listing strengths, Allen had an interesting answer. Behind the secondary and the linebacker corps, which both return a ton of experience, Allen added the offensive line as a top group. IU had issues up front last season, either establishing the run or protecting Michael Penix Jr. consistently.
But with the only departure being center Harry Crider, the Hoosiers do return experience on the offensive line, including three game-tested tackles in Matthew Bedford, Caleb Jones, and Luke Haggard. Allen says the line will lift three days a week during the spring, which will give them a chance to mature even more.
“I think the offensive line has a chance to be one of our strengths on offense,” Allen said. “So just really excited about their development in the weight room these past several weeks and their future development.”
Just looking at IU’s online roster, one noticeable change is Haggard’s weight. The former junior college offensive lineman, who arrived at IU at around 260 pounds, now stands 6-foot-7, 291 pounds.
As practice gets underway, Allen addressed the availability of cornerback Jaylin Williams, who faces charges of operating while intoxicated and endangerment following an arrest last month.
Allen said Williams will participate in spring practice as the legal process plays itself out. Williams registered a blood alcohol content of .126 following his arrest on Feb. 6, according to police records, and he has a pretrial conference scheduled for April 6.
“At this point, he’ll still be with us and doing things with the team and that’s not changed,” Allen said. “But still don’t have a final verdict on all the things the court system brings back to us. We’re working through that together with him.”