Indiana football: Defensive line leaders understand urgency

It's the one position group on defense where several unproven players are battling for playing time.

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Ever since Tom Allen arrived on campus at Indiana, the Hoosiers’ defense has continued to impress. That’s a rapid departure from previous teams through the years.

IU’s goal under Allen is to always be a top-25 defense, to play aggressive and make big plays. In their quest for a winning season and decent bowl game in 2019, it’s going to be on the defense to continue to get better.

To do so, it’s the defense line that’s going to have to set the tone. It’s the one position group on that side of the ball that plenty of question marks — and unanswered question. They have to have guys step up in that crowded room and become dominant players.

Is it a concern? Absolutely, Allen said Monday after the Hoosiers’ fourth practice of fall camp. So much so, that he practically cut off the question before it was over to answer it.

“Absolutely, yes. They have to,’’ said Allen, who’s starting his third full season as the Hoosiers’ head coach. “We have to establish a defensive line that can win Big Ten football games.’’

Defensive line coach Mark Hagan knows there is plenty of talent in his room, but a lot of it is young and still unproven.

“There are always concerns. If you look at the 10 guys who had 20-plus plays a game last year, six or seven of them are gone,’’ Hagan said. I’m a guy who likes to play a lot of people. Yeah, I’m glad we have guys, but who are the next five or six guys who step up and are able to play for us?''

That’s happening every day so far in this first week of practices. Every play matters in these competitions, and coaches see it on the field — and later in breaking down film.

“We’re looking for a high compete factor on every snap,’’ Hagan said. “You’re competing in a one-on-one situation on every play, and you’re either doing your job or you’re getting blocked. If you lose a play, you come back and fight on the next play.’’

Several of the new guys have impressed, most notably Demarcus Elliott, a 6-foot-3, 328-pound sophomore who’s a junior college transfer, and Sio Nofoagatoto’a, a freshman from Clearwater, Fla.

“I like what Demarcus Elliott has done,’’ Hagan said. “He’s come in and done a good job and Sio has come and is learning the position. We have excellent competition there. DMac is a high, high, high effort guy. He’s just relentless in how he plays and just keeps on coming. I just love how he gets after it.’’

Leadership is critical among this group, where the young guys will need to be brought along quickly. That’s where guys like senior Gavin Everett and sophomore James Head are stepping up. They’re the verbal leaders of this group, spearheading what has been an important leadership message across the entire roster all summer.

“I felt like we weren’t getting enough out of that,’’ Allen said. “So we started a leadership council with 20 guys, and the timing was right for that. We were very purposeful in teaching them how to lead. We went over specifiic situations, and they did a good job of that over the summer. They’ve been owning their position rooms, and it’s been a real strong point of emphasis.

“We challenged them that leading by example isn’t good enough. They’ve seen it. We had good players, great guys,, but they weren’t verbal leaders. The guys now, for them leadership is about confronting guys, encouraging guys, and taking it personal. These upperclassmen have embraced it.’’

The Hoosiers will play plenty of guys along the line, but stars need to shine, too.

“There’s a lot of guys, and they all want to play. The film will be the determining factor,’’ Allen said. “I’ll be anxious to see guys rise to the top. I think Sio, a guy who comes in as a true freshman, has been impressive. C.J. Person, too. Bo Robbins has done some nice things, too.

James Head and Gavin Everett have been leaders. Everett, a former walk-on, “has a passion for this,’’ Allen said. “James too, those two guys have led in that room, and it shows up on the field.’’

Hagen concurs.

“James and Gavin have grown a lot (as leaders),’’ he said. “It’s probably easier for Gavin because he’s been around. James isn’t quite as vocal as Gavin but it’s night and day compared to where he was last year. James is driven, but it’s just a quiet inner strength that he brings to the field. When you look at his high school video, you’d see him get excited after a lot of plays.

“We need that.’’

Practice notes

Watching the QBs: All eyes are on the three-team battle at quarterback between incumbent Peyton Ramsey and youngsters Michael Penix Jr, and Jake Tuttle. Allen was happy with all three on Monday.

“Peyton showed great poise there at the end in two-minute, and Michael and Jack made good throws. Each of them did some good things. Overall, they all protected the ball pretty well.’’

Putting the pads on: Tuesday’s practice, the fifth of the fall, will be the first in full pads. Everyone is looking forward to that.

 “I can’t wait to go full pads tomorrow,’’ Indiana defensive end James Head said.

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