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Indiana Football 2018 Preview: Defensive Line

When the Hoosiers officially break camp today, they’ll do so with a full 110-man roster. On the front line of IU’s defense, the Hoosiers return just two starters from last year’s group in the front seven, linebacker Raekwon Jones and 6-foot-4, 290-pound defensive tackle Jacob Robinson. Indiana replaces eight total men on defense headed into 2018.

“I think it’s huge, and sometimes it gets lost in the numbers when you talk about how many guys are left,” Head Coach Tom Allen said at Thursday’s media day. “There is no question we lost some really good players that are going to be hard to replace.”

Indiana has rising potential on the offensive line, whereas the big men on the defense are just beginning to build everything back up will need to keep up with the same pace. The expectations will remain the same — incredibly high and production from the defensive line is imperative in 2018. Let’s take a stab at how it’s all about to shake out.

While depth does not lack on the defensive line, raw number of reps in Big Ten action do. To begin camp, three linemen have an abundance of experience and nine linemen on the roster have yet to play a live snap at the collegiate level. But that all could change pretty fast into 2018, as Allen will look to utilize the young depth he has at his disposal. 

“I don’t think it’ll be much different than what we’ve been doing,” Robinson said at Big Ten media days this summer. “We’ve had a lot of guys ready to play and Coach Hagan does a great job of doing that for us, making sure we’re ready and have enough bodies. We’ll rotate and have fresh guys out there.”

With the departures of so many on the IU defense at the conclusion of last season, Robinson will need to fill up the holes left open as the leader up front after recording seven tackles for loss, four sacks, and a forced fumble in 2017.

Robinson’s leadership over this group will be necessary. He’s never been Indiana’s spotlight guy on the defense, but his veteran presence, especially in regard to leading a young and perhaps experienced group, cannot be undersold.

“The way [Head Strength & Conditioning Coach] Ballou goes about things, he tries to put you under so much stress to where he wants to make you try to tap out and quit,” Robinson said. “Having that pressure on you every single day really translates to your mindset going out to play football games — where we need to finish and where we came up short last year. We now expect to do those things.”

What Robinson and the rest of the defensive line is capable of in terms of production has yet to be seen. The majority of that production may just come from another experienced man upfront, grad transfer defensive tackle Kayton Samuels.

Samuels comes to Bloomington via Syracuse and may be IU’s biggest physical presence. Standing tall at 6-foot, weighing 319 pounds, he started 24 games, with 34 total appearances, over three seasons for the Orange in the ACC. He collected 44 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss over his time in New York.

“This past journey has been a stressful one for me,” Samuels wrote on Instagram announcing his transfer to Indiana. “Felt like I lost myself without the game. I’m even more grateful for it now. I’m extremely happy to say I’m BACK and I’M BETTER!”

What Robinson is capable of being in the locker room, Samuels can match, if not surpass, on the field. If Robinson can take care of mentoring a young group with great potential, Samuels can pitch in and help with the heavy lifting on the field as the big body in the middle. It might just be the most underrated but effective one-two punch the Hoosiers have to throw at the rest of the Big Ten this year. For a group that has worked in the past by committee, Samuels has the opportunity to not only boost the depth but also become a mainstay, shoring up the defense in 2018 on the front line.

“We always need guys on the defensive line to help us and he’s just another body that will definitely contribute,” Robinson said. “I like how he’s just put his head down and worked since he’s been here and I’m excited for fall camp with him.”

The third and final major piece to Indiana’s D-line puzzle in 2018 comes from someone who missed all of 2017, but has assured Hoosier fans he’ll make an immediate impact when September 1st comes, 5th year man Nile Sykes. 

Sykes name seemed to float around more than any other during Big Ten media days in Chicago, after weightlifting injury to the knee caused him to miss all of last season. He’s now poised for a big time return to playing every Saturday. Frankly, he needs to be as good as he’s been hyped up to be in order to support the D-line which has been left with no choice but to show out this season, after losing nearly all of the top talent.

“I feel great,” Sykes said on Thursday. “I was really impressed with [Athletic Performance Coach] Dr. Rhea and Coach Ballou. I’m as strong as I’ve ever been and I’m ready to show it on the field.”

Sykes is crucial for Indiana this season off the end of the line, rushing the passer as quite possibly Indiana’s speediest defender. Originally coming to Bloomington via transfer from Notre Dame prior to the 2014 season (redshirted), he was a flat-out tank for the Hoosier defense in 2016. Prior to the injury, Sykes played in all 13 games during the 2016 campaign, totaling five sacks, seven tackles for loss, plus a fumble recovery. Expect those numbers to rise this fall.

“Nile’s a guy that helps us with experience and his play on the field is top notch,” Robinson said. “Playing next to him, I love it. He’s a guy that’s going to give you production and make a lot of plays for us so I’m excited to have him back.”

Jacob Robinson can tackle all day. Nile Sykes can run knows how to get off the line. While his impact in Bloomington has yet to be evaluated, Kayton Samuels’ presence alone cannot go unnoticed. Beyond the three, look to junior Allen Stallings (3 sacks, 5.5 tackles for loss), redshirt senior Mike Barwick (2 sacks), and rising sophomore Michael Ziemba to fill in some of the gaps.

The task of getting Indiana’s defense to click on all cylinders this season won’t be an easy one. A quick glance at the current lineup might not exactly scream “Big Ten caliber” just yet, but it’s on the way. If this group of Hoosiers in particular can avoid injury bug, all too common in Bloomington, then perhaps a few leaders have an opportunity to emerge, making 2018 a year of progress up front.

Connor Hines

I am a freshman from San Diego, California majoring in Media. Outside of my work with The Hoosier Network, I broadcast games for WIUX student radio and serve as beat reporter for Indiana Softball. Email me at cohines@umail.iu.edu and follow me on Twitter @connorhines17.

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