Tom Allen’s Hoosiers know what they’ll be getting from a few position groups in 2018. Indiana will likely rely on its proven secondary, cohesive offensive line, and experienced skill players at receiver and running back. Linebacker, quite simply, isn’t one of those areas on paper yet.
Tegray Scales, a second-team All-American in 2016 and one of the best players in recent program history, has graduated and is fighting for a spot on the Los Angeles Rams. Chris Covington was an honorable mention All-Big Ten performer and the IU Defensive Player of the Year in 2017. He’s with the Dallas Cowboys now.
Simply put, neither Scales or Covington are easily replaceable. But with a defensive-minded head coach in Tom Allen at the helm, the Hoosiers have options and proven development tactics to solidify the position in 2018. Those options, though, are unproven.
Known commodities are few and far between at linebacker this season. Dameon Willis Jr. is perhaps the only one. Having participated in senior day festivities in 2017, Willis appeared to be off to the NFL. Instead he’ll be an obvious favorite to start. The redshirt-senior has played in 35 games in his four years in Bloomington and comes off a 27-tackle campaign.
“Back in ’14 those guys, such as Tegray, [Covington], we had a goal of changing the culture here,” Willis recalled. “And I think this year, this is the turning year that I want to be a part of as one of the Last of the Mohicans.”
Complementing Willis should be Georgia Tech transfer T.D. Roof. As far as second-year players go, the sophomore brings a wealth of experience from Atlanta. Roof played in 11 games last season with the Yellow Jackets and totaled 17 tackles, two sacks and a quarterback hurry. He also has the pedigree. His father, Ted, is a 31-year college coaching veteran and currently serves as the associate head coach and co-defensive coordinator at N.C. State. Further, Roof’s twin brother Mic is a quarterback at Charlotte.
Not originally expected to be eligible in 2018, the IU compliance staff worked with Georgia Tech and the NCAA to get Roof on the field this year.
“I feel like his strength is his burst to the football and ability to finish,” Allen said. “So that’ll show up here once we get pads on.”
Behind Covington and Roof, things get a little more complicated. Michael McGinnis, a JUCO transfer in 2017 and the only senior linebacker aside from Willis, played in 11 games last season but recorded just seven tackles. The head coach’s son, Thomas Allen, has shown flashes in spring ball and training camp.
Redshirt junior Reakwon Jones has appeared in 21 games in his two years of action, though mostly on special teams. A former high school defensive back and linebacker, his speed should help on the outside.
Mo Burnham, a redshirt freshman out of Georgia, was the No. 23 inside linebacker in ESPN’s class of 2016 rankings and should help shore up the middle of the defense depth-wise. True freshmen Micah McFadden and James Miller are two names that Allen has mentioned as play makers lately. At 6-2, 224 lbs, Miller chose Indiana over Florida State and was a heralded recruit in this season’s class.
Aside from quarterback, linebacker brings the most uncertainty of any position for the Hoosiers in 2018. Willis will anchor the group. Roof should be a solid complement. Behind them, question marks remain.
If new linebackers coach Kane Wommack and Willis can expedite the learning curve with this youthful group, Tom Allen stands to have plenty of playmakers in the middle of the defense. If not, Indiana’s linebackers could cause a major defensive setback — particularly in the running game against national talents in Michigan State’s L.J. Scott, Ohio State’s JK Dobbins, Minnesota’s Rodney Smith, and so forth.
“We’re very young but very eager,” Willis said. “With Mike McGinnis, Thomas Allen, Jr., Reakwon Jones, Mo Burnham, plenty of guys that are going to contribute. And as a guy that’s going to help play the bridge between those guys to continue how we play linebacker here it’s important for me to bring those guys along with urgency.”