There are clear preseason strengths on this Indiana team. Strengths that rival even the Big Ten’s most dominant programs. One of which is receiver, another strength likely being offensive line. But the Hoosiers’ secondary takes the cake as far as preseason expectations are concerned. Injuries absolutely decimated this position group a year ago: Husky Marcelino Ball was lost for the season after three games and received a medical redshirt. Cornerback A’Shon Riggins was only healthy for six. Even Rashard Fant missed a game at defensive back..
While Fant’s gone to graduation, Ball returns as a redshirt sophomore and Riggins is set for his junior season. There’s more coming back, of course. Senior safety Jonathan Crawford has played in all 38 games since his 2015 freshman season — while redshirt junior Andre Brown Jr. will work alongside Riggins at cornerback, having started ten games there a year ago.
This is a defense that was the nation’s 26th-best in defensive S&P+, despite a rather underwhelming 5-7 campaign in 2017. Takeaways were Tom Allen’s focus last year, and will likely continue again after the Hoosiers averaged just 1.2 takeaways a game — good for 99th in the country. Fant was a shutdown corner, but not necessarily the biggest interception threat. Despite being a top-20 defense in sacks, the Hoosiers totaled five picks all season. The Big Ten average was 11.4, and Indiana finished last.
In short, Indiana’s 2017 secondary defense was sound, disciplined, and effective. But it didn’t produce many game-changing plays. There are valid reasons for this, of course, as takeaways or not, IU’s defense almost always did its job. But the Hoosiers have questions at linebacker and graduate 64 percent of its sacks from 2017. And with only three interceptions coming from IU’s secondary last year, the Hoosiers very well might need more explosive plays from the likes of Ball, Riggins, Brown, and Crawford in 2018.
There’s reason for optimism in that department, though. As alluded to earlier, Ball and Riggins barely even had the chance to make explosive plays due to serious injuries. Ball is an explosive player, there’s a reason he made 247Sports’ True Freshman All-American team in 2016, and growing optimism that he’ll shoot up NFL draft boards in due time. The Georgia native snagged two interceptions as a freshman, and was seemingly always near the ball. Allen must be ecstatic imagining a full season of Marcelino Ball as a redshirt sophomore — because a healthy Ball at Husky changes the entire dynamic of Indiana’s ability to put its offense back on the field.
Crawford enters his senior season as the current IU leader in tackles (209), pass breakups (16), interceptions (eight), fumble recoveries (five), forced fumbles (two), and more. He had a very solid junior season, but only produced a single takeaway — picking off Penn State’s Trace McSorley to get IU back in the game, temporarily. In the takeaway department, it’s likely smart to label Crawford’s junior season as an outlier. The 6-foot-2 Florida native led the Hoosiers in interceptions as a freshman and sophomore, and has the speed, instinct, and sheer athletic ability to lead IU yet again in that department.
There will be times this season when Rashard Fant’s shutdown ability will be sorely missed. Fant did that for years, almost always against the opposition’s top wideout despite a likely height mismatch. But Riggins and Brown are well equipt to fill Fant’s shoes, if not more. Brown’s been an interesting story in Bloomington — suffering season-ending injuries in both his freshman and sophomore seasons, but played pretty valiantly as a sophomore last year. He’s arguably the most crucial member of IU’s secondary, as despite a small sample size (20 games), Brown’s still on the hunt for his first interception. There’s more to life as a cornerback than interceptions, of course. But it’s likely something the Hoosiers will need to help its offense out. Riggins, meanwhile, is experienced as you can be as a junior cornerback in the Big Ten. The 6-foot Ohio native started as a freshman and figured to be an explosive threat last season, but injuries derailed half his season. There’s a lot to like with Brown and Riggins, as long as both stay healthy.
And lastly, this position group features serious depth. Redshirt freshman Bryant Fitzgerald is poised for a breakout first season at free safety/husky and Allen pegs him as the Hoosiers’ next secondary star. Junior safety Khalil Bryant has played in 22 games thus far and should fill a valuable depth role in 2018. And at cornerback, sophomore Raheem Layne will play right behind Riggins and Brown, after being named IU’s Defensive Newcomer of the Year and playing in all 12 games as a freshman. Redshirt freshman Juwan Burgess and converted wideout Isaac James are also in the mix, especially if IU suffers injuries similar to last season.