When he was a 26-year-old defensive coordinator at Eastern Illinois, Kane Wommack thought he was ready. He thought he had arrived.
At the FCS level, his 2015 defense ranked second in the nation in interceptions, third in takeaways, and fourth in pass efficiency defense. Eastern Illinois made the FCS playoffs in his second season there, and Wommack decided to leave for South Alabama — where he became the youngest defensive coordinator in FBS. For two seasons in Mobile, the Jaguars’ defense was one of the nation’s most improved.
Wommack is 31 years old now, and feels much more prepared as a coordinator than he did five years ago in Charleston, Illinois. He linked up with Tom Allen as IU’s linebackers coach last season and now has inherited the role of defensive coordinator for 2019. He knows what he wants to do in Bloomington.
“From an organization standpoint, I know exactly what I want off the field, what we want on the field,” Wommack said. “There’s very little talking it through, like ‘hey this is how we have to do this, and how we have to do that.’ That transition’s even less because we’ve already done a lot of the same things for the last three years. I thought when I was a defensive coordinator at Eastern Illinois at 26 years old, I was like ‘Man, I’m ready, I’ve arrived.’ It so happens that the next year I became a better coordinator and a better coordinator after that.”
In late December, Wommack was announced as Indiana’s next defensive coordinator. Even as head coach, Allen had led the defense ever since 2016. It was a difficult decision for Allen to give it away, considering his sheer passion and historic turnaround for Indiana’s defense. But IU’s head coach seems at peace with the change and found a familiar face in Wommack to serve as his heir. There is a substantial level of comfort between Allen and Wommack, as the two coaches overlapped under Wommack’s father at Ole Miss from 2012-13.
The Hoosiers opened spring practice on Saturday and have now held two practices. Following Sunday’s session, Allen praised Wommack’s ability at communicating direction and maintaining the defensive energy that was established when Allen held the title. There are differences, of course, between coaching styles. Allen says Wommack has a different way of motivating the performance and effort of his players.
“I think he’s done a really good job, but like you said it’s very early and it’s hard to tell with some of those things,” Allen said. “I have zero concerns about what we’re doing. I’m still involved with that, I still feel like. Other than just me telling them what call their going to make, that’s the only thing I feel a little bit different.
For Allen, dropping the defensive coordinator duties has allowed him to spend more time as Indiana’s head coach. His day-to-day involvement in recruiting has increased substantially, such as taking photos and spending time with IU’s 2020 recruits this offseason. Allen is also spending more time in offensive meetings and overseeing the program as a whole. For the past two seasons, there were only so many hours in the day for Allen to serve as both head coach and defensive coordinator.
“In regards to being able to oversee everything better, it’s been more time on offense,” Allen said. “I spent time in offensive meetings, which I really haven’t done much of in the past. So I like that, and being able to get my personality there. It’s more mindset and intensity of why we do what we do. It’s accountability for our guys. I want to do a great job of that as the head coach.”
Indiana’s defense is Allen’s brainchild, and for as long as he remains in Bloomington, it always will be. He was hired by Kevin Wilson to systematically fix IU’s defense, and he did just that. Out of 125 FBS teams in total defense, the Hoosiers were 121st in 2015 under Brian Knorr, allowing 510 yards per game. In 2016 under Allen, they were 45th. In 2017, they were 27th, allowing 340 yards per game. Allen continues to work towards his goal of a top-25 defense.
There will always be some sort of connection between Allen and IU’s defense, but it is Wommack’s turn to call the plays and carry the defensive torch. Both Allen and Wommack mentioned the improved speed and experience of this Hoosier defense, two qualities that could limit the lapses suffered in 2018. There have also been position changes. After playing husky as Marcelino Ball’s backup, Cam Jones is being moved to safety in order to utilize his ball-hawking ability and increase his playing time. Indiana is excited about its secondary speed, specifically Juwan Burgess (sophomore), Bryant Fitzgerald (sophomore), and Noah Pierre (freshman).
“I think it part of it is confidence because they’re a year older,” Allen said. “We played some young guys (last year), but there’s some really fast guys there that understand their role better. We’re not necessarily making a lot of major changes, so they have a pretty good foundation.
Defensively, 12 freshmen played a considerable amount last season — mainly in the secondary. They will push Indiana’s upperclassmen for starting spots, and so will an applauded incoming class. Wommack inherits competition at seemingly every position and is encouraged by the physical improvements made in the offseason. The majority of questions for IU’s defense lie in the trenches, with the likes of Jacob Robinson, Ja’merez Bowen, and Mike Barwick all graduating.
“This defense has been really good for the last few years,” Wommack said. “I think we’ve got a younger group of players that their bodies right now are at a different level. Watching them coming out here and seeing how they execute is pretty exciting.”