At the 2019 Big Ten Media Day, IU head coach Tom Allen said he had to use his young players more than he’d like. They were players who he believed may not have been physically ready yet, but he needed to use them anyway.
Allen likely had his defensive line in mind with that comment.
In 2018 IU had a committee approach at defensive line with many young players, and the group struggled. IU was 90th out of 128 FBS teams in sacks last season and 72ndin tackles for loss.
But even with the lack of production in 2018, there are key pieces to replace. Jacob Robinson figured to be the leader of the group but missed most of the season with injuries. Nile Sykes had three sacks, second best on the team, but has since graduated.
Though there shouldn’t be much of a change from the rotation that filled last season, Allen talked about having young depth, something the defensive line clearly has.
Senior Allen Stallings IV and redshirt-junior Jerome Johnson are now the experienced members of this group. Johnson led the team with 3.5 sacks, and he had 32 total tackles including 5.5 for loss. Stallings had a breakout 2018 season with two sacks and 24 total tackles including six for loss. Both appear to be key pieces for the defensive line and should be starters.
James Head could be the piece that sparks the pass rush. Head wasn’t a starter last season as a freshman, but he did appear in 11 games. When he did see the field, Head flashed his potential with 17 tackles including three for loss. Head had three stops in each of the final two games of the year, carrying momentum into his second year. He figures to be a strong breakout candidate this fall.
Fifth year Gavin Everett and junior Michael Ziemba both played in at least 11 games last season. Everett had 5.5 tackles for loss and started all 11 games he played. He will be anticipated to start again.
Beau Robbins may be the freshman most ready to make an impact. Robbins, a four-star recruit, is the sixth highest rated recruit to commit to IU according to 247Sports. The Carmel High School product had 82 tackles and six sacks as a senior. Madison Norris is another Indianapolis native who will be getting his first chance to see the field after redshirting as a freshman.
Juan Harris makes his return to IU this fall after playing at Independence Community College last season. As a freshman at IU, Harris suffered a season ending injury and then transferred to Independence. With the experience and development, he had the junior college level, he may be ready to make an impact in a rotation as well.
IU has 22 defensive linemen on its current roster. 18 of them are redshirt-sophomores or younger.
“This year I see us as a football team that is starting to build the depth you need to compete in this conference,” Allen said at Big Ten Media Day. “I would consider us a young, experienced team.”
It’s a statement characterizing exactly where this defensive line is at right now. The limited experience the group has will lead the group as the young players get to develop with game experience.
This group won’t be perfect, far from it in fact. But the infusion of youth should provide flashes of what this unit could do in years to come if not late in 2019. With the success IU has had recruiting in Allen’s tenure, this year he may have young players who are ready for game experience. There doesn’t appear to be a huge gap between the first and the 22nd defensive lineman on the roster, all seem capable of seeing the field. How Allen and new defensive coordinator Kane Wommack build a rotation to take advantage of the depth as the youth develops will be a key sign for the future of this defense, especially from a defensive line that didn’t produce a year ago.