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Indiana Football 2019 Preview: Linebackers

Marcelino Ball alluded the tradition of the number seven at LSU.

The number has been worn by the Tigers top playmaker, a tradition started in 2007 by Patrick Peterson. Since then, Tyrann Mathieu and Leonard Fournette have both worn the number.

Reakwon Jones last season. (Mark Timko/HN)

Ball wants to create a similar tradition in Bloomington with the number nine.

Last year Jonathan Crawford wore nine as he led Indiana in tackles and ranked second in interceptions. He was the senior leader of the defense, seeing the whole field from his position at safety.

Now it’s Ball’s turn to wear nine. In other words, it’s Ball’s turn to be the leader of the defense. Ball will be the starter as the husky, a safety/linebacker hybrid position. He’ll be at the center of head coach Tom Allen’s defense.

Ball had 59 tackles last season (third on the team), 7.5 tackles for loss (first) and also ranked third on the team with 2.5 sacks. His combination of production as well as leadership and experience is the best returning to the Hoosier defense this fall.

He’ll be expected to improve on those numbers in 2019 — he has to in order to fulfill the expectations Ball feels his new number has given.

“I just wanted to finish what Jonathan Crawford started,” Ball said at Indiana’s annual media day. “We had a bond playing together and I feel like the things we talked about, the thing we wanted to finish, it’s not done yet.”

Ball is a freakish athletic talent. He’s the best player on the Hoosier defense and one of the most experienced.

Indiana’s linebackers are outliers from the trends Allen has created on the defense. The linebackers are not IU’s youngest defensive group. They aren’t the deepest either.

Instead they are the most experienced. Ball and Reakwon Jones and among the oldest starters on the defense. Jones is a fifth-year player who has appeared in at least 10 games for three straight seasons. Last season Jones had 36 tackles including 4.5 for loss and one sack. He also broke up two passes and recovered a fumble.

The experience and ability of Ball and Jones will be integral parts of the middle of the Hoosier defense. They might make it the best level of the defense. Both Ball and Jones should be expected to eclipse 60 tackles this season and help the younger players on the defense take the next step as team leaders.

But while Ball and Jones are sure-fire stars, next to them is the infusion of experienced youth threaded through the defense.

When Allen became the head coach of the Hoosiers he brought along his son Thomas. Allen redshirted during the 2017 season before getting the first chance to play in his father’s defense last season.

Thomas Allen isn’t just the coach’s kid. He’s going to have an impact, and he’s going to have an impact now. He’s on track to be a starter.

During the 2018 season, Thomas Allen showcased flashes of potential that will earn him a starting job this fall. Thomas Allen played in all 12 games, totaling 20 tackles including three for loss. He also had one sack and one interception. His interception was the only defensive bright spot in a blowout loss to Iowa.

James Miller and Micah McFadden may push Thomas Allen for the starting role, but it’s his job to lose. The depth chart to begin fall camp cements that with Thomas Allen listed at the top.

Allen will be the player defensive coordinator Kane Wommack needs to see the biggest strides from this season. A year from now, Ball and Jones won’t be there anymore. Allen will immediately transition from a young, first-year starter to a leader of the position.

Allen is a sure-tackler who has shown some coverage ability. His role wasn’t large last season as a depth piece. That will expand this year as he becomes a starter. There may be an adjustment period as he learns to handle more snaps on a Big Ten defense —  a Big Ten one that has high expectations for itself. The transition from the now-departed Dameon Willis might not be smooth in the first game or two. But Allen is the right fit for the role, and he will be for years to come.

Miller now sits in the same position Allen was heading into 2018. Miller played in three games as a freshman and thus was able to maintain his redshirt, just as Allen did during his freshman year. One of Miller’s three games was a start in Ann Arbor against then-No. 4 Michigan. In his brief opportunity Miller proved to his coaches a talented young player that needed to further develop. This offseason, he’s gotten that opportunity. This season, he’ll get a chance to show just how much he’s improved in an expanded role.

Regardless of who gets the final starting job, the focus on this group this year is on Jones as the leading linebacker and Ball as the leader of the defense bridging the secondary and linebackers.

As Ball and Jones go, so does the defense. Ball has a legacy to live up to with the number on his chest. There are goals being handed down to Ball from Crawford and from his coaches.

Crawford said he left unfinished business. It’s on Ball to attend to it.

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