Kane Wommack’s 4-2-5 defense was young and inconsistent last year. The secondary was no exception.
The good news? Indiana’s defense ranks 13th in the nation and first in the Big Ten in returning production according to ESPN’s Bill Connelly. That includes nearly the entire secondary.
Leaders of the group
IU’s secondary starts with cornerback Tiawan Mullen. The true sophomore broke out at Michigan State last season with four pass breakups. By the season’s midway point he had risen to the top of the depth chart as IU’s top cover corner. Mullen was named a first-team Freshman All-American by both The Athletic and 247Sports.
Mullen is notable for his athleticism, tied 11th in the country in pass breakups in 2019, but his lockdown cover skills that can take an opposing wide receiver out of the game are most valuable. This was notable multiple times last year including Mullen limiting Tennessee’s star wide receiver Jauan Jennings to just two catches in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl.
Mullen, the brother of former Clemson and current Las Vegas Raider cornerback Trayvon Mullen, will be firmly entrenched as the top cornerback for the Hoosiers. Nonetheless, keeping “Mullen island” safe will not be easy in 2020. Out of the current nine opponents on the Hoosiers schedule, four teams have a receiver on the Biletnikoff preseason award watch list.
Opposite Mullen at cornerback will likely be Reese Taylor or Jaylin Williams. Both juniors, Williams started seven of the final eight games last season for IU. He blossomed late in the year with 19 tackles though his cover skills will need to continue to improve.
Taylor will challenge for the starting role. The upside is high for the Indianapolis native. The 2017 Indiana Mr. Football led Ben Davis High School to a state championship as a quarterback. As a freshman at IU, Taylor primarily saw action on the offensive side of the ball as a running back and wide receiver. He switched full time to defense during 2019 spring practice.
Taylor was injury prone last season but with a year at cornerback under his belt, his athletic skills will garner him time in IU’s secondary. Indiana cornerbacks coach Brandon Shelby said, “I think he’s ready to take that step and I’m expecting him to.”
Outside of the trio of Mullen, Williams and Taylor at cornerback, Josh Sanguinetti is the most intriguing name. Running into injury he had to redshirt the 2019 season. However, Sanguinetti was a big time recruiting pick-up as a four star recruit out of southern Florida.
At safety, Khalil Bryant’s graduation leaves a big hole. Wommack has shuffled players into the safety position in hope of improving the group’s cover skills.
Jamar Johnson is one of those shuffled players rotating over from the husky position. He originally played safety his freshman year. Now the speedy junior will likely start at free safety replacing Bryant. Johnson should be well acclimated to covering the open field, as he had two interceptions last year including a memorable pick six against Tennessee at the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl.
At strong safety Devon Matthews and Juwan Burgess will compete for the starting role. Matthews started the first five games of the 2019 season and the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl while Burgess started the last seven games of the regular season.
Matthews’ size and physicality might give him an edge going into fall camp. The junior was nicknamed “monster” after knocking off a quarterback’s helmet on a sack as an eight year old. He has grown into a full sized monster since, now filling out an imposing 6-foot-2, 202-pound frame.
Burgess is a smaller versatile player who filled the stat sheet last season with 29 tackles, two forced fumbles and two pass breakups. This versatility could have the redshirt junior also seeing time at free safety.
Raheem Layne, who shifts from cornerback, could see time at either safety position. The senior has plenty of experience with 37 game appearances. He also was IU’s 2019 Special Teams Player of the Year for kickoff and punt coverage. First year safeties coach Jason Jones should be able to plug in Layne whenever and wherever needed.
Lastly, the husky position will be filled by Marcelino Ball. The fifth-year senior has started at husky for 23 of IU’s last 25 games. The position is one of the more distinctive in football. Functioning as a hybrid safety and linebacker, Ball will be tasked with covering both the run and pass. In addition, Wommack has emphasized for the upcoming season to get Ball closer to the box to check or pressure the quarterback.
His “rare physical abilities” garnered him a spot on The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman’s 2020 college football freaks list. In addition, Ball’s high football IQ and experience will have him as the centerpiece cog of the Indiana defense.
Bryant Fitzgerald shifts from safety to back up Ball at husky. He had a breakout freshman season with six takeaways to be named IU’s most outstanding defensive back in 2018 but had a quieter 2019. Following a theme of IU’s secondary, Fitzgerald’s versatility will have him appear wherever in the secondary he is needed.
Players who could take the next step
Other Hoosiers down the depth chart that could see action include redshirt freshman cornerback Larry Tracy III and a pair of redshirt sophomore safeties Noah Pierre and Jordan Jusevitch.
The Big Ten East has arguably the most talented crop of gun slinging quarterbacks and wide receivers in the country. Facing that skill, Indiana’s defense made some strides last year.
Now a secondary with talent, versatility and loads of experience has a chance to help the Hoosier defense take the next step forward.