When Micah McFadden was a senior at Plant High School in Tampa, Florida, Tom Allen made a recruiting pitch that some players might have laughed at. Allen told McFadden that he was going to build Indiana into a team that competes for Big Ten championships.
The Hoosiers were coming off a 6-7 season in 2016, and when McFadden was a senior in high school in 2017, the Hoosiers endured a 5-7 season with its only wins coming against Virginia, Georgia Southern, Charleston Southern, Illinois and Rutgers.
How could any player be convinced that Allen was going to turn around the program with the most losses in FBS history within the short four seasons they would be there?
Well, maybe they had never heard a Tom Allen speech.
McFadden said Allen talked about the excitement surrounding the upcoming recruiting class, and that he felt like Allen was true from the start. But looking at the future of the team on paper wasn’t the only way Allen was able to convince McFadden to play for the Hoosiers.
For McFadden, it was as simple as the look in Allen’s eye when the two discussed the future.
“He was just so enthusiastic about the change that was going on in this program,” McFadden said. “You could just see it in his eyes and the way that he talked. It was just so convincing, and I think that just led me to believe in him and believe in the program and the change that was going on.”
Many Indiana fans might not have believed Tom Allen’s vision for the program when he was named the head coach in 2016. Similarly, a lot of Power Five schools didn’t believe McFadden could lead a defense when he was in high school.
McFadden was ranked as the No. 93 outside linebacker nationally by ESPN and didn’t play varsity football until his junior year. McFadden said he thinks college coaches thought he wasn’t fast enough or big enough to play at a high level.
However, McFadden had a group of coaches in high school constantly in his ear about how good he could be if he put in the necessary work.
“All of the JV coaches were telling me, ‘You’re going to be a beast here next year,’” McFadden said. “Even personally if I didn’t always see it or wholeheartedly believe it, I could always tell that these guys always believed in me and that my talent could get me on the field and go perform at a high level.”
And they were right. McFadden was named to the All-State First Team in Florida in his junior season where Plant High School reached the 2016 7A state championship game. He followed up a breakout junior year campaign by being named the 2017 Florida Athletic Coaches Association Player of the Year as a senior.
McFadden set a program record with 211 tackles, and owns the school’s single-game tackles record with 23. As a senior, McFadden racked up seven sacks, two interceptions, two fumble recoveries and even rushed for four touchdowns.
He credits a lot of his development in high school to the influence of his older brother Luke. When Micah was a freshman in high school, Luke was a senior. Micah said seeing how hard Luke worked and played, as well as his leadership qualities, gave him someone to follow and compete with in pursuit of playing college football.
Luke last played wide receiver at Johns Hopkins University as a senior during the 2017 season, and was a big reason Micah worked hard to reach his goals in high school.
“He was always pushing me, encouraging me,” Micah said. “Telling me, ‘You can be as good as you want to be, you have just go to work and just chase your dream if that is what you want to do you.’”
As a high schooler, McFadden said he wasn’t always going to the big-time camps with college coaches in attendance. A three-star recruit according to the 247Sports Composite rankings, McFadden received offers from Indiana, Boston College, Massachusetts, South Dakota and Southern Mississippi.
He said a quality he believes coaches missed out on was his nose for the ball. McFadden said this can be easy for coaches to miss at camps, but by watching McFadden’s high school game film, Allen did not miss this aspect of McFadden’s game.
“Coach Allen definitely knew that and saw that when he recruited me and told me that when I came up here on visits and stuff,” McFadden said. “So he definitely saw it but it’s easy to miss out on things like that.”
Gaining the commitment of McFadden was huge for Allen’s ability to create a recruiting pipeline from Florida, or more specifically Tampa, to Bloomington. McFadden attended the same high school as current teammates Thomas Allen, Juwan Burgess and Whop Philyor.
McFadden is one of 24 current Hoosiers who attended high school in the state of Florida. Creating this pipeline and building relationships with players in Florida has been a huge reason for Indiana’s turnaround. McFadden said when he was in high school, seeing other players around him commit to Indiana, especially Michael Penix Jr., was a reason he chose Indiana.
McFadden said Allen was able to gain the commitment of these Florida players by finding guys who maybe didn’t have the biggest offers, but who Allen could tell were hard workers.
“I think a lot of us were encouraged to see how many Florida guys were in our class that were coming here,” McFadden said. “…It was really exciting and definitely encouraged me to come up to Indiana and play hard for him.”
When McFadden arrived, the Indiana defense was young and inexperienced, but as it grew and matured, McFadden grew with it.
In McFadden’s 2018 freshman season, the Hoosiers ranked 10th in the conference in both rushing and passing defense. While this group was forced to learn on the fly and play in important games as underclassmen, this has ultimately helped grow Indiana football into what it is today. Indiana is now ranked third in rush defense and fourth in pass defense amongst Big Ten teams in 2020.
That's 3⃣ @IndianaFootball INTs.
— Indiana On BTN (@IndianaOnBTN) October 31, 2020
McFadden appeared in nine games as a freshman and 13 as a sophomore. Looking back at his early years as a Hoosier, McFadden said he used to just run around making plays and trying to find the ball. Now as a junior, McFadden leads the team with 30 total tackles and is tied for second on the team with two sacks. McFadden said experience and communication have led to him playing with the confidence to fly around the field.
“Being able to not just understand what I am doing in my position, but also understand the coverage or the front and understanding other people’s jobs and responsibilities has really helped me and helped the people around me grow, too,” McFadden said.
Flash forward three seasons and Indiana is ranked No. 9 in the country with a 4-0 record and wins over Penn State, Rutgers, Michigan and Michigan State. While the Penix-led Indiana offense has produced exciting moments, it has largely been inconsistent this season.
The Indiana defense, led by McFadden at linebacker, has been the stronger side for the Hoosiers and is a main reason for the team’s 4-0 record. In the Hoosiers dominant 24-0 win over Michigan State on Nov. 14, McFadden totaled a career-high three sacks. McFadden said now that he and his teammates have gained experience in their first few seasons with the program, the defense is now able to implement creative schemes and coverages.
How great was Micah McFadden?
— Indiana On BTN (@IndianaOnBTN) November 14, 2020
“Guys are locked in,” McFadden said. “They know exactly what they have on each play, but it’s also the coaches…setting up defenses that are maybe difficult to pick up, blitzes that are difficult to pick up, coverages that are hard to read.”
One of the biggest games in program history lies ahead this weekend as Indiana travels to Ohio State to play the No. 3 Buckeyes. McFadden recognized the explosive quarterback leading Ohio State in Justin Fields and the weapons at his disposal, but said something as simple as executing fundamentals will be key in order for Indiana to pull off the upset.
Allen has constantly talked about approaching each week with a 1-0 mindset. McFadden adheres to this belief, and said Indiana is preparing and attacking each week like the one before.
“Just play lights out, play fast, physical and just play that Indiana football that we always talk about,” McFadden said.
This game also represents the chance to take a major step to achieve what Allen preached to McFadden as a high schooler: a Big Ten championship.