In the Big Ten, games are often decided on who can win the battle in the trenches. Establishing the line of scrimmage is crucial to any Big Ten team’s success, as the conference as a whole tends to lean on the run game and defense more than the high-flying teams of the Big 12.
Indiana’s defense ranked ninth in the conference in both total rushing yards allowed per game and yards allowed per rush in 2019. In order to take the next step and compete with the upper echelon of the Big Ten, containing the run game is vital for the Hoosiers in 2020. Let’s break down the unit that will aim to improve on last year’s ranks.
Leaders of the group
With the graduation of Reakwon Jones, the Indiana defensive line is without its leading tackler from a year ago. This leaves some question marks surrounding the unit, but head coach Tom Allen’s run-stoppers could benefit from strength in numbers.
In addition to Jones, the Hoosiers also lost Allen Stallings IV to graduation, who was tied for the team lead in sacks. However, the player that tied Stallings IV with five sacks in the 2019-2020 season is redshirt senior Jerome Johnson.
Johnson is expected to be a leader of the defensive line coming off a season in which he earned Indiana’s Chris Dal Sasso Award for outstanding lineman. Johnson was fifth among Hoosiers in tackles with 43 and was second in tackles for a loss with seven and a half.
Joining Johnson as a leader on the defensive line is another upperclassmen, junior Demarcus Elliott. Elliott began his college career at Garden City Community College in Kansas, where his team lost in the 2018 NJCAA national championship game.
He arrived in Bloomington for his sophomore season last year and immediately made an impact. Elliot was eighth among Hoosiers in tackles with 35, and also totaled three sacks and five tackles for a loss. His sophomore campaign earned him a spot on All-Big Ten Honorable Mention list by the media.
Rounding out the core of the defensive line is senior Michael Ziemba. During his junior year, Ziemba made his presence felt through game-changing plays, leading the team with two fumble recoveries and finishing second in tackles for a loss with 6.5.
Players who could take the next step
Aside from Johnson, Elliott and Ziemba, there aren’t too many Hoosier linemen whose stats jump off the page, but valuable depth is building on this roster. Alfred Bryant enters his redshirt junior season with Indiana and is coming off a solid season backing up Jones and Johnson.
Bryant finished the 2019-2020 season with 25 tackles to go along with one fumble recovery and one forced fumble. While Bryant hasn’t been showcased as a starter for the Hoosiers, he has 23 games under his belt, which will help prepare him for a bigger role in Kane Wommack’s defense this year.
Another under-the-radar name that could surprise people is sophomore Sio Nofoagatoto’a. Nofoagatoto’a wasn’t a common name appearing at the top of the stat sheet last year, but he made noticeable improvements by the end of the season.
In the Hoosiers’ Gator Bowl loss to Tennessee, Nofoagatoto’a recorded a career high in tackles in a game with three. He was one of Allen’s more notable defensive recruits in recent years, and was ranked as the No. 70 defensive tackle in the nation out of high school.
A name that could be familiar to the Indiana faithful is Greenwood, Indiana native Jovan Swann. The Hoosiers recruited him out of Center Grove High School, but Swann instead played his first four years of college at Stanford. As a graduate transfer, Swann brings a lot of experience to the Indiana defensive line unit.
While at Stanford, Swann appeared in 39 games and started 19 over four years at defensive end. The 6-foot-2, 270-pound Swann was second on the team with 5.5 sacks and fourth in tackles for loss with eight. His breakout performance of the 2019 season came against Cal where Swann recorded career highs in sacks and tackles for loss en route to earning the Frank Rehm Award, which is given to the most out standing player in the team's game versus Cal.
The final defensive lineman with the potential of having a breakout season is lesser known to Hoosier fans, but could be a household name by the time he graduates. Damarjhe Lewis was Indiana’s second highest rated recruit in the 2020 class behind wide receiver Rashawn Williams.
Lewis arrives in Bloomington as the No. 42 ranked defensive tackle in his class and stands at 6-foot-3 and 291 pounds. He was named the 3-AAAAA Defensive Player of the Year in Georgia after his senior season. Lewis is listed as a freshman on the Indiana roster, but was able to take classes at IU during the spring 2020 semester.
This allowed him to also participate in spring practice and jumpstart his growth as a Hoosier. While Lewis might not be relied on to make a huge impact immediately, it will be interesting to track his development as the season progresses.
Led by Johnson, Elliott and Ziemba, who have a wealth of experience playing Big Ten football, the Indiana defensive line is shaping up to be a solid group. Improving on its rush defense, which ranked ninth in the Big Ten a year ago, is very possible with these three leading the way and a group of younger athletes eager to make an impact.