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Indiana defensive backs emerge as strongest unit on team

Noah Vedral’s feet were swept out from under him before he could realize what happened. One cut, blazing speed and a perfectly-timed dive was the formula for Indiana cornerback Tiawan Mullen’s second sack of the day on Rutgers quarterback Vedral.

Two words Indiana defensive coordinator Kane Wommack used to describe Mullen were crafty and explosive. But after a two-and-a-half-sack, seven-tackle performance from Mullen in Indiana’s 37-21 win over Rutgers, the positive qualities don’t stop there.

“He blitzes about two inches off the ground so he is hard to pick up,” Wommack said. “That can always be a difficult thing as well when you play low and fast and you find creative ways to get in the backfield.”

After an ACL injury sidelined starting husky Marcelino Ball for the entire 2020 season, questions surrounded the Indiana secondary. It has been a by-committee effort to fill this position for most of the season, but Mullen shined on Saturday when used in this role. 

Wommack said this hybrid safety-linebacker position allows him to involve Mullen more with the running game and be more creative with the potential First-Team All-Big Ten player. Mullen’s traditional position is cornerback, but Wommack’s creativity allows Mullen to frustrate the opposing quarterback in another way besides pass coverage.

“You see how much we have brought those DBs. That’s what we do. We are an aggressive defense,” head coach Tom Allen said. “Those guys give us confidence to make those calls. It’s a big part of our defense, a talented group and there are many of them there.”

Defensive backs outshine big names on offense

Going into the season, every Indiana fan knew about the dangerous offensive trio of Michael Penix Jr., Stevie Scott and Whop Philyor, and rightly so. The three were each named to the Maxwell Award Watch List, an award given to the College Player of the Year. 

Penix Jr. made the game-winning play versus Penn State and Philyor had 137 receiving yards against Rutgers, but the Indiana defense, and more specifically the secondary, is a big reason Indiana is 2-0 to start the season. 

Indiana shares first place in the Big Ten in takeaway margin at plus four, is second in INTs with five and is tied for third in takeaways with six. Safety Jamar Johnson was named co-Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week after totaling 10 tackles, one interception and a forced fumble versus Penn State.

Allen has given the defensive backs plenty of praise, as well. After the Rutgers victory, Allen named Jaylin Williams the team’s defensive player of the game for his interception and three tackles. Allen also said he thought Johnson and cornerback Reese Taylor played their best games as Hoosiers against Rutgers. Devon Matthews, who Allen calls “Monster,” also received compliments from his head coach for his physicality, coverage and open-field tackling.

Vedral was a threat to run on nearly every play, but that did not fluster the Indiana defensive backs, Allen said. Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano tried to catch the Indiana defense sleeping with multiple reverse plays, pre-snap motions, trick plays and playing two quarterbacks at once, but this, too, wasn’t enough to confuse the Indiana secondary.

“You can get your eyes in the wrong place really fast if you’re not careful and not locked in,” Allen said. “That’s where I thought our guys...did a really good job in the back end of being disciplined and being able to play multiple things.”

It starts with teaching

An interesting aspect of the way the Indiana defense run starts with the way it is taught by Wommack. He explained that instead of teaching each individual what to do in each coverage, he teaches them what the team is trying to accomplish within the concept of a specific coverage.

For example, instead of teaching the free safety only his individual responsibilities in Cover Two, Wommack stresses the importance of teaching the issues the team faces within each type of coverage.

Tiawan Mullen during last year's loss to Michigan State in East Lansing. (Jared Rigdon/HN)

Wommack highlights the Indiana secondary’s ability to play man-to-man defense as a main reason for its success versus Rutgers, especially on third down. When the defensive backs can play man coverage successfully, this limits the opposing quarterback’s passing options and gives the pass rushers more time to get the quarterback.

“When we played man we were on them and we stayed on them,” Wommack said. "To me a lot of credit to the takeaways we got, and certainly the sacks and the simple pressure that we got on the quarterback pretty much all game, is a credit to what those guys are doing on the back end.”

Next, Wommack teaches situational philosophy — how the team will defend third-and-short compared to first-and-10. These aspects of Indiana’s defense are taught mainly in the offseason, which means Wommack is now focused on teaching offensive recognition. 

For Wommack, this is important because if the defense can anticipate the situation, reacting even one second quicker than normal can lead to a big stop. The bottom line, however, is that executing this philosophy is not possible without communication.

“Certainly they are gifted, but their skill is really honed in right now,” Wommack said. “They are doing a good job of communicating with each other off of rubs and picks and those things as well.”

While the Indiana defensive backs have been the strength of Indiana’s team in its first two games of the season, Wommack knows there is no time to feel comfortable.

“To me there is a fine line of, you want to acknowledge things you do well and praise the things you have done well to this point, and yet be relentless in the detail of fixing things that need to be fixed," Wommack said.

This QB can run, too?

In each of its first two games, Indiana has faced a quarterback who can make plays with his feet. Against Penn State, the Hoosier defense struggled to contain the run of Sean Clifford, allowing him to rush 17 times for 119 yards and a touchdown. Indiana was more successful versus Rutgers, limiting Vedral to just 16 yards on 14 carries, but the threat of the quarterback run is present yet again versus Michigan and quarterback Joe Milton. 

Wommack described Milton as a big body who can make all of the throws on the field, but also has dual-threat ability. Wommack said the name of the game nowadays is quarterbacks who can extend plays with their feet, which makes this area of the game something Indiana as grown accustomed to. 

In last week’s loss to Michigan State, Milton completed 32 of 51 attempts for 300 yards. He was also the team’s leading rusher, totaling 59 yards on 12 carries. While Milton poses a threat for the Indiana secondary in a variety of ways, there is one thing Wommack said is important to accomplish versus Milton.

“If you can get pressure on him,” Wommack said. “That’s where you have situations like what we had the last couple of weeks here where we have forced some poor throws and create takeaways and sacks off that.”

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