When looking at the Indiana linebackers of course Micah McFadden and Marcelino McCrary-Ball stand out, but after them who’s next?
Indiana’s linebackers don’t have to be great for this defense to be good, and that’s something very pleasing to hear if you're a Hoosiers fan, but it’s even better that they are.
We know how good Indiana’s secondary can be and a linebacker core led by McFadden, one of the best in the Big Ten, automatically bumps this group into elite status. Add McFadden’s return along with McCrary-Ball’s and it’s one of the best groups in the Big Ten. McCrary-Ball being back is so meaningful for the Hoosiers. He's a leader on and off the field and brings great experience.
Indiana had some questions at the edge last season, putting a lot of pressure on McFadden to pass rush, but one player sets himself apart preseason.
Out of high school McFadden wasn’t a highly rated recruit. He was ranked the 1,986th best player in the class of 2018 and only gained interest from two Power Five schools: Indiana and Boston College. However, his hard work has proved him to be an All-Big Ten caliber player.
There’s no question that Micah McFadden is one of the best linebackers, if not the best, in the Big Ten. McFadden was the highest PFF rated player Indiana had last season with a grade of 85.8. One of the craziest things about the Tampa native is just how much his pass rush improved last season.
In about 170 fewer snaps than the previous season, McFadden recorded four more sacks in 2020 than he did in 2019. In three years at IU, McFadden’s pass rush grade has improved from a 64.3 in 2018 to a 90.8 in 2020. That 90.8 grade is No. 1 in the entire country. Now that’s something that stands out to NFL scouts.
The Third Team All-American saw a 16% increase in his pass rush rate last season and I only expect that to increase even more.
McFadden has also taken the role of becoming more vocal on defense. Expect the senior to continue leading the front seven.
On Oct. 24 of last year, Indiana upset Penn State in their home opener. It was also the day McCrary-Ball had surgery on his knee. The team captain wanted nothing more than to be with his team, but now as he returns for his sixth season he will have that opportunity on the field.
McCrary-Ball is coming off of a torn ACL in 2020 but looks to re-emerge as a key piece in the Hoosiers’ defense. While he’s listed as a defensive back on the depth chart, he can play the husky role well which is really a mixture between being in the secondary and a linebacker. All the way back in 2016, McCrary-Ball was a member of the 247Sports true freshman All-American team and was extremely impressive starting in 12 games and finishing third on the team in tackles (75).
While 2016 was a very long time ago, since then Ball has struggled with injuries. Along with missing last season due to a torn ACL but the Georgia native also missed most of his 2017 season due to a season ending injury after starting the first three games.
If the team captain can remain healthy in 2021 it would be huge for the consistency of the defense. He can really make or break the defense and win IU games. Not having him last year showed on defense. It forced McFadden to pass rush more and be more active up front and while it worked out for McFadden and his numbers, it hurt the Hoosiers in the run defense department.
Cam Jones can be a breakout player for Indiana this year on the front seven. While he did have an underwhelming 2020 PFF grade-wise (55.3), Jones looked solid and really excelled as a tackler on the weak side of the defense. The senior led the team in quarterback hits last season and had three sacks. Jones’ missed tackle rate was also very low at 13.2%.
While I expect Jones to start week one as he has the past few years, he does need to improve in coverage. Jones gave up 14 receptions, three of which were touchdowns, on 20 targets last season. Jones had a 40.4 coverage grade last season.
With McCrary-Ball back on Indiana’s defense I expect Jones to be freed up and have a lot of the coverage pressure off of him.
So who’s next?
The linebackers aren’t the deepest group for Indiana this season, especially when it comes to experience. On the inside, aside from Jones and McFadden, IU linebackers have three combined starts.
James Miller, who started those three games, has been impressive when he’s played. The Tampa native can tackle really well. Last season, Miller totaled 24 tackles, one fumble recovery and one quarterback hurry. Expect him to see some playing time behind McFadden and Jones on the inside this year.
In terms of the outside there’s one VERY eye popping name. That’s D.K. Bonhomme, who started three games on the edge at defensive end last season and in those three starts he posted 15 tackles, two for loss, one sack and a safety. Bonhomme has a big frame at 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds, and out on the edge this season I expect big things.
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Bonhomme played his way into being a 2021 starter at the end of the 2020 season, getting good reps at the bull spot on the outside. Defensive coordinator Charlton Warren needs a guy in that spot who can drop in coverage on the flats and dump downs, rush the passer and contain the run game. Bonhomme’s athletic ability fits that need heading into the season.
Overall, the IU linebacker core is shaping up to be one of the best starting units on the team, but it’s McCrary-Ball’s and McFadden’s leadership that will command the defense.
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