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Position Preview: The best secondary in the Big Ten

Indiana’s Kane Wommack-led defense was around the middle of the pack in the Big Ten in 2020. However, the defense led the conference in two very telling categories, sacks (25) and interceptions (17).

That’s what Wommack’s defenses were known for. They got after you with an aggressive and smart secondary with a fast and strong front seven that got in the backfield. Now, with Wommack off to be the head coach at South Alabama, former Georgia defensive backs coach Charlton Warren holds the reins to the Hoosier defense. With huge transfer talent added to the front seven, many would agree and according to PFF's 2021 college football preview magazine defensive backs group remains the most talented and experienced in the Big Ten. 

With most players on defense returning in 2021, the secondary will miss one key piece. That’s Jamar Johnson, the safety who was drafted in the fifth round of the NFL draft by the Denver Broncos. Johnson was the highest Pro Football Focus-graded defensive back on the Indiana roster last season, with a grade of 77.2.

With a new coordinator coming in and the leader of the secondary gone, shoes will need to be filled. A good cornerback depth has been established but questions at safety remain. Here’s a few players to watch for come Indiana's season opener at Iowa in September. 

The starters

Tiawan Mullen

Tiawan Mullen is without a doubt the best defensive player on the roster heading into the fall. It’s the consensus that the Big Ten’s best corner will join his brother, Trayvon Mullen (Las Vegas Raiders) and cousin, Lamar Jackson (Baltimore Ravens) in the NFL sooner or later. After a magnificent freshman season in 2019, Mullen showed extreme improvement in pass rush and getting himself in the opposing backfield. The All-American also stayed consistent on the perimeter and in coverage given his 22.9% forced incompletion rate, the best among all Power Five cornerbacks since his freshman season in 2019.

Indiana’s best defensive draft prospect boasted an overall defensive grade of 75.9 in 2020 according to Pro Football Focus (PFF). While not being the biggest player on the field, standing at 5-foot-10 and around 180 pounds, Mullen makes up for it with his leadership, work ethic and skill. He’s versatile, athletic, smart and has great eyes.

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

Expect the Mullen legacy to continue over the next few years at Indiana as Tiawan’s brother, Trevell, committed to the Hoosiers on June 20. Trevell is the 20th best cornerback prospect and 178th best overall prospect in the class of 2022 according to 247Sports. But for now, Taiwan Mullen is the best cornerback in the Big Ten and one of the best in the country.

Reese Taylor

Reese Taylor held things down on the other side of the field for the Hoosiers in 2020 opposite of Tiawan Mullen at corner. Like Mullen, Taylor is top five in the Big Ten in outside coverage grade since 2019 according to PFF.

Reese Taylor carries the ball vs. Iowa. (Mark Timko/HN)

The former running back and wide receiver made the full-time switch to the secondary in 2019 and has found success. Taylor has great instincts and ball skills, making him deadly in zone coverage. Over the course of last season, Taylor improved every game. His overall rating in coverage last season was 72.9 and also improved his pass rush greatly, finishing the season with one sack and six quarterback pressures. The senior is also a threat in the return game for the Hoosiers. 

Taylor is the glue of the secondary, holding everything in place and making things a lot easier for the safeties and Mullen when facing elite receivers. Having a reliable cornerback opposite of Mullen makes the quarterback and receivers work. There’s nothing easy when it comes to this Indiana secondary. 

Devon Matthews

Devon Matthews improved in all aspects of the game this past season. The Jacksonville native started all eight games at strong safety and finished the season third on the team in tackles (40) and second on the team in pass breakups (six). According to PFF, Matthews finished the season with an overall player grade of 69.4 and excelled in run defense (72.2) and tackling (79.7). Matthews made a big jump from his sophomore to junior year improving his overall grade by 13.4 points.

Matthews’ leading area of concern heading into the 2020 season was his pass coverage. In 2019 Matthews allowed 17

receptions on 29 targets while giving up two touchdowns. While Matthews did give up more yards (302) in fewer games in 2020, he was also targeted more and showed an improvement on contested catches, as he had the seventh most pass breakups in the Big Ten.

The safety tended to struggle on plays with disguised coverage and plays with lots of pre-snap movement. Now, without partner-in-crime safety Jamar Johnson, who is off to the NFL, Matthews will need to step up as a communicative leader and voice on the backend of the defense.

Jaylin Williams

Jaylin Williams breaks up a pass at Maryland during the 2019 season. (Sports Illustrated)

Last, but not least, Jaylin Williams has been holding things down on the edge for several years now for the Hoosiers. Williams is a critical piece of the cornerback rotation. Like Taylor, Williams excels in zone coverage and tackling. It’s very important to have depth in the secondary and Williams is a reliable and important piece of that. Williams was also a ball-hawk for Indiana last season. In only eight games he totaled four interceptions, three of which were in zone coverage, totaling one in each of the Hoosiers’ first three games. 

Overall last season the rising senior had a 72.5 PFF grade, improving greatly in run defense and even in pass rush. Williams finished the season with a sack and five pressures. In the 2018 and 2019 seasons combined, he only had one pressure. 

So who's next?

Raheem Layne

Raheem Layne against Ball State in the 2019 season opener. (James Black/Getty Images)

Raheem Layne elected to undergo season-ending surgery in August 2020 when he, like the rest of the Big Ten, thought the season was canceled. Layne was "doing a really good job," defensive coordinator Kane Wommack said before his undisclosed injury. The redshirt senior safety has spent most of his time as a critical piece in special teams and a depth tool at cornerback. In 2019, Layne won the team's Special Teams Player of the Year award.

The now safety started his career as a Hoosier at corner but, through learning the defense was better suited at safety. As a sophomore, Layne started in seven and played in all 12 games at cornerback and was fourth on the team in tackles with 39. Also, as a junior Layne started five games and led all Hoosiers cornerbacks in stops and solo tackles.

With Jamar Johnson gone, Layne will HAVE to step up in a big role at safety. He can tackle, really well. But the question remains with coverage. It will be two seasons since he last saw the field, but at a more comfortable position, Layne looks to have a huge senior season. I expect him to start week one in Iowa City.

Indiana's secondary remains strong heading into the 2021 season. With it being the most talented position group on the roster, the pressure is on. Layne intrigues me as one of the most interesting storylines on the Indiana roster heading into the fall. An injury last season, hasn't played in two years, different position; it will be very interesting how that pans out. As mentioned earlier, Indiana will be under the helm of a new defensive coordinator but with the season right around the corner, Indiana has the best secondary in the Big Ten.

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