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Indiana’s post-Kevin Wilson future: great defense and iffy offense. Really! Indiana!

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A new head coach with an amazing defensive track record hands the offense to ... a somewhat less exciting OC.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Indiana
Tegray Scales
Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

This preview originally published June 26 and has since been updated.

Kevin Wilson pulled off maybe his best head coaching performance in 2016. Indiana’s head man was forced to deal with injuries to his top receiver and key offensive linemen and severe depth tests in his defensive back seven.

After reaching only its second bowl in 23 years, 2016 was a key year for Indiana, and despite setbacks and offensive regression, Wilson and the Hoosiers eked out a second straight bowl berth. They beat lesser teams, survived an upset bid from rival Purdue, and pulled off their routine of playing well but succumbing to good teams like Penn State and Michigan.

Yes, IU went only 6-7 again, but for a program so destitute for so long, that was an accomplishment. When you factor in the unexpected attrition, it was downright impressive. And heading into 2017, the two-deep looks far sturdier and deeper in every unit sans the offensive line.

Of course, Wilson isn’t around. He was pushed out (he technically resigned) for what we’ll call disagreements on player treatment.

By the time we found out Wilson was gone, we had already found out his replacement: former defensive coordinator Tom Allen.

Promoting Allen made perfect sense. After struggling defensively for years, Wilson brought in Allen in 2016 and found immediate rewards. The 47-year-old IU grad and former Ole Miss assistant had done an incredible job in his one year as USF DC — the Bulls rose from 79th to 49th in Def. S&P+, then plummeted to 110th when he left — and one-upped himself in Bloomington.

Despite depth issues, the Hoosiers improved from 108th to 31st in Def. S&P+. Since 2005, they had never ranked better than 71st. In fact, including estimated Def. S&P+ (for years before 2005, I use an estimated version of S&P+, based on points scored and allowed), you have to go back to 1993 to find an IU defense that ranked higher than 50th. That is a stunning string of incompetence, and Allen ended it instantly.

You never know how someone will handle the responsibilities of a head coach until you give them a chance, but Allen so thrived as a coordinator that he deserves that chance. And if he’s good, IU might sustain success for the first time since the early-1990s.

There are no guarantees, and Allen’s first coordinator hires threw up a tiny red flag. That he promoted line coach Mark Hagen to DC made sense, but despite IU’s success with Wilson’s version of the spread offense — the Hoosiers ranked sixth in Off. S&P+ in 2013 and 19th in 2015 — Allen went back in time: he brought in Mike DeBord.

A lifetime line coach, DeBord was Michigan’s coordinator from 1997-99 and from 2006-07, and after a stint as an NFL assistant, he called plays for Tennessee in 2015-16.

As an OC, DeBord’s succeeded in the most infuriating possible ways. Michigan ranked 14th and 38th in Off. S&P+ in his second stint there, and Tennessee ranked 43rd and 28th in his two seasons. He was able to put former four-stars in position to succeed, and his rampant conservatism seemed to hold him back and infuriate fans.

Granted, it was hard to get a read on whose conservatism was the problem at UT. Once the Vols’ 2016 defense began to wear down, and the offense found itself needing to score more to keep up, the Tennessee attack became incredible. The Vols averaged 48 points per game over the last five games, with DeBord either allowed (or allowing himself) to unleash quarterback Josh Dobbs as a runner.

Regardless of whether Tennessee’s issues were driven more by Jones or DeBord, the reaction of the Vol fanbase to losing DeBord was revealing. Every fan base hates its offensive coordinator, and Tennessee fans hate anybody who doesn’t take them to a national title, but there was real vitriol, and there was, at times, cause for it.

We’ll say DeBord’s got a lot to prove. So, too, does Allen. His first huge hire was more conservative than bold — especially now that DeBord won’t have nearly as many four-star guys — and you might need to be bold to win in Bloomington.

NCAA Football: Foster Farms Bowl-Indiana vs Utah
Tom Allen
Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

2016 in review

2016 Indiana statistical profile.

Without quarterback Nate Sudfeld, running back Jordan Howard, receiver Simmie Cobbs Jr., or All-American left tackle Jason Spriggs, regression was expected.

Because of Wilson’s track record — he was a record-setting play-caller at Oklahoma before Indiana, and he’s now the coordinator at Ohio State — I assumed that the drop-off would be minimal. I didn’t know Cobbs would get hurt, or that another All-American lineman (guard-turned-tackle Dan Feeney) would miss time to injury. Still, the Hoosiers fell from 19th to 67th in Off. S&P+, dealing with some severe ups and downs.

Aside from a poor two-week span against Maryland and Rutgers, though, the defense came through. After allowing 6.4 yards per play in 2015, the Hoosiers allowed more than 5.8 only twice all season.

According to S&P+, IU played like an eight-win team that was unlucky to win only six. Wilson was constantly on the underachiever list, to the extent that it might not have been bad luck. If Allen does nothing more than win the games IU is in position to win, he could drag the program forward.


Offense

Indiana offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

There’s a chance that I’m overreacting in my concerns about DeBord. First of all, no matter whose call it was to open things up, Tennessee might have had the best offense in the country after November 1, and DeBord was in charge of it. If I’m going to hold his struggles against him, I have to give him credit for that.

That came with maybe the best running quarterback in college football, though. After Richard Lagow rushed 13 times for 45 yards (not including sacks) in 2016, it’s safe to say he is no Dobbs.

NCAA Football: Foster Farms Bowl-Indiana vs Utah
Richard Lagow
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Lagow’s got a pretty good arm, though. The 6’6, 245-pounder from Plano, Texas (via UConn and Oklahoma State), looks the part and averaged a healthy 13.3 yards per completion last year. He threw for nearly 3,400 yards in a defense-friendly conference, and despite 17 interceptions he led the Hoosiers to a No. 23 ranking in Passing S&P+.

Unfortunately, IU also fell to 108th in Rushing S&P+. And poor downs and distances caught up to Lagow.

  • Lagow, first 4 games: 62 percent completion rate, 16.2 yards per completion, 160.7 passer rating
  • Lagow, next 5 games: 61 percent completion rate, 11.6 yards per completion, 123.2 passer rating
  • Lagow, last 4 games: 49 percent completion rate, 12.7 yards per completion, 105.0 passer rating

Despite a five-interception performance against Wake Forest, Lagow’s early upside was clear. And while he loses top targets Mitchell Paige and Ricky Jones, the return of junior Nick Westbrook and Cobbs is exciting. Cobbs was lost with an ankle injury in Week 2, but combining his 2015 stats with Westbrook’s 2016 stats gives you a duo that caught 114 of 202 passes for 2,030 yards, 10 touchdowns, 10 yards per target, and a 49 percent success rate. That’s as impressive a 1-2 punch as you can hope for.

What else does IU have in the passing game? Juniors Luke Timian and Donavan Hale combined for 32 catches and 487 yards in 2016, and J’Shun Harris II could become an interesting weapon out of the slot if he could stop tearing ACLs. He’s missed two straight seasons to injury.

Of course, the best thing that could happen to Lagow would be a rushing rebound. Redding rushed for 1,122 yards last year, but while he averaged 6.8 per carry against FIU and Maryland, he averaged a paltry 4 against everybody else. Backups Tyler Natee and Devonte Williams averaged 3.7.

IU got just 11 combined starts out of veteran linemen Feeney and Dimitric Camiel and handed 34 starts to freshmen and sophomores. It showed. Those youngsters are now sophomores and juniors, and in Redding’s absence, Natee and Williams are sophomores now. But it goes without saying that the ground attack has quite a bit to prove.

NCAA Football: Indiana at Ohio State
Nick Westbrook
Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn’t all Dobbs’ legs, by the way. Yes, the Vol quarterback rushed 44 times (non-sacks) for 560 yards over his last five games, and Lagow isn’t going to do that. But DeBord also figured out how to get Dobbs going through the air; Dobbs completed 74 percent of his passes and averaged 13.7 yards per completion in those five games. He threw just one pick and took only one sack per game. Tennessee opened things up a bit and played like a top-10 offense.

It almost took two full seasons to get this all figured out, and Lagow’s only around for one more year. But maybe the lightbulb came on for DeBord, and maybe we’re about to witness a late-career renaissance.

Defense

Indiana defensive radar

Almost overnight, this has become one of the more intriguing units in the country. That only means so much if your offense is struggling, but still. Indiana! Great defense!

The Hoosiers had an excellent run defense and an all-or-nothing pass defense last year. We could see regression with the former and increased steadiness with the latter.

Allen will head in without two exciting tackles; Ralph Green III and Patrick Dougherty combined for 13.5 tackles for loss, while 310-pounder Nate Hoff added six more. Hoff returns, as does junior Mike Barwick Jr., but depth takes a hit with the loss of Green and Dougherty. Plus, though linebackers Tegray Scales and Marcus Oliver emerged as massive play-makers in 2016 — combined: 39 TFLs, 11 sacks, five passes defensed, six forced fumbles — Oliver is gone, leaving Scales to break in a new dance partner.

That Hoff and Scales are back tells you the ceiling is high. Linebacker T.J. Simmons’ return from injury will help, as will the return of every defensive end. Senior Greg Gooch and junior Nile Sykes combined for 12.5 TFLs and six sacks, a complement to the wrecking balls behind them. [Update: Sykes is out for the year with injury.]

Still, there’s just enough attrition to make you worry.

NCAA Football: Purdue at Indiana
Nile Sykes (35) and Greg Gooch (49)
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

There was more addition than attrition in the back, though.

NCAA Football: Purdue at Indiana
Rashard Fant
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Sophomores Andre Brown Jr. and Jameel Cook Jr. missed 2016 after getting their feet wet and combining for six passes defensed in 2015. Their return basically means IU returns 11 defensive backs with decent experience. Senior Rashard Fant and sophomore A’Shon Riggins combined for four interceptions and 26 breakups at corner, and Allen has all the safeties he could need for his 4-2-5 look. The safety trio of Marcelino Ball, Tony Fields, and Jonathan Crawford combined for 5.5 TFLs, seven picks, and 22 more breakups.

Indiana was ninth in the country with 77 passes defensed and 11th with a 52.5 percent completion rate allowed. Aggression looked good on the Hoosiers, and they return the players responsible for nearly every pass defensed.

The next step will be cutting down on breakdowns. They allowed 13 yards per completion — 15.4 against Ball State, 17.8 against Utah, 20.8 against Nebraska, and 20.8 against Penn State. The big plays kept the Hoosiers’ Passing S&P+ tamped down at 57th.

Considering Ball and Riggins were freshmen, you figure there’s room for growth. But that might depend on the run defense and the downs and distances it creates.


Special Teams

For the first time, Wilson began to figure some things out defensively, but in the meantime, his offense and special teams regressed. IU fell from 54th to 99th in Special Teams S&P+; place-kicker Griffin Oakes grew inconsistent, making just 73 percent of his under-40 field goals and 46 percent of his over-40s. He also saw his touchback rate on kickoffs fall from 57 percent to 40. That adds up.

The return game should be in good hands with Williams, Fant, and Cole Gest, and punting should be at least average with junior Joseph Gedeon. But a rebound in Special Teams S&P+ likely depends on a rebound from Oakes.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
31-Aug Ohio State 2 -17.0 16%
9-Sep at Virginia 70 4.4 60%
16-Sep Florida International 104 19.4 87%
23-Sep Georgia Southern 98 18.0 85%
30-Sep at Penn State 8 -17.4 16%
14-Oct Michigan 10 -10.8 27%
21-Oct at Michigan State 44 -1.1 47%
28-Oct at Maryland 72 5.5 62%
4-Nov Wisconsin 11 -9.6 29%
11-Nov at Illinois 85 10.0 72%
18-Nov Rutgers 92 16.3 83%
25-Nov at Purdue 87 10.6 73%
Projected S&P+ Rk 39
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 77 / 20
Projected wins 6.6
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 2.6 (54)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 61 / 53
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -6 / -1.1
2016 TO Luck/Game -1.9
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 79% (63%, 96%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 7.7 (-1.7)

I’m an optimist, and it’s not hard to figure out an optimistic take:

  • Wilson did the hard work and leaves Allen with a much less impossible job than the one Wilson inherited.
  • Allen’s secondary improved dramatically despite youth and is now one of the most experienced in the country.
  • The front seven does lose some play-makers, but Scales is dynamite, and the ends are exciting.
  • Despite the iffy run game, Cobbs and Westbrook are among the better receiving duos in the conference, and Lagow has the arm to hit them deep.
  • Wilson left wins on the table. IU went 12-21 in one-possession finishes under his watch, and if Allen can pull off just a couple of tweaks, that could make the difference between 6-6 and 8-4.

Sharing a division with Ohio State, Penn State, and Michigan means a pretty low ceiling on expectations (at least until we get rid of the outdated concept of divisions). Still, it should take the fan base a while to get tired of merely going 7-5 or so, right?

But the pessimistic spin is equally obvious. The defense might have improved a bit too much last year and might be due regression, and the front seven might be just thin enough to fall apart with a couple of poorly placed injuries.

Plus, while I’m belaboring the point, his first offensive coordinator hire suggested he might be more of the “just have the offense get out of the defense’s way” style of defensive coordinator-turned-head coach — a Will Muschamp, if you will. And while his defense will likely remain exciting, the IU offense could stagnate. That doesn’t fit the personnel, and it doesn’t fit a program that has to take some chances to get somewhere.

Optimism might be warranted, but pessimism is still on the table.

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