Fans and college football talking heads tend to focus on “returning starters” when measuring the continuity of an offensive or defensive unit and predicting that unit’s performance. While analyzing returning starters is a useful shorthand in these sorts of offseason discussions, it falls short in a couple important ways.
First, measuring a “starter” is more difficult than you think, and no one discussing “returning starters” ever takes the time to define the term. Are we talking about guys who started over the course of a whole season? Anyone who started even once in a season? In their career? Or are we just talking about who started the last game of the previous season? And how do we factor in guys that miss an entire season due to injury? In IU’s case, depending on how one answers these questions, the IU defense could have anywhere from 3 starters returning (using starters against Purdue in 2017) or 6 (counting anyone on the roster with starting experience on defense).
Second, a simple number of returning starters tells us nothing about the quality of the starter lost. Did the defense lose a star or a guy who, while a nominal starter, platooned with another player? A team could weather the loss of several “starters” in the latter category, while losing only a handful of stars who never come out can cause serious problems.
If we really want to understand that a given unit needs to replace, rather than focusing on a raw number of returning starters, we should dig a little deeper into snaps played – or possessions played, in our case – and production lost. Using these measures, IU’s defense was pretty well gutted by graduation.
As shown in the chart on the right, Tom Allen’s defense lost six of their top seven defenders in terms of possessions played[ref] We track possessions played because it’s a little easier than tracking snaps played, but it still provides a good measure of how much time a given player was on the field. A player need only participate in a single snap within a possession in order for that possession to count as a “possession played.”[/ref] – Tegray Scales, Chris Covington, Rashard Fant, Chase Dutra, Tony Fields and Robert McCray. Two more of the top 11 also graduated, Nate Hoff and Greg Gooch. In terms of production, IU lost its three top tacklers (Dutra, Scales and Covington); its top three in sacks (Scales, McCray and Gooch); and its leader in passes defended (Fant). Four of the five total interceptions IU tallied, seven of eleven forced fumbles and six of eight fumble recoveries are also gone.
So in IU’s case, merely saying that they lost eight starters – or five starters, depending on how you measure it – probably undersells the amount of turnover that Coach Allen and the defensive staff must address. They must replace the core of the most successful IU defense in a generation.
But it’s not all bad news. The defense welcomes back Nile Sykes, A’Shon Riggins and Marcelino Ball from injuries that knocked them out for all or most of 2017. That’s like adding three starting-caliber players to last year’s group. Moreover, IU returns one of its best defensive linemen in Jacob Robinson and a three-year starter at safety – and really, one of the better safeties in recent memory at IU – in Jonathan Crawford.
Here’s a more detailed look at what IU has coming back:
As a reminder:
- Green = starting experience
- Yellow = appeared in non-garbage time, but hasn’t started
- Red = never played or at least never played in non-garbage time
This chart is loosely based on IU’s published depth chart, but does not track it exactly. Where it differs, it’s generally where I’m picking a definitive order, where the depth chart has an “or” notation. I also add in a couple more guys than appear in the two-deep, and those additions are based on comments made by the coaching staff in the spring and so far in camp, as well as my own estimation of who might see the field this fall and where. If a player isn’t listed on the chart, it means I don’t think they will see the field barring any injury issues. Obviously, that is subject to change as fall camp continues and then the season gets underway.
IU has a good deal of experience along the defensive line, with two starters and seven other players who have seen game action. The nose tackle and defensive tackle positions seem more or less settled, with some combination of Barwick, Samuels and Bowen at NT, and Robinson, Johnson and Brandon Wilson (shifted inside from SDE) at DT. The offseason losses of promising young players Juan Harris and LeShaun Minor will be felt more in 2019 than 2018.
WDE is also in good shape, with Sykes and Stallings expected to take the majority of the snaps. The big question is SDE, where the void left by Robert McCray’s absence must be filled. Walk-on Gavin Everett saw action in the second half of last season and is listed as the starter. Sophomore Michael Ziemba played some special teams in 2017 and saw garbage time action, and he could push for time. A trio of freshmen, Alfred Bryant (redshirt), James Head and Jonathan King all have a shot as well. There’s a possibility that some combination of those freshmen could take over the position by seasons’ end.
The return of Dameon Willis stabilizes the middle linebacker position. Willis lacks the athletic upside of Chris Covington or Marcus Oliver, but his experience and reliable tackling give him a high floor. At stinger, junior Raekwon Jones saw a little action last year and made a few glaring mistakes. By all accounts, he has made significant progress this offseason. Even if he has, I expect he will split time with the recently-declared-eligible TD Roof, as well as freshmen Mo Burnam and James Miller. Given the emphasis Tom Allen is putting on rotating and keeping his defenders fresh, I will be surprised if we don’t see six or more linebackers play each game, at least in September.
It’s Marcelino’s world. For Ball, there are two questions heading into 2018: (1) can he make some of the plays that the departed seniors made in 2016 and 2017 and (2) can he shore up the pass coverage issues that plagued him in 2017? Behind him, true freshman Cam Jones appears to be the next man up. Allen & Co. must feel strongly in Jones’ potential because they moved Isaac James to corner (he had practiced at Husky last season) and shifted Bryant Fitzgerald to safety (he was discussed as a sub at Husky for Ball last August, before he was declared ineligible).
One safety spot is set in stone: Jonathan Crawford will be the strong or field[ref] As in, aligned to the wide or “field” side.[/ref] safety. IU’s depth chart lists Juwan Burgess as his backup. This position will be a good test of Allen’s commitment to rotate more because Crawford has played all but a handful of defensive snaps in Allen’s two seasons at the helm. I suspect Burgess or someone else may see a little more action, especially early, but Crawford will be on the field for every important moment.
The graduation of Tony Fields and Chase Dutra leaves the free or boundary safety position wide open. Junior Khalil Bryant is listed as the starter with Bryant Fitzgerald as his backup. Khalil Bryant has been a special teamer for his two seasons in Bloomington, while also seeing spot duty in relief of Crawford. I suspect this position will be close to a 50/50 split unless or until someone distinguishes himself. I also wouldn’t be surprised if Juwan Burgess gets a look at this spot, along with true freshmen Devon Matthews and/or Jamar Johnson. Like the linebackers, we should see a bunch of safeties in September.
Cornerback may be the most interesting position to watch. A’Shon Riggins is one likely starter, but even before he suffered an injury in Week 3, he had been splitting time with Andre Brown and Raheem Layne was making inroads. Brown and Layne are back, and former wide receiver and husky Isaac James is now an option at corner. The talented true freshmen duo of Jaylin Williams and Reese Taylor will also be in the mix. The starters we see against FIU in a few weeks may not be the starters in November. In particular, Andre Brown, a starter for part of 2015 and 2017, will need to improve his coverage skills if he hopes to stay on the field. Broken record here, but expect to see 5-6 corners rotating through in September.
Tomorrow, we’ll turn out attention to the offense.