When former Hoosier linebacker Marcus Oliver declared for the 2017 NFL Draft in January, IU lost more than just his strong 2016 contributions of 96 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss, four sacks and five forced fumbles.
Aside from the statistics, the decision left IU deprived of its “quarterback of the defense,” as current head coach Tom Allen and former head coach Kevin Wilson frequently referred to the middle linebacker – known as the Mike.
Oliver knew the defense inside and out, after earning substantial playing time early on and watching the defense morph into the 4-2-5 that Allen brought to the team in 2016.
Now entering spring practices, Allen and his defensive coaches need to find the best replacement possible for a linebacker with nearly irreplaceable experience.
“It’s all about competing,” IU linebackers coach William Inge said. “We’ve been grooming the young men to be the next men up, so they’re going to be prepared and they’re going to be ready because in our system you have to be a driver and you have to be mentally in tune to what’s going on in our defense.”
With the 4-2-5 defense Allen runs, there are two linebackers at the heart of the IU defense. Last season, it was Oliver and linebacker Tegray Scales, who will be a senior in the fall.
Scales led the team in tackles and sacks. But he didn’t call the defense like Oliver. That’s the Mike linebacker’s responsibility.
Finding a linebacker opposite Scales has become one of Allen’s primary goals for spring practices. The former defensive coordinator said he wants to be confident about at least one player at the position by the end of spring.
“We’re not in a rush, but there’s no question you want to finish spring feeling good about that spot,” Allen said. “It’s a critical position for us. Obviously you’ve got Tegray there with a ton of leadership and experience, but there’s nothing like having that Mike that runs a defense.”
The name being tossed around the most among coaches and staff for Oliver’s replacement is senior linebacker Chris Covington.
In 2016, Covington saw the most playing time at linebacker after starting his IU career at quarterback. As a junior, he appeared in all 13 games and recorded 29 tackles.
The linebacker got his first start in Ann Arbor, Michigan, when IU traveled to play the then-No. 3 Michigan Wolverines. The close loss was Covington’s most productive game of the season, as he tallied a career-high six tackles and his first career sack and forced fumble.
In proving that the former quarterback could play the middle linebacker position, Covington was able to give Oliver rest during games, something that didn’t exist often in the 2015 season.
That experience and production is what jumps out the most to Allen and Inge at this point in spring ball.
“They’re going fast like they will on Saturdays, being able to make all the checks and adjustments at that high speed,” Allen said about the linebackers. “That’s something he needs to work on. We’ve got several guys for that spot, but he’s definitely the guy that’s returning that has the most experience and really has a great shot at being the guy.”
Some other possibilities for the middle linebacker position include junior Dameon Willis, who played in 12 games in 2016 and made his first career start in the Foster Farms Bowl, and junior transfer Mike McGinnis, who played junior college ball in Brooklyn, New York, in 2016.
Inge said that while he doesn’t know if there will be a drop-off in play at the position with Oliver, he and the rest of the staff take pride in their ability to play multiple guys at linebacker in recent history.
“The one thing we do like is that we have some young men ready to fill the shoes and are ready to attack,” Inge said. “There’s a high standard and a high level of expectation to be a linebacker here at Indiana University.”
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