It was an unusual spring game for many reasons, but the most notable on-field oddity Saturday afternoon was the lack of some familiar faces anchoring the defense for IU football.
The youth movement on defense was not a surprise by any means. IU Coach Tom Allen and the rest of his staff knew defensive anchors like Rashard Fant and Tegray Scales would need to be replaced after finishing their senior seasons in 2017.
But Saturday’s spring game, which was played indoors due to bad weather, provided Allen a glimpse at who might be able to fill the shoes of the eight senior starters lost from last year’s Hoosier defense.
“We don't have a lot of leadership on defense,” Allen said. “We've got a lot of young guys, but when you're young and you're trying to figure everything out, it's hard to lead.”
Statistically, the defense for the Cream and Crimson teams played well enough, as each team allowed just one touchdown in the two 12-minute quarters of the game. Crimson ultimately won 37-28 thanks to field goals it made during the game and in kicking competitions between quarters.
As Allen said, though, his attention was focused on players who could step up to lead on the defensive end. IU isn’t without veterans — senior defensive back Jonathan Crawford, junior defensive back Andre Brown and junior linebacker Reakwon Jones all made plays Saturday and look to do so in the fall.
Crawford was among a group of players who needed to elevate his leadership this upcoming season, according to Allen. The three-year starter has embraced the challenge. He said improving communication on defense was a key goal for spring ball, which concluded Saturday.
“We’ve got young guys on the back end, so getting them on board with understanding the calls and what the offense is doing is really big,” Crawford said. “That’s what we’ve been working on, and I feel like we’ve improved that.”
Two of those young players whom Crawford mentioned are freshmen defensive backs Juwan Burgess and Bryant Fitzgerald. Both were redshirts last season, but they were heralded recruits who help in either the secondary or the hybrid husky position typically manned by sophomore Marcelino Ball.
Burgess had a key third-down pass breakup and Fitzgerald made several tackles Saturday. When the action shifted to an offense-defense scrimmage after the official spring game concluded, Allen made sure to continue providing the youngsters with more time on the field.
“Those guys are special players that — that's why I kept them in there,” Allen said of Burgess and Fitzgerald. “I said, they need reps, they need reps, and that's why we did that.”
Because the Hoosiers need to replace Scales, Chris Covington and their 174 combined tackles from last season, Allen said the linebacker corps is a particular concern. Allen mentioned his own son, redshirt freshman Thomas Allen, as a spring standout, along with senior Mike McGinnis.
Allen was also quick to point out that some of the depth at the position is in the 2018 recruiting class and isn’t even on campus yet. That will make summer workouts and August practices even more important.
For the linebackers who are already in the fold, though, Saturday marked a crucial opportunity to gain game experience. Allen said the defense’s performance left him satisfied but still wanting more.
“There's just a lot of question marks,” Allen said. “Yeah, spring was good and they did some good things, but we've got a lot of work to do there.”
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