If the IU football practice fields were a swimming pool, the Hoosiers' group of young defensive backs aren't allowed to splash around in the shallow end all the time.
They have to learn how to swim — and sooner better than later.
With somewhat of a youth movement coming to the Hoosiers’ secondary this year, also comes a major learning curve that cornerbacks coach Brandon Shelby, safeties coach Kasey Teegardin and the rest of the IU coaches will have to learn to address properly.
One strategy they’ve taken has been throwing the young players out with the veterans to get reps against the starters.
When asked if the coaches have been throwing those young players on "the deep side of the pool," Shelby smiled and said they've been doing plenty of "swimming" through the first six days of IU's fall camp.
“There’s a different expectation when you’re out there with the ones,” Shelby said. “You have to be on your game because Jon Crawford is going to call you out or Marcelino Ball is going to call you out. Those guys understand that, they’ve accepted that and thus far, with six practices, they’ve done a good job.”
During the offseason, the Hoosiers lost one of the program’s greatest defensive backs in its history in Rashard Fant, who, after going undrafted in the 2018 NFL Draft, signed with the Chicago Bears. Adding to the blow was the loss of two versatile seniors in Chase Dutra and Tony Fields, who both provided consistency for the Hoosiers during their time in Bloomington.
Now, IU finds itself with an influx of young, inexperienced players looking to fill the void left by Fant, Dutra and Fields, as well as trying to add to IU’s secondary depth for 2018.
It’s a talented group featuring the likes of last year’s Indiana Mr. Football, Reese Taylor, speedy freshman cornerback Jaylin Williams, freshman safeties Devon Matthews and Jamar Johnson and a pair of redshirt freshmen that sat out last season in Bryant Fitzgerald and Juwan Burgess.
“They’re a very talented group,” Shelby said. “Reese Taylor and Jaylin Williams, those guys have world-class speed. They can roll. But the main thing is we have to get them going fast in the right direction and that’s the key.”
However, despite the losses from last season, the young guns will get leadership from a group of veterans that could prove to be the foundation of IU’s defense this season.
Leading the way is senior safety Jonathan Crawford, who has started all 38 games of his career at safety and is the Hoosiers’ current leader in career tackles with 209, pass breakups with 16, interceptions with eight, fumble recoveries with five, forced fumbles with two, takeaways with 13 and blocked kicks with two.
Teegardin said Crawford will be the obvious leader that will be spearheading the group at safety, which will also feature juniors Khalil Bryant and Isaac James along with new faces like Fitzgerald, Burgess, Matthews and Johnson.
“I love my group from top to bottom,” Teegardin said. “Jon is our unquestioned leader but I’ve been really pleased with the development of the younger guys.”
Filling out the rest of the secondary is sophomore Marcelino Ball, who returns at the Husky position after suffering a season-ending injury after just three games in 2017, while juniors A’Shon Riggins and Andre Brown Jr. will look to make up for Fant’s production at cornerback.
Ball in particular proved to be a great talent for IU when he was fully healthy during his freshman season in 2016, when he recorded 75 tackles, two interceptions and eight pass breakups on the year.
Meanwhile, Riggins has shown flashes of brilliance during his first two seasons, totaling 51 tackles, 14 pass breakups and an interception during that time.
He said he doesn’t just want to fill the hole Fant left on the field this season, but also wants to make up for Fant’s absence off the field as a leader as well.
“Being a leader in the cornerback room is a big goal for me this year,” Riggins said during IU football's 2018 media day. “I’m just making sure the young guys are in the best situation to play mentally and sometimes physically, getting extra workouts in after practice.”
With a mix of both proven veterans and talented freshmen, IU projects to have ample depth in the secondary this year.
However, as the offseason progresses, for all the lessons still to be learned by IU’s young group of backs, there will be just as many teaching opportunities for Shelby, Teegardin and leaders such as Crawford, Ball and Riggins.
“They’re students of the game,” Shelby said. “They take coaching hard and have responded well. I’m excited in the direction we’re going but we have a long way to go. I’m excited in what they can do, so I expect a lot of those things to come to fruition here in the next few weeks.”