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Defensive depth and versatility becoming a strength for IU football



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Then-freshman defensive back Tiawan Mullen looks at the sidelines Nov. 16, 2019 at Beaver Stadium in State College, Pennsylvania. IU lost to Penn State 34-27. Colin Kulpa

For much of IU football’s past, depth and versatility have often been fleeting. Without multiple, high-level players at each position to rotate in and provide rest for others, the Hoosiers have shown a propensity for wearing down late in close games. It’s led to only three bowl games in the last 10 seasons, all which IU lost by three or fewer points.

However, in 2018 and 2019, head coach Tom Allen began settling into the program and recruiting classes began to rise up the rankings.In a Wednesday teleconference, IU cornerbacks coach Brandon Shelby and safeties coach Jason Jones spoke about team's depth across the field.

“We’ve got a great foundation,” Shelby said in a Wednesday teleconference. “We‘ve got some guys who have been on the football field, they know the checks, they know what it takes to win in the Big Ten.”

After a historic 2019 season in which the Hoosiers finished with an 8-5 record and a trip to the Gator Bowl, IU’s pool of positional flexibility shined through as a key factor. 

At safety, the emergence of sophomores Devon Matthews and Juwan Burgess gave IU’s defense weapons off of the bench throughout games to spell redshirt junior safety Bryant Fitzgerald and redshirt senior safety Khalil Bryant.

The arrival of freshman cornerback Tiawan Mullen, an All-Big Ten freshman, also added instant talent and depth to a young cornerback group that included sophomores Reece Taylor and Jaylin Williams. 

“In the past, at certain times in the fourth quarter toward the end of the season, they would kind of wear down,” Shelby said. “As we create depth, keeping our guys mentally and physically healthy in the fourth quarter is going to be key in the Big Ten.”

In order to compete in the perennially competitive Big Ten East division including teams such as Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan, IU had to find a way to keep its players rested while not sacrificing skill. 

With 82% of IU’s defense returning in 2020, Shelby and Jones has multiple key players they can rotate in throughout a game.

“I’m pleased with the guys that I have,” Jones said in a Wednesday teleconference. “I think the staff has done a great job with just recruiting and bringing in the right guys we need to run a system.”

However, with success comes increased expectations, and Jones said he’s going to require a lot more this season from the safeties.

“The biggest thing that I’m stressing to them is to be the quarterback,” Jones said. “The safeties, in the defense, those are the guys that make the checks and get everybody lined up.”

Now that IU finds itself in uncharted territory with an abundance of experience, talent and depth, the Hoosiers’ coaching staff doesn’t have to worry as much about who they can call upon.

“I like competition,” Shelby said. “But I am very satisfied with where we’re going to have an opportunity to start come the fall.”

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