When Aaron Casey looked at the other linebackers on Indiana’s roster after his true freshman season in 2018, he was unsure what his future held.
Buried on the depth chart and having second thoughts about staying in Bloomington, Casey talked with his family and decided to stick it out, citing the locker room culture Indiana head coach Tom Allen established.
Almost five years later, Casey looks back on those moments and laughs, flashing his vibrant smile. He’s the unquestioned leader of Indiana’s defense off the field and has become the most productive player on it, posting team high marks with 86 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks this season.
Casey’s story isn’t a common one in this era of college football. Now more than ever, many players transfer when opportunities don’t come. All Casey did was work harder – and make Allen extremely proud in the process.
“The grit and perseverance he's displayed,” Allen said when discussing what he’s most proud of Casey for. “It hasn't been easy for him to just come here and become the guy right away. It took several years. Most guys aren't willing to do that. They're not willing to wait.”
Indiana sixth-year senior safety Noah Pierre still remembers the first time he met Casey. It came in the dorms when they first arrived back in 2018. Pierre left that meeting feeling Casey was cool but quiet.
Casey didn’t break out of his shell until years later. He’s now a staple in Bloomington, earning Indiana’s nod for the Wuerffel Trophy — college football’s premiere community service award.
Leadership is the area Pierre’s seen Casey evolve the most, as he’s grown into a more vocal presence capable of pushing his teammates to greater heights — but like Indiana junior punter James Evans said, Casey’s still a silent assassin at heart.
“He's not going to be extremely loud and try to be the focal point or center of attention,” Pierre said. “He's just one of those guys that you got to build a relationship with to know who he really is.”
So, who is Aaron Casey?
“I'm just a guy who cares about his teammates, his friends and wants to help everybody get to what they want to achieve,” Casey said. “A guy who’s willing to do what it takes for the team.”
To others, like Cooper, Maddox and Charlotte Wilt, the children of Indiana linebackers coach and co-defensive coordinator Chad Wilt, Casey is a larger-than-life figure who’s quickly grown into family.
“A young man that my family loves,” Chad Wilt said. “My wife loves Aaron; my kids love Aaron. He’s just a tremendous person. He's got great charisma and personality to him.”
Casey’s a de-facto honorary member of the Wilt residence. He went to their house for Easter this spring and celebrated with the family. Last fall, he carved pumpkins with the kids leading up to Halloween.
Chad’s wife, Megan, makes treats for the players after each game and makes sure to incorporate Casey’s favorite — a golden graham smore with melted butter, chocolate chips and marshmallows — a couple of times a year.
When Indiana beat Wisconsin on Nov. 4, the Wilt children had two people on their mind.
“My kids wanted to see me, and they wanted to see Ace,” Wilt said. “Standing down on the field outside the doors to go in – they were waiting to see Ace.”
Casey earned the nickname ‘Ace’ heading into his senior year of high school. It comes from the movie “Paid in Full” and character Ace Boogie, whom Casey’s cousin said he was acting like one day. It’s now how he’s commonly referred to around the program.
When around Wilt’s children, Casey is engaging and personable. He helps brighten their days, and they do the same to him.
“Seeing little Charlotte, seeing her smile, seeing her excited to be around football players at practice and before games is always a nice thing,” Casey said. “And their sons also. You can tell their sons are going to be heavy-handed like he is.”
Away from football, Casey’s gentle. On the field, the 6-foot-2, 235-pounder is anything but.
Casey won Big Ten Player of the Week for his performance against Wisconsin, headlined by four tackles for loss and two sacks. It was the first time an Indiana player reached four tackles for loss in a game since 2016.
Only two other players on the Hoosiers’ roster – sixth-year senior defensive end Andre Carter and senior outside linebacker Lanell Carr Jr. – have more than four tackles for loss this season, let alone the mark Casey put up in one game.
From the moment he arrived in Bloomington, Casey could play – Pierre recognized it and Wilt saw the same when he arrived in the spring of 2022.
But after four years, Casey still didn’t know where his future stood. He admittedly didn’t play extensively and wasn’t statistically impressive. But in the two years that have followed, he’s left little doubt what’s to come: the NFL.
“There's a lot of people that have the talent to play at that level,” Wilt said. “Do they have the mindset, the work ethic, the discipline, the commitment, the perseverance and the passion? A lot of people are capable - are you willing? Aaron Casey is willing to do the things you need to do to be successful.”
Casey’s been the epitome of consistency on and off the field, Allen said, never causing trouble regardless of his age or playing time. He’s always where he’s supposed to be, doing what he’s supposed to do.
Allen’s enjoyed watching Casey ascend from high school safety to potential NFL linebacker, doing so in a first-class manner that led Indiana’s coaches to award him jersey No. 44 in honor of George Taliaferro, the first African American player drafted into the NFL and a key figure in IU’s racial integration.
The Hoosiers were one of four Power 5 offers Casey had as a recruit. He committed to Indiana eight days after his 17th birthday. He’s now 23 years old and playing his best football in his final collegiate season.
“To see a young man come here and fulfill his full potential, maximize that, that's what you want for your guys,” Allen said. “We had a vision for him as a player when he got here, and he's stayed true to that, he's stayed with us, and it's neat to see him rewarded for that.”
Casey will play his last game at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, when Michigan State enters Bloomington for a noon kickoff with the Old Brass Spittoon trophy on the line.
“It’s starting to sink in,” Casey said. “Especially at practice, realizing this is the second to last Wednesday practice of my college career, being out there with my boys. Just cherishing every moment.”
When prompted with this reality, Allen’s face grew sorrowful, his head nodding in acceptance. Wilt responded similarly. Casey’s departure isn’t just the loss of Indiana’s defensive leader, it’s the loss of a valued member of a tight-knit family.
“I'll be pretty sad,” Wilt said. “It's every one of these young men because they become part of your family. You spend so much time with them, invest so much of yourself into them. The hardest thing about being a parent is not raising the children, it's sending your children off.”
The Hoosiers are confident they’ve prepared Casey well for whatever his future may hold, and he agrees. Adversity was a common theme during Casey’s tenure, but it’s all helped him grow into the figure he is today.
Rather than sorrow, Casey feels gratitude – for the opportunities, coaches and teammates he’s encountered in Bloomington and the freedom to be himself.
Casey plans on returning to Indiana’s sidelines for games in the future, but this weekend isn’t about that. Instead, Casey’s focus is on beating Michigan State and appreciating how far he’s come since those doubts after his freshman season.
“I want that legacy to be left that you don’t have to be that guy coming in,” Casey said. “Stay at it, keep working, you can get there with hard work and preparation to leave a legacy.”