Two days into spring practice, Indiana’s football team hasn’t put on the pads yet. That will come Tuesday.
But the Hoosiers have already focused their efforts on how to be more physical on defense next season.
Indiana had the Big Ten’s worst run defense last season, giving up 2,776 yards on the ground last season — including a record 564 yards to eventual conference champion Wisconsin.
IU’s one-back offense doesn’t give the Hoosiers’ defense much to prepare them for typical smashmouth Big Ten football teams. So the Hoosiers are implementing the appropriately named “Big Ten” drill this spring to help their defense get more physical.
“We were basically running plays that fit the Big Ten — not every Big Ten team, but a lot of Big Ten football teams,” coach Kevin Wilson said. “We’ve got to be a lot more physical on defense.”
That starts up front, where the Hoosiers not only have to replace both starting defensive tackles, but also linebackers coach and co-defensive coordinator Mike Ekeler.
Ekeler left Indiana in February to take the linebackers coach position at USC. He’s the second defensive assistant to leave IU this offseason, as defensive tackles coach Mark Hagen left for Texas A&M.
“Those are probably two of my closest friends, and to lose those guys, that makes it a little more difficult,” defensive coordinator Doug Mallory said. “But that’s the life in coaching.”
James Patton took Hagen’s place on the coaching staff as recruiting and special teams coordinator, and will assist Jon Fabris in coaching the defensive line. Fabris focused on the defensive ends in his first season last year at IU.
Wilson said the Hoosiers hope to have a new linebackers coach in place within the week, although he wasn’t sure how soon the hire would be official because of human resources requirements.
In the meantime, graduate assistant Chris Shula has been helping coach the linebackers.
“Chris has worked the linebackers, helped coach Ekeler the last couple years, so there’s a guy that’s familiar with the position, knows how it’s been coached,” Mallory said. “Some of the things we’re adjusting, some of the changes we’ve spoken about the last couple months, things we’re going to do differently, he’s been in tune.”
Shula, the grandson of Hall of Fame coach Don Shula, played linebacker at Miami of Ohio from 2004-08. Fellow graduate assistant Bryant Haines was also a linebacker in college, at Ball State (2005-08).
Wilson said that experience allowed him to take some time to find the right fit as Ekeler’s replacement.
“I’m trying to get someone that Doug feels good about that I feel good about,” Wilson said. “As a coach, even though I’m the head guy, I like to spend most of my time with the offense. So I don’t want to put someone I like that doesn’t fit him. Same time, he is working for my program, our program, so I want to make sure I’m good with it.”
Whether the new coach also serves as co-defensive coordinator as Ekeler did remains to be seen.
“Whoever’s on the defensive staff, my main objective is get this defense playing where we can be a championship-caliber defense,” Mallory said. “I’m not caught up in titles, I want a guy that’s going to come in here, work well, and fit in with our staff.”