Jeff Thomas has a lifetime to rest. But for now, as an Indiana senior linebacker, he runs.
“We've been running all summer,” he says. “All we do is run. I feel we run in our sleep.”
This is a slight exaggeration. You don't stop Big Ten offenses with guys better suited to cross country. So the Hoosiers lift for power even as they push the pace, but speed and fitness are great equalizers, and if you're a Cream and Crimson football fan, you know how unequal IU defense has been.
Last season the Hoosiers ranked eighth or worse in the Big Ten in every major defensive category, including 10th in scoring (34.0 points allowed) and ninth in total defense (410.2 yards allowed). That follows a pattern that has lasted 18 years, a big reason why IU has been a perennial conference doormat.
Enter new coach Kevin Wilson, an offensive mind with a defensive plan. He hired Doug Mallory (son of ex-IU coach Bill Mallory) and Mike Ekeler to run the defensive show and it's predicated on this philosophy — reward goes to the swift and aggressive.
“He who hesitates is not good on defense,” Wilson says.
Wilson wants a defense that plays fast, and he based his conditioning program to develop that.
“You train speed. You also play fast when you know what you're doing and you're confident. Knowledge is power and power is scheme.”
IU's scheme veers away from the bend-but-don't-break approach used in recent years. The Hoosiers will challenge and attack.
“The way we run our packages,” Thomas says, “we're not sitting in zones trying to match up. We're going after teams. We're pressing and doing things we haven't done before.
“It's good for the defense. It gives the corners more one-on-one opportunities.”
Given that those corners, which includes former Bishop Luers standout Lawrence Barnett, face one of the Big Ten's better group of receivers (led by ex-North Side standout Damarlo Belcher) every day in practice, they should be ready for those opportunities.
“Our corners get the best in every practice,” Thomas says.
Because the Big Ten is loaded with offensive talent, even an improved IU defense won't pitch shutouts.
“We've got great players in the Big Ten,” Thomas says, “and they'll put points on the board. Our emphasis is giving up field goals and not touchdowns, but what we really want to do is get them off the field.”
Opposing quarterbacks have shredded Indiana's secondary the last few years, a trend IU hopes to stop.
Leading the way over the summer was defensive back Greg Hebron, who can play wherever he is needed.
“A lot of people are sleeping on our secondary,” Thomas said, “but all around the board, everyone is better. So we'll see what happens.”