BLOOMINGTON -- Are you tired of bend-and-break Indiana football defense?
Imagine how Hoosier coaches feel.
Last year's unit allowed 37.3 points. The year before that, it was 34.0. In the last seven years, the defense has allowed at least 32.5 points five times.
The net result -- a 29-55 record over that period, including last season's 1-11 mess.
The current defensive staff is only responsible for last year's results, and that was enough to last the rest of their careers. They've got multiple solutions to turn things around. A big one as they prepare for the Sept. 1 season opener against Indiana State is force more turnovers.
“You've got to work on it,” cornerbacks coach Brandon Shelby says. “You get what you emphasize, and quite obviously we didn't emphasize it enough last year.
“Players will do what you expect. We've set the bar pretty high.”
Last season IU forced 16 turnovers, just five on interceptions. That ranked 11th in the Big Ten, ahead of only Minnesota, which had nine. Michigan led with 29.
That's not nearly good enough.
So the Hoosiers' had a preseason camp goal of forcing five turnovers per practice -- either by fumble or interception. If they met the goal, all was well. If they didn't, they faced consequences.
What kind of consequences?
“Running or pushups or whatever it might be,” cornerback Kenny Mullen says.
Plenty of defensive players talk about forcing turnovers. Not every defense does it. Sometimes turnovers can come from schemes and blitzes, big hits and strip-the-ball aggression. Certainly they can be caused by good players making big plays. But it all starts, co-defensive coordinator Mike Ekeler says, with making it a priority.
“It's an emphasis you put on it,” Ekeler says. “It starts with the head coach (Kevin Wilson). He made it clear to us that's exactly what we're going to be as a defense. We're trying to reinforce that with turnover circuits. We're keeping track every day. We're holding the guys accountable. If we don't make our goal, we're running for it.”
A “turnover circuit” involves different stations at the beginning of practice where players take different shots at knocking the ball free.
“A lot of forcing turnovers is technique,” Ekeler says. “It doesn't just happen. You have to know how to take your shot, and when to take your shot. You have to execute.”
Mullen, a former Bishop Luers standout, and the rest of the defense are ready to embrace that execution.
“It's being more aware and more aggressive,” Mullen says. “When the ball is in the air, be in perfect position to make a play. You eliminate the route, jump in front of the receiver and get the interception. That's what we're trying to do. And if the receiver catches the ball, you wrap him up, hold him up and help comes to punch out the ball or strip it out. People might carry the ball loose. We want to get it out and get it back to our offense.”
Good defense involves more that just turnovers. It has to stop the run, contain the pass and pressure the quarterback. Wilson said the defense has to improve in all those areas, but it seems far of ahead of last year, when youth and botched coverages resulted in giving up numerous big plays.
“We all have to be on the same page,” Mullen says. “Last year we'd make different checks -- I'd make a check; the corner would make a check; the safety would make a check. That's three different checks.”
The result -- an opposing receiver would run free for a huge gain, a touchdown, or both.
“This year we're all on the same page,” Mullen says. “We're eliminating errors. We're playing fast and playing together."
Right now that's just practice. The real test will come in games.
“We have to get turnovers," Mullen says. "We have to get the ball out. As a secondary we're striving to be one of the top two to three defenses in the Big Ten. Oklahoma State didn't have the best defense last year, but they led the nation in turnovers. That's what we need to be as a defense.”