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For more on college sports, follow Pete DiPrimio via Twitter at www.twitter.com/pdiprimio

Hoosiers stress defense and run first, then pass

Monday, August 19, 2013 - 6:54 pm

BLOOMINGTON -- Kevin Wilson, it seems, is a patient coach. Check that. He's patient when it comes to picking Indiana's starting quarterback.

With defense and the running game, not so much.

We are 10 days from the Hoosiers' season opener against Indiana State, and the quarterbacks remain in starting limbo. Tre Roberson, Cam Coffman and Nate Sudfeld continue to share practice reps and speculation. The offense has not been ratcheted up to full-throttle, full-diversity overdrive.

Why?

Urgency centers on the defense, particularly the run defense. If you've seen IU play defense over the last generation, you know this is a smart move.

Wilson also wants a tougher, more effective running game, which should make it easier for last year's Big Ten best passing attack to be even more productive.

Still, quarterback is the glamor position. Everybody wants to know who's going to run the show.

“I guess we can start thinking about it,” Wilson says.

Thinking is fine, and, when it comes down to it, whoever wins the quarterback job will do well. They've all proven themselves, and they have an added advantage of having what should be a very solid offensive line and big-play-making skill players.

Still, and this can't be overstated, everything rests with the toughness factor. Want to win in the Big Ten, you'd better stop the run, play some smash-mouth ball and stop somebody good when it counts.

“First, let's get the team tougher,” Wilson says. “We could come out throwing and look at all the stats, but that leads us down a path where we complain about not having the run or defense that we want.”

On Friday IU had its final major, full-contact scrimmage. It was a closed, 130-play session that wasn't meant as a pick-a-quarterback-starter exam.

“We're working so much on trying to play better defense and trying to get a physical running game going,” Wilson says. “It's not trying to get X-number of throws or who the QB is. We're just rotating them.

“They all did well. They were hot and cold, more good than bad. We're trying to take advantage of pad on pad and build a toughness that we've lacked, that we need as a defense, that we need as an O-line, that we need as a run game.”

Wilson's first two seasons featured defense as bad as it's ever been in the program. Much of that was caused by the huge turnover in the transition from former coach Bill Lynch. The Hoosiers went with young guys and most either weren't ready or weren't good enough or both.

There was a lot of both.

IU allowed 244 rushing yards and 37.3 points in Wilson's first season, 231 yards and 35.3 points last year. Opponents have averaged at least 5.0 yards a carry for three straight years.

The Hoosiers' running game has also ranked among the Big Ten's worst. They've averaged 3.9 yards per carry for two straight seasons. They've been under 4.0 yards a carry for four straight years.

Enough is enough, Wilson says.

“Our deal is to keep bringing the defense, get 11 guys to the ball, getting tougher, getting guys on the ground. We want to run the way a good team runs the ball.

“The run defense is gaining. We're getting lined up cleaner. Our eyes are where they're supposed to be. We're canceling gaps. We're playing with better effort.

“On the O-line, the tight end play is getting better. We're gaining on it. With the run defense, we're not playing a pass-oriented defense thinking we're going to throw the ball. We're trying to stop the run, play some old fashioned ball and get some toughness going.”

Wilson doesn't want toughness to bring confusion. The offense has been simplified in practice to help the young defensive players. Fifteen newcomers were brought in for defense, and it takes time for them to adjust to the college game. Wilson didn't want to overwhelm them early with fancy offensive formations and plays, especially since guys such as safety Antonio Allen, defensive tackle Darius Latham and defensive end David Kenney project to play a lot.

“The offense can go to an advanced chapter,” Wilson says, “but if you haven't mastered the base skills, then young guys don't know what they're doing, their confidence gets lost, they get bad fundamentals,”

At the same, Wilson wants to develop a power mindset where, when the Hoosiers need a yard, they can muscle for it.

“If it's 4th and 1, let's slam it up in there. If they stop you, you're not good enough to win games.

“You've got to coach toughness. You've got to get those guys to play tough, get them to line up, seek the ball and play better D.”

All this sounds good. The risk is that you short change your uptempo, spread-offense diversity, so that when it's time to utilize it, the rhythm isn't there.

But that's being nit-picky. The Hoosiers have everybody back from a really good offense, so experience isn't a problem. They know what they're doing. They have 10 days to fine tune things. If they've built a fundamentally strong foundation, they're ready for the next step. That Wilson can hear those fundamentals as well as see them is crucial.

“When we're hitting,” he says, “it sounds good. The guys sound like they're playing Big Ten football.”

For now, at least, that's enough.

For now.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Pete DiPrimio at pdiprimio@news-sentinel.com.