Indiana’s struggling pass defense got a whole lot more inexperienced this offseason.
The Hoosiers — who ranked dead last in the Big Ten last season when it came to stopping the pass, allowing an average of 250.7 yards through the air per game — lost all four starters in the secondary. That means that in 2015, improvement will hinge on four new starters getting up to speed in a hurry.
Two senior defensive backs moved on this offseason in Mark Murphy and Tim Bennett. Murphy, a safety, made 36 starts and recorded 279 tackles in his four years at Indiana. Bennett, a cornerback, started 27 games in his career with the Hoosiers and ranked third on the team with 67 tackles last season. Both graduated.
Safety Antonio Allen was the team’s leading tackler in 2014 with 74 stops, and he picked off two passes. He was dismissed from the team earlier this summer after he was arrested and charged for selling drugs to an undercover police officer. Cornerback Michael Hunter started 25 games in his three seasons at Indiana. He transferred to Oklahoma State this offseason.
So with four starters gone and not a defensive back on the current roster older than a sophomore to be found, the saving grace is going to have to be safety Chase Dutra. A sophomore, Dutra made just one start last season but appeared in all 12 games and made three interceptions, leading the team in that category.
Coaches are extremely high on Dutra, who’s already established himself as the leader of that inexperienced group in the defensive backfield.
"He came to me earlier in the summer, said, 'Hey, I've got this,’” head coach Kevin Wilson said Sunday during the team’s media day. “Maybe that’s talk or rhetoric. But he’s got confidence, comes out of a military family. … So I don’t think he shies away from it. And not that he's going to be Mr. Rah Rah, Mr. Big Speech Guy all the time, but I don't think he hides. I don't think he's seeing that per se, wants to be anointed: 'I'm your leader.' But I don't think he's scared or afraid or hides from it. I think he embraces it.”
“I do see myself as a leader for the secondary,” Dutra said. “The defense as a whole … we do have a lot of people that have experience, but in the secondary we don’t. Myself, I played all 12 games last year, only had a start, but I do see myself as having a big chip on my shoulder and trying to carry these guys and point them in the right direction and make sure we’re all prepared as a unit.”
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Last year was just Dutra’s first seeing game action after he redshirted in 2013. But according to defensive coordinator Brian Knorr, he’s got a great grasp of the system and should be a big help in bringing along the other guys who aren’t as experienced.
“Chase really understands the defense, and he’ll do things out there that (make) you think of a three-year vet,” Knorr said. “So his ability as a safety, you’re kind of the quarterback of the defense, especially in the secondary, and I think he’ll be a guy that’ll help those young guys get in the right place, be able to make the right checks. To have him back there is something we’re very excited about.”
But Dutra can be as great as any defensive back in the Big Ten. It’s not going to mean much overall if those other guys can’t figure it out, too. The Hoosiers had a lot of upperclassmen experience last season and still were the Big Ten’s worst team at defending the pass.
Defense has been Indiana’s Achilles' heel in recent seasons, as even though the offense has been explosive and productive, the inability to stop opponents has meant there hasn’t been a season of more than five wins during the Wilson Era.
If a bowl game is going to happen in 2015, that defense is going to have to be better.
“As far as replacing production, we need not only replace those four starters but we were last in the league in pass defense. So we expect a significant improvement in that regard,” Wilson said last month during Big Ten Media Days. “We're going to have to have great secondary play. We'll have to have a lot of young people step up. I think skill-wise we will.”