IU football's defensive line anchor to swarming defense
BLOOMINGTON – In front of Indiana defensive tackle Demarcus Elliott last week was Michigan, one of the legendary programs of the Big Ten, and a program the 311-pounder from Kansas wanted to line up against when he transferred in from Garden City Community College in 2019.
An opportunity was in front of him. And with one glance to his right, confidence grew inside of him.
Lined up next to Elliott at defensive end was 291-pound redshirt freshman C.J. Person, who brings more than his share of strength to the Hoosiers’ “heavy” package versus two tight end sets.
“Just looking to the side and seeing C.J. there, I know they’re probably not going to run to this side on us. There’s not much place they can go,” Elliott said.
“Having him there beside me solidifies in my head, ‘Yeah, they’re definitely not going to get this.’”
Against a maize-and-blue offensive line — the kind that has pushed cream-and-crimson d-lines backward through the years — Elliott and Person were not giving any ground. On one particular first-and-10 in the first quarter, Michigan tried running off-tackle to their strong side, and Elliott knocked center Andrew Vastardis a yard back off the snap. Right guard Zak Zinter, attempting a pull around the edge, ended up running into right tackle Andrew Stueber because Person wouldn’t budge.
Michigan running back Chris Evans, angling for that edge, had to put on the brakes and cut upfield, right into the arms of linebacker Micah McFadden for a minimal gain.
And that’s the way it was all day. The mighty Wolverines were meek in the face of IU’s defensive front, mustering only 13 rushing yards, which was beyond meaningful to the victory but also the linemen involved.
“That means the world to me, especially coming out of JUCO, having that dream of playing against guys like that, and live it, and do it, and succeed very highly at it, it’s just an amazing feeling,” Elliott said. “You see some of the outlets talking about the d-line is probably the weakest link. We’re showing people, we don’t have a weak link on defense.”
While eyes may be drawn to IU’s linebacker, led by explosive athletes like McFadden and Cam Jones, or a greedy secondary that’s forced many turnovers, the Hoosier defensive line may be as responsible for a 3-0 start and top-10 ranking as any unit. Unlike in the past, opposing offensive lines from Penn State and Michigan haven’t been able to bully IU’s front.
Quite the opposite. The 13 yards gained by Michigan last Saturday were the least by an IU opponent since William and Mary rushed for minus-32 in 2002. Early in camp, IU coach Tom Allen and defensive coordinator Kane Wommack were saying the d-line appeared more physical than a year ago, and it’s bearing itself out on the field.
IU ranks sixth in the Big Ten in rushing defense, allowing 128 yards per game, and that’s fewer than eight yards behind the second-ranked team in that category, Rutgers, at 120.7. The defense is being anchored by big-bodied athletes like Elliott, Sio Nofoagatoto’a, Jerome Johnson, and Jovan Swann on the inside, as well as veteran ends like Michael Ziemba, Lance Bryant, and James Head Jr.
But it’s been a collective effort. Wommack has also been impressed with the physical play of corners like Tiawan Mullen, Reese Tayor, and Jaylin Williams.
“That, to me, is a tribute to the physicality of the 11 players of the Swarm D on the field,” Wommack said. “When you watch, when they tried to establish the run game, the physicality we brought from every level is what stands out to me. Certainly, there were defensive linemen that were knocking them back and were pushing them around in the backfield, and that was awesome to see.
“But linebackers stepping up and making plays, safeties coming in and making support fits, and corners absolutely physical off the edge, was awesome to see.”
IU has a chance to again establish dominance versus the run at Michigan State, because the Spartans are the worst rushing offense in the Big Ten, gaining a measly 2.2 yards per carry versus Rutgers, Michigan, and Iowa. At the same time, those are three of the top five run defenses in the conference, just ahead of IU.
Michigan State does, however, rank third in the Big Ten in passing yards at nearly 290 per contest. The Hoosiers need to keep the Spartans one-dimensional, limiting their rushing gains on first down, and giving Wommack a chance to bring a range of pressures on second- and third-and-long situations.
There is also hope, as this defensive line continues to grow, it will be able to bring pressure on its own with a three- or four-man rush, allowing the Hoosiers to drop more into coverage, especially when opponents are playing from behind. IU has eight sacks in three games, which ranks fourth in the Big Ten, but all but Head’s 1.5 have been claimed by linebackers and defensive backs.
“You want to play two-minute defense and be in a position where an offense wants to move the ball down the field in the third and fourth quarter, but you have to have some more tools in your toolbelt rather than just bringing pressure every time,” Wommack said. “You can’t throw haymakers for 15 rounds.”
While big-bodied athletes like Elliott and Person have been impressive versus the run, the Hoosiers did find a glimmer of a pass rush at the end of the Michigan game, as Head came around an edge and sacked Joe Milton to help clinch the game defensively.
That came on just a three-man rush.
“We do get exotic a little bit with some things we try to do to create pressure,” IU defensive line coach Kevin Peoples said. “If we can get a four-man pressure through the defensive line, that would allow Coach Wommack and the rest of the defensive players to play a little more coverage. That’s something we’re working on, something we have to get better at. We know that, and it’s something we’re going to take as a challenge.”
Wommack called that four-man rush the “missing link” for the defense. At the same time, the defensive line, considering its play versus the run, isn’t a weak link.
There’s pride in that.
“We’re very confident,” Elliott said. “We all work hard at practice. We all have faith with each other … that ‘Swarm D’ mentality, all 11, whoever it is, they represent the Swarm D. The trust we have in the defensive room is out of this world.”