When he looks at his Indiana secondary, Tom Allen sees a special group.
Perhaps most importantly, he sees depth across the board.After years of lackluster performances and middling results from their pass defense, the Hoosiers finally seem to have developed a defensive backfield that they can comfortably pit against the Big Ten's top-tier offenses.
With an All-Big Ten cover cornerback in Rashard Fant, several valued returnees at safety and an exciting sophomore playmaker in Marcelino Ball, Indiana has the makings of one of the Big Ten's better secondary units in 2017.
And, potentially, one of IU's better defensive backfields in recent memory.
"It's a good group," said Allen, who is entering his first season as Indiana's head coach. "As a collective group, you'll have to look back awhile to figure out a better one (at Indiana)."
This fall, IU returns each of its starters and regular contributors in the secondary — Fant and A'Shon Riggins at corner; Jonathan Crawford, Tony Fields and Chase Dutra at safety and Ball at hybrid safety.
Although that group finished 12th in the Big Ten last season in passing defense, it still showed marked improvement from where Indiana ranked against the pass during previous seasons.
From 2013-15, the Hoosiers combined to allow opposing quarterbacks to complete 60 percent of their passes, while yielding 285.7 passing yards per game during that span.
Last season, Indiana held opposing passers to a 52.5 percent completion percentage and 219.7 passing yards per game.
That's solid and important progress for a group that, as a whole, couldn't have become much more porous after allowing a Big Ten-worst 313.8 passing yards per game in 2015. That figure was also the second-worst mark in the nation that year, trailing only Arizona State.
The direction the Hoosiers take into this season is much more encouraging.
"Being a 4-2-5 defense and going against spread offenses, that's where people can get exposed if you don't have players who can make plays in space," Allen said. "It's a very important part of our defense."
Fant, a redshirt senior corner, is the face of the group.
He's paced the Big Ten in pass breakups during each of the past two seasons and entering this fall, Fant is the NCAA's active career leader and IU's all-time leader with 48 passes defended and 44 breakups in 38 games.
"That's a tough position to play," Allen said. "It's really hard in today's game. ... I just think that when you're out there on an island like that, he's got a lot of core confidence in himself. You have to. They're gonna catch some balls. They're gonna make some plays. But he studies film and anticipates. He's intelligent. He's just a guy that you wish you could clone."
During previous seasons, cloning a player of Fant's caliber would've been extremely beneficial for Indiana's defense. Now, with an impressive pipeline of young players, IU may not need such drastic measures.
Riggins emerged as a promising freshman last season, starting eight games and playing all 12, complementing Fant on the boundary side of the field. Riggins made 37 tackles, broke up nine passes and made one interception during his rookie campaign, earning BTN.com All-Freshman honors.
Indiana will once again lean on the tandem of Fant and Riggins, while also expecting Andre Brown and others to contribute further depth at corner. Brown has dealt with injuries during his first two years with the program, playing nine games as a freshman in 2015 before taking a medical redshirt in 2016.
"He's back," Allen said. "He was probably one of the best cornerbacks we had the year he did play. We've got some real depth there for the first time in awhile. That's huge, because you need a lot of those guys to keep fresh."
The Hoosiers should also feel comfortable at safety, where Crawford has developed into an All-Big Ten caliber player entering his junior season, and Fields and Dutra have contributed steady play in recent seasons.
According to Pro Football Focus, Crawford ranks first and Fields ranks second in lowest passer rating allowed among Big Ten safeties.
Rounding out the secondary is Ball, who impressed as a newcomer last season. Ball has made the hybrid safety spot his own, and while he can still improve in coverage, his approach to shaking off adversity and his attention to detail bode well for further development in seasons to come.
"From everything I've seen, Marcelino Ball is one of the hardest workers I've ever been around," Allen said. "My office overlooks the stadium, and on his own, he's out there working extra about every day. That's impressive."
Impressive, just like Indiana's secondary turnaround as a whole.
It's a group that made noticeable strides toward repairing its poor reputation a season ago, and one that appears determined to continue developing once fall camp opens Tuesday.
"We've got depth at safety, depth at corner and that husky (hybrid) position we put into the secondary," Allen said. "It's a special group of guys that has some depth to it. It's encouraging. That's what you want."
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