For the time being, Indiana is sort of coaching linebackers by committee.
The departure of linebackers coach and co-defensive coordinator Mike Ekeler to Southern California at the end of last month left the Hoosiers with an opening at the position, which hadn’t been filled at the beginning of spring practice Saturday and still hasn’t been.
“My thought process was I was gonna take the time to get the right person versus having someone by the first day of practice,” IU coach Kevin Wilson said after practice Sunday afternoon. “It wasn’t about having a good first practice, it was getting the right fit long-term.”
Wilson said he’s close to finding that right fit. He said he’s talked to several candidates and is hoping to at least be on his way to naming a replacement in the next week.
“We’ve had a couple of guys we’re talking to seriously, and we hope to be, in the next one, two, three days, have a direction,” Wilson said. “Sometimes maybe that doesn’t go public, because from a (human resources) standpoint, we gotta get a background check and get university consent to hire someone, but the plan is hopefully to have somebody here in the next 1-2-3 days, whether that’s official and public, but the goal would be to get somebody here for Tuesday or Thursday, we’ll see if that happens.”
Wilson said he’s giving co-coordinator and safeties coach Doug Mallory significant input in the hire, and that he’s looking for someone both men can be comfortable with. Ekeler and Mallory had coached together for three years at Louisiana State when Mallory was a defensive backs coach and Ekeler was a graduate assistant and football intern. Mallory said he’s hoping they find someone he connects with on a similar level, but also that simply can help a defense that finished at the bottom of the conference and near the bottom of the Football Bowl Subdivision in scoring defense, total defense and run defense last year.
“I think, No. 1 is a guy that’s gonna be a great teacher of fundamentals and technique,” Mallory said. “Do a great job with these kids, be a good staff guy, a guy that’s gonna blend in and work well with our staff defensive side as well as our whole staff. A guy who’s gonna have input, a guy that’s gonna have some great ideas, some thoughts, doing some things a little bit different, having an impact on the game plan, that’s what I’m looking for.”
Wilson said he isn’t sure whether that person will maintain a co-coordinatorship. Based on his deference to Mallory in the hiring, it seems unlikely that the new hire would become the defensive coordinator on his own in similar fashion to the way Seth Littrell was hired as offensive coordinator last season and quarterbacks/wide receivers coach Kevin Johns went from co-coordinator to assistant coordinator. But there is a possibility that Mallory could become defensive coordinator and the new linebackers coach would simply be in charge of his position.
“Sometimes those are titles where, ‘What does it mean?’” Wilson said. “Other times, it’s really true assignment work. That will be with the person. Sometimes that person maybe needs that from a career deal where it looks good. But then, what’s your job? What’s your role? What are you doing? I’m trying to get someone that Doug feels good about, that I feel good about.”
While he’s looking for that person and finalizing his decision, the Hoosiers are moving around other assistants to handle the linebackers on certain drills and also making use of their graduate assistants. Cornerbacks coach Brandon Shelby spent some time with the linebackers on Sunday, while Mallory was working with the secondary as a whole. Graduate assistants Bryant Haines and Chris Shula — the son of former Cincinnati Bengals coach Dave Shula and grandson of legendary Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula — both have experience working with linebackers, and Shula helped Ekeler with the linebackers the last twoyears. He was a three-year letterwinner at Miami (Ohio) as a linebacker from 2004-08.
“We’re fortunate,” Mallory said. “… There’s a guy that’s familiar with the position. He knows how it’s been coached. Some of the things we’re adjusting, some of the changes we’ve spoken about over the last couple of months, he’s been in tune. When you’ve got a quality graduate assistant like that, who can step in there and fill the void like that, it hasn’t been as big an issue as you would expect.”
Whoever is hired as linebackers coach and possibly co-coordinator will be expected to help a defense that finished the season with three dismal performances,allowing 163 points in the season’s final three games. The overarching goal for the Hoosiers in spring ball, Mallory said, is to make the team better at stopping the run after giving up a league-worst 231.3 yards per game on the ground last season.
“First thing we’re putting a lot of emphasis on is defending the run game,” Mallory said. “We’ve set up a designated period that we’re calling a Big Ten period, where it’s a little more of the style of offense you’re gonna see from a lot of the teams in the conference. A little bit more two-back, a little more of what we call 12 personnel, setting up segments of practice where we’re gonna see more of that two-back run offense. It starts with being able to defend the run game. That’s where we’re looking to make major strides.