Bloomington, Ind. – When Greg Middleton made public his season’s goal of totaling 15 sacks three months ago, he had at least one believer.
After getting off to a five-sack start in the first three weeks of the season, Middleton revealed he saw 15 sacks in his immediate future.
Never mind that Middleton was in his first season as a starter, or that the Hoosiers had totaled only 14 as a team in 2006, or that no one in IU history had ever reached such a number. Middleton wasn’t shying away from revealing his prognostication.
Now, a statement that once seemed to border on lunacy turned out to be prophetic. The Hoosiers’ 6-2, 275-pound sophomore totaled a school-record 16 sacks, capped by a 2 ½-sack performance against Purdue in the regular season finale. His accomplishments didn’t go unnoticed, as he was tabbed first-team All-Big Ten by both coaches and media while also earned All-America recognition from a variety of outlets.
Surprisingly, Middleton said it was his rookie season – one that included zero starts, six tackles, and zero sacks - that gave him the confidence he could such a huge impact on this season’s defensive fortunes.
“I was confident I could do it,” said Middleton. “I had gotten some playing time last year against some of the better teams in the Big Ten like Michigan and Ohio State, and I didn’t feel I was dominated the way I thought I would be as a true freshman.”
This year, it was Middleton that did the dominating. His sack total led the nation by 1 ½, and he had at least one sack in nine of the Hoosiers’ 12 games and at least two sacks six times.
Middleton’s position coach, co-defensive coordinator Brian George, might not have predicted a school-record effort from Middleton, but he did see a player with the potential to be special.
“He’s a great talent,” George said. “And the great thing about him is he’s still learning to play the game, and still has a lot of areas he can improve on.”
It’s been George who has managed to take an exceptionally gifted athlete and turn him into one of the Big Ten’s most feared pass rushers. Middleton credits the work he’s put in on his technique for helping him wreak havocs on opposing offenses.
“(George) has been teaching me about opening my hips, which has a lot to do with pass rushing,” Middleton said. “You can’t really finish if offensive linemen are still hanging on you. He’s also worked with me about going hard off the ball every time, and it’s paid off.”
Middleton has been the anchor of a defensive line that made huge strides in getting after the quarterback a year ago. Indiana tripled its sack total from a year ago, totaling 42 this season to rank third nationally. Last season the Hoosiers had to regularly blitz to try to generate pressure on the quarterback, but this season 36.5 of IU’s 42 sacks were recorded by defensive linemen.
IU Coach Bill Lynch said that the large majority of IU’s sacks this season came courtesy a four-man rush, which in turn freed up the Hoosiers to double-team opposing wideouts or play more zone coverage than they could a year ago.
While Middleton was the headliner, players such as Jammie Kirlew (4 ½ sacks), Joe Kremer (3 sacks), Ryan Marando (5 sacks) and Greg Brown (1 ½ sacks) also produced enough pressure that teams couldn’t simply focus on Middleton.
“We do enough with our defense, if you’re going to just double him, it’s going to free up some other guys,” Lynch said.
That may be the case, but as the Hoosiers move forward, they can expect to see teams trying to figure out ways to contain their pass rusher. Whether that’s being chipped by a second blocker or facing consistent double teams next fall, Middleton is well aware that teams will try to devise ways to keep him from keeping him for dominating.
“I know it will be a lot harder next year because people will key on me,” Middleton said. “But I like the challenge.”
As those teams are trying to devise ways to slow him down, he’ll be busy on the practice field or in the weight room in an effort to make sure he’s every bit as dominant next season.
George says he has the talents to do just that.
“What we saw this year is just the tip of the iceberg,” George said. “The sacks are huge, but there are some other things that he needs to continue to work on, and I think he sees that. I think he’s motivated by the success he had this year to be even better.”