Is Ray Fisher the answer at corner? – One of the things Bill Lynch likes about his secondary is the fact he has four seniors slated to start with safeties Austin Thomas and Nick Polk plus cornerback Ray Fisher. But when it comes to Fisher, he might be an experienced fourth-year player, but he’s a college rookie when it comes to time spent in the defensive backfield. Nonetheless, Indiana will look to the 5’9”, 170-pound Fisher to shore up a secondary that ranked last in the Big Ten in pass defense efficiency (143.1), completion percentage (63.1), passing yards (3,126) and surrendered 20 touchdowns against only six interceptions. One thing working in Fisher’s favor is he did spend the spring at corner, and when he came out of high school most programs recruited him as a cornerback. Fall camp will provide a chance to see if Fisher is capable of being more than simply a starter, but a playmaker who can match up with the league’s top wideouts.
Are big things in store for Tyler Replogle? Bill Lynch has tabbed his stable of linebackers as perhaps his best position grouping this season, as starters Will Patterson (55 tackles, 8 ½ tackles for loss), Matt Mayberry (89 tackles, 8 ½ tackles for loss) return. The one newcomer to the starting lineup figures to be Replogle, and he has a chance to make a huge contribution to the defense. Ever since he worked his way onto the field as a true freshman two years ago, Replogle has been a player who’s always around the ball, plays all-out all the time, and is a natural leader on the field. Indiana lost a four-year starter in Geno Johnson at the close of the ’08 campaign, but I think there’s no doubt that Indiana’s crop of linebackers figures to be better in ’09 with Replogle on the field.
Will Indiana have one All- Big Ten caliber defensive end or two? The Hoosiers have a pair of defensive ends who have more than All-Big Ten potential – they both have first-team All-Big Ten honors on their resume. Greg Middleton was an All-American in ’07 after leading the nation in sacks with 16, and Jammie Kirlew was a first-team All-Big Ten choice in ’08 after recording 10 ½ sacks and 19 ½ tackles for loss. If both can perform at that level in their senior seasons, Indiana has a chance to make huge strides defensively. Their success up front will help the secondary, and it should result in an improved takeaway total (22 in ’08).
Will Indiana be any better getting off the field on third down? Every year there’s a statistical category to zero in on, and this year’s its third-down efficiency on both sides of the ball. Offensively IU must do better than 27.6 percent success rate it had last season, and defensively the Hoosiers must improve on the 46.8 percent conversion rate that foes had on third down. So long as opponents are successful on nearly twice as many third downs as IU is, thoughts of a significant turnaround from last year’s 3-9 mark is doubtful. So how can Indiana make this happen? There are a variety of things that need to happen. Cutting down on penalties (IU ranked ninth in the Big Ten in ’08 and 11th in ’07) will help, and so should the added experience in the secondary. Nick Polk and Austin Thomas missed the final three games of the ’08 season, and IU’s foes combined to convert 23-of-41 (56.1 percent) 3rd downs during that stretch.
What’s Indiana got to work with at defensive tackle? The IU coaches feel great about what they’ve got at defensive end, linebacker and safety, and their cautiously optimistic that Fisher’s arrival will help shore things up at corner. That leaves defensive tackle, where Indiana lost Greg Brown and top reserve Keith Burrus. Indiana returns 6’3”, 286-pound junior Deonte Mack to the starting lineup, and IU has a trio of redshirt freshmen in Nick Sliger, Mick Mentzer and Larry Black who figure to battle for the other starting spot. That trio and Mack might not end up with the same sort of statistical production as Kirlew and Middleton, but they need to good enough to occupy opposing offensive linemen and free up IU’s linebackers to make plays. This is a position that should be one of the more interesting battles to watch during fall camp.