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Indiana Secondary Working to Regain Takeaway Identity After Injury-Riddled 2021

Indiana's 17 interceptions in 2020 ranked second in all of college football, powering the Hoosiers to a 6-2 record. Indiana's defensive backfield lost its identity and was decimated by injuries in 2021, leading to just five interceptions as the Hoosiers fell to a 2-10 record. The veterans who built Indiana's takeaway identity in 2020 have returned for one last season, eager to reverse the momentum in 2022.

Michigan approached the 50-yard line, chasing a 10-point deficit with 13 minutes to go in the fourth quarter against Indiana during the 2020 season. Wolverines quarterback Joe Milton eyed a receiver down the sideline, but Indiana cornerback Jaylin Williams jumped the route.

Williams weaved his way to the Michigan 29-yard line, setting the Indiana offense up for a Stevie Scott touchdown eight plays later. Michigan marched into Indiana territory the following possession, but again, the ballhawking Indiana secondary was hungry for a turnover.

Milton threw up a desperation heave on third down, and Indiana safety Devon “Monster” Matthews licked his chops as the ball floated downfield. Another interception. Matthews jumped into Indiana coach Tom Allen’s arms in celebration, his helmet leaving a bruise on Allen’s face, and Indiana ran the clock out on its way to a 38-21 win.

That was the formula for Indiana’s success in 2020.

The Hoosiers took down Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State and Wisconsin for the first time in program history in 2020, intercepting eight passes and scooping up three fumbles in those four games alone. In total, the Hoosiers’ 17 interceptions across eight games ranked second in the nation behind Georgia Southern’s 18 picks in 13 games.

“That was our identity,” Indiana cornerback Tiawan Mullen, who was a First-team All-American in 2020, said. “Just playing with swagger, playing relentless, playing fast on defense, swarming to the ball. Our motto is Swarm D, just fly to the ball.”

But that identity was gone in 2021.

The defense lost its knack for creating turnovers. The game-changing plays that handed the offense optimal field possession were nowhere to be seen. After leading college football with 2.1 interceptions per game in 2020, Indiana’s five interceptions were tied for the 10th fewest in college football in 2021.

Williams and Mullen sensed that the Hoosiers lost their swagger last season and didn’t play with the same edge they had in 2020.

“When you get a little success, it can sometimes go over your head,” Mullen said. “That’s what happened.”

Indiana’s 2-10 campaign in 2021 can’t be pinned on one downfall, and neither can the massive turnover disparity. But simply from a personnel standpoint, Indiana’s top talent in the defensive backfield – from a takeaway and leadership perspective – often stood on the sideline last season.

Matthews went down with an injury early on in the season-opening loss at Iowa, causing him to miss the first three games of the season. And when he returned against Western Kentucky in week four, Mullen suffered an ankle injury and made just three appearances the rest of the season.

Chris Keys tore his ACL in September, and fellow defensive backs Reese Taylor and Juwan Burgess were in and out with injuries throughout the season. In short, Indiana never came close to full health in the defensive backfield in 2021.

Cornerbacks coach Brandon Shelby said Indiana entered some games knowing only two cornerbacks were available, period. This forced Williams to play 80-plus snaps while battling through a rib injury, which ultimately became a leadership and production load that was too much to handle alone.

Indiana went 0-9 in Big Ten play, concluding with a disastrous season with a 44-7 loss at Purdue. For Mullen, it was a realization of just how quickly things can turn.

“God showed us that the awards you can receive, the praise you can get, it can be snatched away real fast,” Mullen said. “God put us in a timeout, he made us be more grateful, more thankful.”

So on the bus ride home from West Lafayette, Williams, Mullen and Matthews discussed meeting with coach Allen as soon as possible to relay their intentions to return and make sure 2022 would be different. Despite the allure of pursuing a professional career, Williams felt their return was never in question. Leaving on that note wouldn’t have felt right to anyone.

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Matthews told Indiana safeties coach Jason Jones that he originally chose Indiana with hopes of achieving something different. And entering his last season as a Hoosier, he’s looking to finish things the right way.

“When you have a leader like Monster, and he says that, everybody else follows,” Jones said.

For Williams, Mullen and Matthews, the 2021 season was an aberration. Mullen played every game as a freshman in 2019, and reaching a bowl game was all he ever knew as a Hoosier. Joining Indiana in 2018, and Williams said it's always been 'bowl game or bust' with him and Matthews on the roster.

This group has tasted success at Indiana, and while that was lost in 2021, their return gives Indiana a trio of leaders that have experienced what it takes to win.

“The building blocks were there when these guys were freshmen and sophomores, we just have to dust it off,” Shelby said. “They’ve always had it inside of them because they know what it looks like, we just have to go back to the foundation."

Part of that foundation is returning to the takeaway-centric mindset employed by the secondary that set Indiana up for wins throughout the 2020 season. For Shelby, this has started with simplifying aspects of Indiana’s defensive scheme.

“So when you do have a check, you ain’t got 30 of them, you’ve got one good check, maybe got two good checks and now I can play fast,” Shelby said. “And in 2020, that’s what we did.”

Coach [Charlton] Warren brought up a lot of great things, too,” Shelby said of Indiana’s defensive coordinator in 2021. “We’re not going to throw that stuff in the trash, but we’re also going to make some of those things he brought a little easier to go out and play quicker.”

Last season, Indiana’s secondary was often in man-to-man coverage, which can leave guys on a cliff, according to Shelby. Indiana will still play man-to-man at times this year as the game plan varies week to week, but Shelby wants to create more opportunities to play zone-vision coverage this season. This will allow the secondary to react and attack the ball when it’s in the air and be in better position for tipped-ball opportunities.

“I think that will be good for us,” Matthews said. “Keeping our eyes on the quarterback and flying around and being the defense we used to be.”

The myriad of injuries to Indiana’s defensive backs in 2021 allowed for major opportunities for Josh Sanguinetti and Noah Pierre. Sanguinetti saw action in eight games at safety, and Pierre made six starts while appearing in all 12 games at cornerback.

It took a few weeks for Pierre to get comfortable, but he said things began to click for him in his third start at Michigan. He felt the game slow down, which allowed him to lock in and focus on his responsibilities.

Pierre is listed as a husky – Indiana’s safety-linebacker hybrid position – on this year’s depth chart, but the experience from last year gives Indiana’s some positional versatility in the secondary.

“We took one on the chin last year, that was a tough year,” Shelby said. “But coming into the season, [Sanguinetti and Pierre] got the game experience, and now they come into the arena and it ain’t so much, ‘Whoa,’ it’s ‘Now it’s time to go to work.’ So I think those opportunities for them in the long run will benefit them.”

Sanguinetti and Pierre will provide Indiana with necessary depth as they accompany veterans Matthews, Williams, Mullen and Fitzgerald in what could be their last seasons as Hoosiers. This quartet helped build momentum around Indiana football early in their careers, and after a letdown in 2021, they’re the leaders rallying the Hoosiers in hopes of returning to an identity of creating turnovers in 2022.

“We’re blessed enough to have another season to do something about it and to change the narrative of a 2-10 season,” Mullen said. “Because I guess everybody forgot what we did the first two years, they all discredit us, but it’s all good. We have a 2022 season, and we’re ready to put it on display.”

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