BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — It takes a lot to perfect your game as a middle linebacker in college football. There's so much to learn, because you not only have to know your job, but you also need to have the rest of your teammates in the right spots, too.
That's the challenge for Indiana sophomore Micah McFadden, a 6-foot-2, 232-pound fireball from Tampa. He can fly all over the field, and the physical talent is there, without question. The mental part of the game is now something he's starting to nail down, too.
He's becoming the consummate middle linebacker.
That was obvious last Saturday in the huge 38-31 road win at Nebraska, when McFadden led the Hoosiers with 11 tackles. He's now that standout middle linebacker in Indiana's 4-2-5 defense that everyone expected when IU outrecruited several other Power 5 schools to get McFadden out of Tampa (Fla.) Plant High School
"There were times last year, when he was a freshman, that he'd be out there with no idea what the play was, but he'd just go flying around and making tackles anyway,'' Indiana coach Tom Allen said a few weeks ago about McFadden. "He has tremendous physical ability, and he's growing up with the rest of our young guys. We have a young defense, but it's been a pure pleasure to see them all grow into their roles like they have.''
Becoming a leader on Indiana's defense
McFadden leads the Hoosiers in tackles (39) and tackles for loss (6) so far this season. The tackles for a loss are a huge deal, and it's where his speed — and studying — has really paid off lately, especially in the last two weeks when Indiana grabbed big road wins at Maryland and Nebraska.
And even when he's not making a play in the opponent's backfield, he's disrupting things. He's become that guy, that Mike linebacker, that you now need to account for on every single play.
"Micah McFadden is just a very special player, and it's been fun to watch his development,'' Indiana defensive coordinator Kane Womack said Monday. "... He completely understands the defense, and is starting to anticipate things better.
"He makes so many plays, but there are plays he leaves on the field because he doesn't realize how fast he is sometimes, where it's the Fred Flintstone thing where his feet go up underneath him. He just needs to settle in and know, hey, you're one of the fastest dudes on the field, you've got plenty of time to go make a play, so settle your feet and drive to the football. I think he doesn't realize how fast he is sometimes.''
Even though Indiana's defense has given up some yards the past couple of weeks, they've also stepped up big with the game on the line. They've made great halftime adjustments to help swing momentum, and they've closed out games in the fourth quarter.
The perfect example of that is that in their last four Big Ten games, they have only allowed one touchdown in the third quarter of those games, and that came at Maryland when the Terps scored with ONE SECOND left in the third quarter.
"The last couple of weeks, we've made a lot of big plays to close out games, and that really helps us gain a lot of confidence, not only as a group, but individually as well,'' McFadden said. "It's really encouraging for us and we've just got to keep doing it these next few weeks.
"Without a doubt, it's helped us grow. We love playing in those environments, and beating teams at their place. There's almost nothing better, seeing it so quiet at the end of a game, or seeing people leave early. That's the best."
McFadden's week is filled with film study to prepare for Saturday's work day. For him, it's all about watching the film "and then getting all of that into my mind,'' he said. "We build around what Coach Kane tells us to do and by the end of the week, we're ready to fly around and make plays.
"We've got a great staff, and we're all getting better each week. You see it in our effort, in flying to the ball. I love that we've had some big second halves lately because I think we're getting better at adjusting on the fly.
"For me, it's being vocal, studying film, and it all culminates in the game. It's all about locking in and focusing in on our job and making a play. Sometimes you do get a little too caught up in your assignments. You've got to know what to do, but after that, it's just all about flying to the ball.''
Plant High School connection means so much
Thomas Allen transferred to Plant High School in Tampa when his father, Indiana coach Tom Allen, was the defensive coordinator at the University of South Florida in Tampa on 2015.
Allen came to Indiana to play for his father, and with the Allens around Plant so much, it's become a real pipeline for the Hoosiers. Junior Whop Philyor is the team's leading receiver and probably MVP so far, Juwan Burgess has been a big-time playmaker in the secondary and Allen was playing well backing up McFadden at linebacker before injuring a shoulder last week.
It means a lot to all of them to see each other play so well. They have that connection, and they love it. They are part of a group of 25 kids on Indiana's roster from Florida.
"It's huge for us Plant guys, and there's so many other guys too, from that region in Florida. It's so much fun to have all of us here, playing together, and sharing all our success together.
"Especially for us Plant guys. I mean, we all go back a long way. I've known Whop since like the sixth grade — and trust me, he hasn't changed a bit — so when Whop makes a big play, or Thomas makes a big hit or Juwan's in there doing something special, it just really feels good because we all care about each other so much. It's so great to be able to share all of that.''
He ached for Allen last week when he got hurt and he's thrilled that his buddy Philyor is having a breakout year as one of the best wide receivers in the country. He's also seen it all with Philyor, who's verbal game matches his exceptional play on the field.
"He brings the excitement, and no one brings it like him. He's the line leader in front of me in stretching on game days, so I hear him chirping all the time,'' McFadden said. "At the Michigan State game, we were over by their sideline getting loose and the basketball team was over there. They were chirping at him the entire time, and he was chirping right back at them. Not everybody can do that, but Whop can and still keep himself under control most of the time and be ready to play. He tore them up that day (with 14 catches).''
They all can share a laugh together all the time, too. At media availability the Monday after the Maryland game — the only one in a month where Philyor didn't have double-digit catches in the past month (he had 2) — I joked with Philyor that McFadden was No. 1 on my weekly Plant Panthers Power Poll. They both laughed at that one. "We're all No. 1 every week,'' Philyor said with his big laugh. "Those are my dudes, my guys.''
Sharing the success as a team is a huge deal, too. To a man, all four of those Plant kids will tell you that they came to Indiana to start turning this program around. Mission accomplished — Indiana at 6-2 is already bowl eligible before Halloween, some that's only been done five times in school history — that McFadden says this is just a start.
"Six wins, people don't realize how hard it is to do that, but we're not satisfied with that at all. Winning six games is a bare minimum for us now,'' he said. "See, eight-win, nine-win seasons — even 10-win seasons — that's what we came here for. The standards that we're setting here, people don't understand that. We all came here to win, and do it every year.''
And McFadden will be a big part of it, for the rest of this year and years to come. He's that good, and he keeps getting better.
"The sky is the limit for Micah McFadden,'' Wommack said. "He's just become a better and better football player every single week, and his production and the way he plays is just off the charts.
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