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2017 Indiana Football: The defensive line may be the weakest link

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Indiana’s defensive line returns some key contributors but there is still room for improvement.

Foster Farms Bowl - Utah v Indiana Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

Well, shit.

This is a collective “well, shit” for Indiana football fans of course, as our breakdown of the Hoosiers’ 2017 roster transitions to the defensive side of the ball. It’s no secret that defense has been the bane of many Indiana squads’ existences over the past few years.

However, things are slowly starting to change in Bloomington under the guidance of defensive coordinator turned head coach Tom Allen. The defense has been getting more athletic and takeaways have become commonplace in Allen’s system but one aspect of the defense that hasn’t quite seen the same levels of improvement as others yet is the defensive line.

The good news is that improvement seems inevitable. The Hoosiers only lose one major contributor on the line from last year in Pat Dougherty and return plenty of experience for a still fairly young defense as a whole. On the flip side, the bad news is the experience that returns was part of a line that struggled to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks at times and did not see quite the improvement in athleticism that the linebackers and defensive backs saw last season.

When talking about this unit, the discussion has to start with senior Nate Hoff. The 6-2 defensive tackle was by far the most productive weapon on the defensive line last season by starting every game for the Hoosiers and recording 38 tackles and six tackles for a loss. Hoff will be the obvious leader of the line this year and Indiana will be expecting big things from his senior season.

Joining Hoff alongside him at the other defensive tackle position will likely either be versatile junior Jacob Robinson or fellow junior Mike Barwick Jr. Robinson will see time at both tackle and end and had 17 tackles of his own last season while Barwick recorded 22 tackles and two sacks on the year. True freshman Juan Harris may also be an interesting option as well. The 6-3, 370 pound behemoth played both defensive and offensive line in high school and could see some time immediately if he impresses in practice this summer.

Hoff will have things under control in the middle but it’s the ends that will be the biggest concern for the Hoosiers. Putting pressure on the quarterback was a big concern for the line last year and the duty usually fell upon the Hoosiers’ much more athletic linebackers or defensive backs. Junior Nile Sykes is the unit’s leading returner in sacks after finding the quarterback five times last year along with seven tackles for a loss. Meanwhile, converted linebacker Greg Gooch started 12 of 13 games at end last year and managed 26 total tackles and Robert McCray III was able to provide steady production after being plagued by an injury for a large portion of the year.

One thing Indiana’s line does have is plenty of depth. Omari Stringer, Ja’Merez Bowen, Brandon Wilson and Derrian Meminger will all be candidates for increased roles this year after producing in limited action last season.

Even though the defensive line seems to be the Hoosiers’ weakest link going into this season, there is still potential here. There will still be plenty of experience to lead a young defense and the chance for improvement is definitely there. As long as the unit can provide consistency and reliability, Allen and his staff should be satisfied.