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2019 Indiana Football Preview: The Defensive Backs

A group with a lot of returning talent will look to improve this fall

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 10 Maryland at Indiana
Marcelino Ball adjusts his shoulder pads before the start of the game between the Maryland Terrapins and the Indiana Hoosiers on November 10, 2018, at Memorial Stadium.
Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In 2018 the Hoosier defensive backfield was a bit young and had to replace departed veterans Rashard Fant, Tony Fields and Chase Dutra. It was a bit of a struggle at times (see: Dwayne Haskins and Nate Stanley throwing six touchdowns each against the Hoosiers in a two-week span), but there were also better performances in which some players revealed that they could be the contributors that IU needs.

In 2019 this group will have to show improvement for the defense to have a good year. The underclassmen who were thrown into the fire last year now have some experience and a whole offseason to develop. IU finished 106th in Passing Downs S&P+ last season. That’s more than likely not gonna cut it moving forward.

Players to Watch

Marcelino Ball, redshirt junior - One of the more experienced players in this group, Ball is arguably the best player on IU’s entire defense. He’ll be expected to be a leader and impact player in 2019, possibly returning to the form that made him one of the best freshmen in the nation back in 2016. Last season Ball received honorable mention All-Big Ten honors after making 59 tackles, including 7.5 for a loss. He also made 2.5 sacks, picked off a pass and forced a fumble. He’ll be the starter at the husky position in IU’s defense, serving as a safety/linebacker hybrid in Tom Allen’s 4-2-5 defense.

Andre Brown Jr., redshirt senior - Another very experienced player, Brown should be expected to start at one of the cornerback spots as he has in 29 of the 32 games he’s played in as a Hoosier. In his career, he’s made 97 tackles including five for a loss, forced a fumble and recovered two. He’s also broken up 11 passes, including a team-high six last season. He’s yet to intercept a pass as a Hoosier, so that’ll be something to watch out for during his final season in Bloomington.

A’Shon Riggins, senior - Three years ago Riggins made’s All-Freshman team after finishing second on the IU defense in pass breakups with 10 on the season and also chipped in an interception, a sack and a forced fumble to go along with his 37 tackles. In the two seasons since he hasn’t necessarily performed to that level statistically, making just 24 tackles total, breaking up eight tackles and not forcing a turnover or making a tackle for a loss. Granted, he only played in six games as a sophomore and missed a game last season. He’ll be another key member of this group in 2019 and if he can continue to rebound the way he began to as a junior and trend upward the IU pass defense will benefit.

Khalil Bryant, senior - Last season Bryant started nine of 11 games at free safety for the Hoosiers and it seems reasonable to think that he’ll continue to start there in 2019. He ramped up his production in his first season of getting extended playing time, making 38 tackles, making an interception, deflecting a pass and forcing a fumble as a junior.

Bryant Fitzgerald, redshirt sophomore - The kid from Avon didn’t play as a true freshman because *eye roll*, but in 2018 he showed why he was heralded as one of the top members of IU’s recruiting class of 2017. In his first season of college football, he led the Hoosiers in interceptions with three (finishing tied for eighth in the Big Ten) and in forced fumbles with two (tied for seventh in the Big Ten). Tack on 31 tackles and that’s the recipe that earned Fitzgerald IU’s Corby Davis Memorial Award, which is given to the team’s most outstanding defensive back. He did all of this while making just four starts, three at free safety and one at husky, though he did play in every game. He didn’t make a start at strong safety last season, but as one of IU’s top returning producers he seems like an easy candidate to figure out a way to get on the field. If that means replacing the departed Jonathan Crawford at strong safety then that’s where he could end up.

Battle to Watch

The most noteworthy battle in the defensive backfield will be for playing time at strong safety. Fitzgerald might deserve the first crack at the starting job because of how productive he was last season, but he’ll probably have to earn it. He could be competing with a host of promising young players who all probably deserve some sort of playing time this fall.

One of those young safeties is Juwan Burgess. The redshirt sophomore got his first taste of college ball last season, making 25 tackles, breaking up a pass and recovering a fumble as a reserve for IU. He has a ton of athletic ability which should be able to help him get on the field.

The other obvious contender for the strong safety spot is sophomore Devon Matthews. Much like Burgess, he served as a sub last season and got his feet wet as a collegian. He played in 10 games at safety and made 20 tackles. He also picked off a pass, recovered a fumble and broke up a pass. Also like Burgess he’s a good athlete—he played basketball as well as football in high school.

The youth in the defensive backfield, in general, will be important to watch. At worst the young guys will push their veteran counterparts to perform better, but they could also easily work their way onto the field. Burgess and Matthews aside, Hoosier fans could also see underclassmen Cam Jones, Tiawan Mullen, Larry Tracy III and Jaylin Williams take the field this season. Each guy was at least fairly well-regarded as a recruit and Jones and Williams already have a season under their belts to learn from and build on.