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Position preview: Talking depth, not the draft, at defensive line

At a position group historically devoid of high-end talent, the 2020 Hoosiers have promising depth

Eastern Illinois v Indiana
Alfred Bryant (left) and James Head (right) celebrate a stop against Eastern Illinois on Sept. 7, 2019 at Memorial Stadium in Bloomington.
Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

Last season, IU and IU’s opponents both accumulated 27 sacks. At the risk of oversimplifying the game of football and IU’s position in the Big Ten universe, the Hoosiers’ success on the gridiron may often boil down to how big they can grow that first number (IU’s sacks) and how small they can hold the second number (sacks allowed).

In a conference – nay, a division – in which IU’s very large adult sons on the offensive line have been tasked with stopping the likes of a Chase Young or the Bosas at Ohio State, the Rashan Garys, Chase Winoviches and Taco Charltons at Michigan, enn State’s Yetur Gross-Matos and Carl Nassib, and the latest of the three-stars-turned-NFL-draft-picks that Michigan State has churned out, most years IU will probably walk into at least half of its Big Ten games with less defensive line talent than its opponents.

With respect to the current players on IU’s roster, that probably won’t change this season. The Hoosiers haven’t had a defensive lineman drafted since 2010, when the Denver Broncos selected Jammie Kirlew in the seventh round. You have to go back to 1984 to find enough IU defensive linemen drafted to count on one hand.

The good news for IU is that even if it doesn’t have proven, elite defensive line talent – at least on paper – it has respectable continuity and depth, with a couple veterans mixed with building blocks for the future. The Hoosiers return nine of the 11 defensive linemen who were listed on IU’s TaxSlayer Gator Bowl depth chart, losing only Allen Stallings IV and fellow defensive end Gavin Everett, who was listed as a third-stringer.

If we replace Stallings, who graduated, with Stanford transfer Jovann Swann on IU’s published bowl game depth chart, here’s roughly what IU’s defensive line two-deep could look like to start the 2020 campaign, with the addition of the team’s true and redshirt freshmen.

DE: James Head Jr./Alfred Bryant or Beau Robbins
DT: Jerome Johnson/Shamar Jones/C.J. Person or Damarjhe Lewis
DT: Demarcus Elliott/Sio Nofoagatoto’a/Antoine Whitner Jr.
DE: Michael Ziemba/Jovann Swann

The name to know this season is redshirt senior Jerome Johnson, IU’s most productive defensive lineman a year ago, who was tied for a team-high five sacks and a team-best 46 sack yards. He’s a two-time winner of IU’s Chris Dal Sasso Award, which goes to the team’s most outstanding lineman, and he leads all active Hoosiers in career sacks (9.5) and tackles for loss (16.5). Johnson has started the last 22 games at tackle for IU and he finished the 2019 season on a high note, notching one sack and a tackle for loss in each of his last three games.

While Stallings, who shared the team lead in sacks last season with Johnson, is gone, IU picked up an experienced defensive end from the transfer market in Swann. The 6-foot-2, 280-pound Greenwood, Indiana, native started nine games for the Cardinal last season, finishing with 5.5 tackles and eight tackles for loss.

He was named the Most Outstanding Player against Cal, when he had two sacks, three tackles for loss and he blocked a field goal.

Throw in Ziemba (6.5 tackles for loss), Elliott (5.0 tackles for loss, 3.0 sacks) and Head (4.0 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks), and IU brings back the core of its key disruptors on the defensive line from last season, minus Stallings.

The Youths

IU’s recruiting class ranking took a step back from 2019 to 2020, falling from No. 36 nationally and No. 8 in the Big Ten to No. 57 and No. 12, respectively, according to 247Sports. But if you’re a believer in largely building a team inside out, starting with the offensive and defensive line, then the Hoosiers’s 2020 class could be encouraging, with three of the team’s four highest-rated recruits being linemen.

Damarjhe Lewis is a 6-3, 295-pound defensive tackle out of Griffin, Georgia, who was rated as a three-star recruit, a top-60 player at his position and a top-70 player in the state.

Caleb Murphy, an in-state get from Campbellsburg, Indiana, is a 6-4, 250-pound defensive end.

But it’s the Hoosiers’s higher-rated 2019 class that could begin to turn recruiting star rankings into actual on-field production this season.

IU’s aforementioned 2019 class featured Beau Robbins, who’s IU’s sixth-highest rated recruit ever, per 247Sports. He was a four-star recruit with a player rating above .900 out of 1.00, who redshirted last season after taking advantage of the rule change that allows players to appear in up to four games, which gave him in-game experience against Eastern Illinois and Purdue.

And for the sake of the memes, here’s to hoping that redshirt freshman Jeramy Passmore becomes a stud, who puts up ridiculous sack and forced fumble numbers in, like, 2022.

“And there’s Passmore, with his third sack on the day against rival Purdue. He also had that big forced fumble in the first half.”

*Crimson Quarry on Twitter, two and a half light beers into our Saturday: “Hey @BreffJohm, how about you Passmore!!!”*

End scene

As we’ve written about for months at CQ, this season already is and will likely to continue to be a capital “s” Shitshow. Purdue’s Jeff Brohm announced he has tested positive for COVID-19, leaving Brian Brohm to be the acting head coach for the Boilermakers’ opener, and Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck is taking a page out of Lincoln Riley’s playbook and refusing to announce how many players will be out due to the virus against Michigan.

By the way, Michigan, of course, is coached by Jim Harbaugh (I think he has a famous brother-in-law, but the name is escaping me right now) and ol’ Jimbo has refused to release his depth chart under normal circumstances, so you can probably set the bar for the COVID-19 transparency in Ann Arbor at 200 feet below sea level.

It’ll be difficult to project what happens week to week, or to be able to trace the source of any positive or negative result. Are your team’s redshirt freshmen experiencing a breakthrough after a productive redshirt season, followed by a winter in your school’s strength and conditioning program, or was your opponent just missing 15 key players?

But the projected depth of IU’s defensive line, specifically the combination of experienced returning players along with the potential of the positions group’s greener players, could not only help mitigate any potential personnel losses from COVID-19 or contact tracing, but it could also allow the Hoosiers’s best defensive linemen to play fewer snaps over the course of a game against a talented opponent.

In August, I made this horribly cursed, wretched, no-good graph, showing when IU has lost the lead for good in notable losses in the last nine seasons. You’ll notice that the last five to 10 to 15 minutes of games has frequently been the bane of the existence of IU players, coaches, fans and most importantly, bloggers.

Perhaps with more defensive line depth, if and when it materializes this fall, prevents some of those steep drop-offs shown in the graph above for IU as a program moving forward. Take eight snaps for Jerome Johnson from early in the third quarter and apply that energy and effort to a drive in the middle of the fourth quarter, and, boom, maybe IU looks up at the scoreboard when the clocks hit double-zero and it has more points than a Penn State or a Michigan.

For IU, which has never been known for elite defensive line play – unlike some of its premier Big Ten East opponents – the equation at defensive line might be more about quantity than quality. If you’re not a program known for enrolling five-star defensive linemen or developing three- and four-stars into Day One and Day Two NFL Draft picks, having six to 10 quality, but not world-beating, defensive linemen might be an achievable goal.

And it’s one that might be in reach this season.