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Position preview: IU deep at safety despite Ball’s injury

Listed starters have played in a combined 71 games

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: AUG 31 Indiana v Ball State Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

IU rolls out three safeties in its 4-2-5 defense, two more traditional ones as well as the husky — a hybrid player who can also take on the duties of a linebacker or a cornerback. That means that the Hoosiers need a deep collection of versatile players in any normal year, but this year they’ll be tested a bit more than they’d hoped.

Marcelino McCrary-Ball has seemingly been playing football for Indiana since the beginning of time. He became an instant impact player as a freshman back in 2016, leading the team in tackles, interceptions and pass breakups. 2020 was supposed to be his fifth and final season as a Hoosier, but back in September his year ended prematurely as he tore his ACL during practice.

The Hoosiers will also be replacing one of last season’s starting safeties, Khalil Bryant, who graduated.

Bryant Fitzgerald, R-Jr.

With Ball out of commission, Fitzgerald will be the starter at husky. He was expected to contribute right away coming out of Avon, but an eligibility snafu forced him to redshirt in 2017. Once he was able to get on the field he made an impact, leading the team with three interceptions and two forced fumbles in 2018. Last season he started five games at safety, making 27 tackles, one for a loss, and breaking up three passes.

With the McCrary-Ball injury and Bryant’s graduation, Fitzgerald is most likely to take over as the top dog among the safeties.

Devon Matthews, Jr.

Matthews is the first of the players listed as a starting safety on this week’s two-deep and there’s a good reason for that — he’s got plenty of experience. Over his first two years as a Hoosier, Matthews has played in all but two games and made six starts. In that time he’s made 57 tackles, one for a loss, picked off a pass, recovered a fumble and broken up four passes.

Jamar Johnson, Jr.

Johnson will be Indiana’s other starting safety as the Hoosiers open the season. He made the move from husky to safety during spring practice after a productive sophomore season and figures to be a key player this fall. Per Pro Football Focus, he’s one of the top-rated returning defensive backs in the Big Ten and he has two years as a rotation piece under his belt, having played in 23 games and made one start.

Last season Johnson made 25 tackles, 4.5 for a loss with three sacks. He also deflected four passes, forced a fumble and made a pair of interceptions, including a pick-six in the Gator Bowl that was the first postseason defensive touchdown in IU history.

Juwan Burgess, R-Jr.

You may be beginning to notice a bit of a theme here, but Burgess is another upperclassman safety with a significant amount of experience. He’s listed as Johnson’s backup on the depth chart, but he should be seeing plenty of playing time as the fourth safety, being able to relieve any of the three starters if need be.

Burgess has played in 25 games over the last two years and made seven starts in 2019. Last season, he tied for the team lead in forced and recovered fumbles with two. He also made 29 tackles, two for a loss, and broke up two passes.

Bryson Bonds, Fr.

Bonds is the lone fresh face on the two-deep between safety and husky. In the midst of the upperclassmen expected to dominate the bulk of the time at the position, he’s done enough in his time on campus to earn himself a spot as Devon Matthews’ back-up.

He was rated as a three-star prospect by both ESPN and 247 Sports coming out of high school in Texas. The former ranked him as the No. 54 safety in the country while the latter had him ranked 84th.

If he can find his way onto the field and make an impact, perhaps he’ll be the junior with plenty of experience in a couple of years’ time.

Raheem Layne, Sr.

Layne would’ve been the veteran amongst the cornerbacks if he hadn’t made the switch to safety this offseason. Last season, Layne was IU’s Special Teams Player of the Year and also led the corners in tackles. He’s got boatloads of experience, having played in every single game since he arrived on campus. He will, however, be missing games early on this year.

Earlier this month, Tom Allen announced that Layne underwent a procedure to treat an injury that had been “nagging him for a while” and will be out for an indefinite period of time. So he may be able to get on the field at some point this fall, and if he does, he’ll be an asset. If he can’t, he may end up taking a redshirt year and he’ll be an asset in 2021.