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Column: Tom Allen must hand off defensive play calling duties

Allen reassumed control of Indiana’s defense. It led to regression.

NCAA Football: Indiana at Cincinnati Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

With a $20 million+ buyout attached to his name, Indiana head coach Tom Allen likely isn’t going anywhere anytime soon unless he chooses to. So, for the time being, Indiana is just going to have to try to make it work with him and vice versa.

Among the numerous moves Allen needs to make this offseason, finding a new defensive play caller must be near the top of his priority list.

I’m not saying that Allen is a bad play caller or that his scheme doesn’t work. He’s a good defensive mind whose scheme has worked in the past. It’s just that the success came when Allen wasn’t the one at the controls in game action.

It was Kane Wommack, former Indiana defensive coordinator and current head coach at South Alabama. With the way things are going for Wommack in Mobile, he probably won’t be there for very long.

The two, Allen and Wommack, first coached together at Ole Miss when the former was working with the Rebels’ linebackers and special teams while the latter was a graduate assistant. Evidently, Allen saw promise in Wommack and brought him to Bloomington in 2018 to coach Indiana’s linebackers before handing over control of the defense a year later.

That year later, 2019, just so happened to be Indiana’s breakout under Allen. Indiana had the right players for its scheme and the right guy calling the plays to put them into a position to succeed. Allen wasn’t stretched as thin, and the defense thrived thanks to Wommack’s investment and creativity.

Indiana’s defense reached a peak in 2020, with defensive backs creating headaches for opposing quarterbacks while the defensive line generated enough pressure to force some bad decisions. On top of that, Indiana had star linebacker Micah McFadden guiding the defense on the field.

It was good enough to land Wommack the South Alabama job. Indiana’s defense hasn’t quite been the same ever since. It had moments during Charlton Warren’s one-year tenure, but not enough to win more than two games.

Allen announced he’d be calling defensive plays when he tapped Chad Wilt as his new defensive coordinator in January. The result? Indiana allowed a Big Ten-worst 33.9 points and 449.3 yards per game. No other Big Ten program allowed more than 30 points per game.

That, in year six of a defensive head coach’s tenure, is nothing short of unacceptable. Indiana had injuries that piled up, yes, but that’s been a trend for the past two seasons now.

The simple fact of the matter is that calling plays on offense stretches a head coach too thin. Look at Ryan Day at Ohio State. Perfectly fine for games against Rutgers, Indiana and non-conference fodder. Not good enough for games against Maryland and your biggest rival.

Allen, of all Big Ten coaches, cannot allow himself to be stretched as thin as he’s been. His program has won two Big Ten games in as many years. He simply can’t be expected to fix that while also running the defense. That’s two full-time jobs and he’s just one man. It doesn’t work for most healthy programs, let alone one in the state that Indiana’s in.

He must find his next Wommack, and he may have done so in Wilt.

Syndication: The Herald-Times Rich Janzaruk/Herald-Times / USA TODAY NETWORK

In his role as defensive coordinator this season, Wilt’s job was essentially to be
Tom Allen 2, acting in Allen’s stead if the latter had to leave to do head coach stuff (something something stretched way too thin). If Allen had to leave a meeting, Wilt’s job was to fill in as though the former hadn’t left.

That’s a pretty good summary of who Wilt is too. The man is always smiling, encouraging his players and has just as much energy as Allen himself. Naturally caffeinated kind of guy.

Late in the season, Allen mentioned a willingness to hand off play calling duties eventually (not necessarily to Wilt, just in general). Allen understands this because he knows more about football than I, or likely you, will ever hope to know. He likely understands that he can’t run the defense and be a head coach, especially not now.

Wilt’s story isn’t too far off from Wommack’s. Like Wommack, Allen has known Wilt for years and claimed he’d been trying to add him to Indiana’s staff since he arrived in 2016. So, what would entice Wilt to leave a relatively stable job at Minnesota to work with Allen in Bloomington?

Probably something like eventually being given play calling duties. Wommack took over in 2019, the year after Allen called the defense himself and one year after his hiring. Wilt could very well be on the same general path, but we won’t know for some time.

All of Allen’s defensive coordinators have worked with linebackers, the defensive field generals, as their position group assignment. That’s noteworthy because Wilt was a defensive line specialist at just about every previous stop and Indiana literally had a simultaneous opening at that position. All signs point to Wilt eventually taking over Indiana’s defense as Wommack did before him.

We don’t know for sure, but this is a move Allen can’t afford not to make. If Allen’s staying in Bloomington for the forseeable future, he has work to do.

This, again, should be near the top of his to-do list.