Editor’s note: This is the seventh story in a series of post-mortems on Indiana’s position groups. We’ll continue to spread them out over the next few days, looking at how each unit fared during the 2020 season, and how each group projects to look in 2021. Next up, the linebackers.
How they fared
When he committed to Indiana in the final days of July 2017, Micah McFadden didn’t even have a star rating in the 247 Sports Composite system. Boston College was his only other Power Five offer, and after that, his scholarship list consisted of Toledo, South Dakota and Southern Mississippi. Safe to say, it didn’t feel like the Tampa native was poised to become one of the best linebackers in college football.
And yet, three years later, that’s exactly what he is.
McFadden was already really good as a sophomore in 2019, showing that he could be a steady, reliable player in the middle of IU’s defense. In 2020, he demonstrated that he’s one of the two or three most important players — on either side of the ball — that Indiana has.
For head coach Tom Allen, that’s obviously a good sign. From the time he joined IU’s program as defensive coordinator in January 2016, Allen has demanded — with no exceptions — two things from his linebackers: leadership and production. McFadden, perhaps more so than anyone else in Allen’s tenure, has delivered in both regards.
Using Pro Football Focus’ defensive grades, here’s how McFadden’s 2020 campaign stacks up against IU’s top linebackers of the Allen era (along with McFadden’s own grades for his first two seasons):
2020: Micah McFadden 85.8
2019: Aaron Casey 74.4 | Micah McFadden 70.6
2018: Cam Jones 73.7 | Micah McFadden 66.7
2017: Chris Covington 80.0
2016: Tegray Scales 80.6
McFadden also graded as the second-best linebacker in the Power Five. The reason? Well, there were a few of them. That’s because McFadden’s impact was felt in virtually every facet of defense, whether it was pressure, tackling or coverage. He led Big Ten regulars at his position with 28 pressures, 17 hurries and six sacks. He also hit the quarterback five times, good for third-most among conference linebackers.
For the season, McFadden missed eight tackles, with each of those whiffs coming across two games: Penn State (three) and Ohio State (five). Those are two teams that, traditionally, Indiana can’t afford to miss against. But the glass-half-full version is that in the seven other games he played, McFadden didn’t miss a single tackle. What’s more, he ranked third in the Big Ten with 33 Stops, which, as defined by Pro Football Focus, represent tackles that constitute a failure for the offense. So, by and large, McFadden was indeed Indiana’s stopper.
Alright, enough about McFadden — for now. Here’s how the rest of IU’s linebacking corps fared in 2020:
- Micah McFadden 426
- Cam Jones 364
- D.K. Bonhomme 232
- James Miller 206
- Aaron Casey 169
- Thomas Allen 42
Jones’ third season at IU was a good one, netting him All-Big Ten honorable mention recognition from the league’s coaches and media. Though his overall grade (55.3) from PFF wasn’t great, Jones was still someone IU would rather have on the field than not. Easily so. He was IU’s highest-graded tackler, while also spending a chunk of his time annoying quarterbacks in the backfield. Jones recorded 13 pressures and eight hurries. It was his work against the passing game that ultimately hurt him, as opponents completed 70% of the throws against him for 171 yards and three scores. Even so, there’s a lot to like about Jones’ game and the physicality he brings to Indiana’s defense.
In a talented linebackers room, Bonhomme might be as intriguing as any player the Hoosiers have at the position. And really, Bonhomme wasn’t just a linebacker in 2020. He filled a sort of hybrid defensive end-linebacker role for former coordinator Kane Wommack, taking advantage of an opportunity to see the field amid a crowded group of ‘backers. Bonhomme surfaced as a contributor midway through the season, posting two tackles and getting pressure on Justin Fields during the Ohio State game. He then went out and put forth his best defensive game to date the following week against Maryland. On that afternoon in Bloomington, Bonhomme made four tackles and was credited for three plays that ended in failure for the Terrapins’ offense. He also recorded a safety in the Maryland game, showing impressive athleticism and lateral quickness on the play.
Thomas Allen was productive during the three-plus games in which he was able to play before suffering his season-ending hip injury at Michigan State. His run stop percentage — which, per PFF, measures the rate of a player’s run defense snaps where he was responsible for a stop — of 14.3% was the highest on the team. Meanwhile, Miller ranked second on the team in tackling efficiency, while Casey recorded six pressures — two each against Penn State and Ohio State.
What’s on deck
This is a good, deep group that projects to return everybody in 2021. The only loss is Wommack, who doubled as the position coach in addition to running the defense. New defensive coordinator Charlton Warren will take over the linebacker duties this year, and at least through the spring, he’ll have some help from Tom Allen. Not only does IU have intriguing returning production, as outlined above, we’ve barely even seen former four-star recruit Cameron Williams. Ty Wise, a freshman who debuted in the Outback Bowl, also gives the group some long-term projectability. Top to bottom, the depth here feels like it’s in good shape. Matched with the production this set of players is already providing, there’s a lot to like about how IU’s linebacking corps is positioned moving forward.