BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Indiana defensive coordinator Tom Allen began his latest rebuilding project by asking his players to believe in themselves.
Now comes the hard part: turning that new attitude into victories this fall.
One season after the Hoosiers ended an eight-year bowl drought, their new associate head coach believes he can change the perception and direction of an oft-criticized defense in need of a major overhaul.
"You try to rebuild that confidence, for sure," Allen said when the Hoosiers opened practice. "It’s a simple process to rebuild that, and that’s what we’re going to do. But it’s not an easy process."
Over the past two decades, the Hoosiers (6-7, 2-6 Big Ten) have tried everything to improve the defense — coaching changes, philosophical changes, lineup changes, even schematic changes. When nothing worked, Allen became Indiana’s third defensive coordinator in four years.
He takes over a group that allowed more points, touchdowns, total yards and yards passing than any Big Ten team last season. The Hoosiers also allowed the second-highest rushing total in the league.
Allen will take the traditional nickel package and use it as his primary defense, substituting a hybrid safety for a linebacker in hopes of getting better coverage against spread offenses while still being stout enough to hold up against the run.
"The new defense simplifies everything," linebacker Marcus Oliver said. "It allows us not to think but to play fast and to play hard. If you have to think, you don’t know what you’re doing."
Will this finally be the game-changer Indiana has been looking for? Allen believes it will work, and perhaps, more important, so do the players.
"We’ll have more athletes out there, we’ll be more versatile and that nickel guy can cover and help you off the edge," cornerback Rashard Fant said. "It’s exciting."
Here are some other things to watch this season:
DEVINE INTERVENTION: Indiana replaced 2,000-yard rusher Tevin Coleman with 1,000-yard rusher Jordan Howard last season. Now the Hoosiers are asking another 1,000-yard runner, Devine Redding, to replace Howard. The 5-foot-10, 208-pound Redding is smaller than his predecessors but has added about five pounds this season to survive the weekly grind. He’s also on the right trajectory, rushing for more than 500 yards in the last three games of 2015.
FINISHING TOUCH: Indiana won six times last season and they would have had nine — had they protected a 31-point third-quarter lead against Rutgers and prevented Michigan and Duke from forcing overtime with touchdowns in the final minute of regulation. Coach Kevin Wilson is hoping last season’s tough lessons will pay off with better finishes in 2016.
QUICK START: Indiana had to win its final two games — on the road — to become bowl eligible last season. This year, the Hoosiers will need a fast start to wind up in the mix. After a trip to Florida International, they host Ball State and Wake Forest before things get very difficult in the Big Ten. They host Michigan State on Oct. 1, then visit Ohio State on Oct. 8 and host Nebraska on Oct. 15.
SEASON OPENER: Indiana is trying to find a successor for quarterback Nate Sudfeld. The battle is likely to come down to Richard Lagow, a highly touted junior college transfer now at his third Division I school, and junior Zander Diamont, who has more experience with Indiana’s offense. But a winner may not be declared before the Hoosiers visit FIU on Sept. 1.
PREDICTION: The Hoosiers seem destined for a 6-6 season. That game against the Spartans is a big one, and the Hoosiers can’t afford to overlook anyone, including Rutgers on Nov. 5 and Penn State on Nov. 12.