The prevailing theme at any conference media day (or days) is one of hope. Whether it comes from the commissioner of the conference extolling the virtues of the league itself, or the various head coaches promoting the improvements to the team and its facilities, media days are dominated by that human nature of hope. But the work that goes on behind the scenes is often what determines whether that hope will translate into wins on the field. And when trying to turn the corner into a winning program, hope can only get a team so far. Often times the true leadership that comes from above is determinative. From the moment first-year head coach Tom Allen of Indiana University took the podium at Big Ten Media days this Monday, you could see some of the fire that made the university entrust him with the position:
That brings me to the point in our program where we’ve been challenged as players and as coaches to break through. As we know, many times we’ve been close. The last time we played in the Foster Farms Bowl against a very talented Utah team, final minutes of the game, opportunity to finish with a win and did not. I challenged our team with this concept. When I met with our players after I took over, I wrote these three numbers on the board — I did this with our staff as well — 50, 26, 10. And I asked them if they knew what those numbers represented, and they didn’t. So I proceeded to tell them. It’s been 50 years since we won the Big Ten; it’s been 26 years since we won a bowl game; it’s been 10 years since we had a winning season at Indiana. We’re going to accomplish all three of those, I told our team. If you don’t believe that, you need to leave. Said the same thing to our staff. I love them. I appreciate them. But I want a coaching staff, I want a football team that believes.
Allen did not stop there in his opening remarks. He pointed directly at the big dog in the conference, the Ohio State Buckeyes, and a date that the Hoosiers had circled on their calendars: the season opener, Thursday August 31, at home against Ohio State:
I want to conclude by saying how excited I am to start the season. We’re going to be bringing our players in August 1 to report, start practice on the 2nd, to prepare for the biggest opener in the history of Indiana football on August 31 when we play the Ohio State Buckeyes in Bloomington for an 8:00 kickoff. It’s going to be a very exciting opportunity for me to be in my first home game as the head coach in my home state. Very, very blessed to be in this position.
Allen expanded on this point, illustrating that this was the highest ranked conference opponent that Indiana has ever opened their season with “Like any big game, you want there to be focus, but you have 11 more games to play… the quality of the opponent is what drove that statement.”
Given his background, having served as the defensive coordinator for the Hoosiers last season before being named the interim head coach for Indiana’s bowl game, Allen believes that the defense is the core of this team. “We want to be a top 25 defense. That’s our goal.” This might be considered a lofty goal, given what the unit accomplished last season in terms of improvement. Indiana held opponents to 129.4 fewer total yards per game, the best improvement in the country over the prior year. Opponents had 84.1 fewer passing yards per game and 10.7 few points per game, and the Hoosiers gave up 25 fewer touchdowns. The biggest area of improvement might have been on third downs, when the Hoosiers were 15th in the nation, allowing offenses to convert only 32.9% of third downs. All signs of improvement, but Allen is not satisfied. “Great improvement last year defensively, from 2015 to 2016. We were not satisfied with that.”
That goal is potentially within reach, with a defense that returns nine starters, including Tegray Scales, a senior linebacker who led the nation in tackles for a loss (23.5) as well as leading the conference with 126 total tackles on his way to being named a second-team All American. Another returning starter is Richard Fant, a senior cornerback. Fant is the NCAA active career leader with 48 passes defended, and he has 108 career tackles and four interceptions. Both players entertained the idea of entering the NFL, but stayed in school for one final season.
Offensively, this young group might go as far as quarterback Richard Lagow can take them. They return only six starters to the offensive side of the ball, including a pair of wide receivers in Nick Westbrook and Simmie Cobbs Jr., as well as three offensive linemen in Coy Cronk, Wes Martin, and Brandon Knight. But the offense begins with Lagow, a junior college transfer last season who won the starting job and threw for 3,362 yards and 19 touchdowns, but also threw 17 interceptions. Allen was clear that Lagow has become the unquestioned leader of this team:
I’m a strong believer that everything rises and falls on leadership. It begins with us as coaches. But you have to create it, develop it, enhance it with your team. [Richard’s] bought into that. I’ve sat with him. We’ve met. We’ve challenged, given him books to read, to be able to get different thoughts on how to creatively live that out. And he’s grown. And has just taken position, owning it, taking charge, realizing this is your football team, this is your offense, and holding your teammates accountable. It takes courage to do that. It’s hard to stand up and tell your peers they’re doing something wrong or getting them back in line or whatever, whether it’s on the field or off the field. That’s something I’ve seen him grow in a lot, just learning our system and allowing him to be able to play with confidence, execute, throw the ball extremely well. Gotta protect it better. And he knows that. So I’ve just seen him grow in that. And obviously just to be able to believe that when it’s two minutes to go in the game, we’ve got to go score, put the team on my back, I’m going to go find a way. That’s the mentality we want him to have. So he’s growing in that area.
But more specifically, the quarterback needs to cut down on interceptions. He knows it, and his coach certainly knows it. The coaching staff went back and evaluated all of his interceptions last season, determined what caused the mistake and determined that many of them were due to decision-making. So they’ve installed a more “quarterback friendly” (in Allen’s words) system to help Lagow in the year ahead. This will help him with his read and progressions as well as his decision-making. Because as Allen said, he “can make all the throws.” Finally, having just one voice in his ear will help Lagow this season, that voice being new quarterback coach Nick Sheridan, who played the position at Michigan. This is something that Lagow himself pointed to today, in that having a coach who was in your shoes, playing the position in the Big Ten “at the highest level” allows him to understand your mindset, and where you are coming from.
So the talent is there on both sides of the ball, but for Allen, it is more than talent. It’s about believing in each other and believing in what you can accomplish as a team – together. “In my first meeting with our defense over a year ago, I wrote the letters L-E-O on the board. I asked them once again if they knew what that meant. They didn’t. Stands for love each other. Didn’t talk about football. Didn’t talk about schemes. It was about changing the mindset and the culture of that side of the football.”
Perhaps by changing the culture, Allen and the rest of the Hoosiers can change those numbers as well.