ISU DEFENSE: Mallory feels unit improved depth and is more physical

·5 min read

Aug. 30—If you're looking for multi-year, proven players on Indiana State's defense? You might want to look at another team.

There are players who have played, some have started, and one, linebacker Geoffrey Brown, who have even starred, but most of the players on the defensive side of the ball are trying to prove themselves.

Indiana State coach Curt Mallory is confident in his defensive charges. A system change, ISU will play more of a traditional 4-3, carries the promise that roles are more defined and on-field responsibilities are less complicated. Mainly, though, Mallory feels like ISU will be more physical and that the defense has more depth.

"I think we've got more depth at certain positions that we maybe didn't have a year ago. It's also the healthiest we've been through camp and that's really helped them. It really shows when you have the same guys out there," Mallory said.

The Tribune-Star already wrote about both linebackers and special teams before the fatal accident on Aug. 21, but because of how the effect of the accident interrupted normal proceedings with ISU football, and because the season is rapidly approaching, the remainder of the season previews the Tribune-Star would normally do on each unit will be confined to stories on the offense and the defense.

Here's a look at ISU's defense, unit-by-unit, as well as a short update on special teams.

Defensive line

There are two projected starters with experience, though not a wealth of it. The most experienced player is defensive tackle Lucas Hunter, who has played 22 games in two seasons with 36 career tackles and 1 1/2 sacks. The next most experienced player is defensive end Kris Reid Jr., slated to start at defensive end alongside Hunter. Reid has played 20 career games, he played eight in 2021, and has 17 career tackles.

Past that? Projected starters Casey Miller (end) and Gianini Belizaire (tackle) have eight ISU games between them, all of them played by Miller.

Belizaire has come on in camp. He transferred from Southern Illinois and has risen up the depth chart.

"His quickness off the ball is the first thing you see, how quick he is for how big he is. The thing you love about him is he wants to be great. He's always in watching film and asking questions," Mallory said.

Starting is almost a sort of state of mind for ISU anyway. Mallory will continue to rotate defensive linemen frequently, almost on every down. Ends Antoineo Harris Jr., Juju Williams and Joey Shew should all see playing time. Tackles Kenny Butler III and Jake Hoper are reserves at tackles and should also see action.

"All of these guys are going to play. We use a lot of guys up-front," Mallory said.

Linebackers

Nothing has changed on the linebacker front. Brown will start in the middle with Johnny May and Jarin Johnson on the outside

Outside linebackers Garrett Ollendieck and Blake Surface will be reserves as will middle linebacker Mike Lufile.

A player to watch is freshman D.J. Griffith, younger brother of former ISU linebacker Jonas Griffith, now with the Denver Broncos.

Defensive backs

Like other units, proven experience is thin on the ground. All of the players projected to start gained the lion's share of their playing experience in 2021.

Ethan Hoover made 10 starts at strong safety in 2021 and is back in that starting position again. He was ISU's third-leading tackler in 2021 with 48. Hoover also had one interception.

Free safety Rylan Cole rose to the starting ranks in the last third of the 2021 season and ISU is high on him. In just seven games, Cole amassed 29 tackles and had a sack.

Cornerback Johnathan Edwards started five games in 2021. Though he didn't have any interceptions, he did a good job in coverage and is being counted on as a primary contributor. Joining him at the other cornerback spot is Omar Jackson, who has 11 career ISU games under his belt. Jackson won his starting job in camp.

"Omar has been the most consistent and that's helped him. Johnathan should be good, he's physical, can run and has length. Ethan and Rylan have played for us and have good experience under their belt," Mallory said. "What I like here is the continuity and communication [they've had in camp]. They're getting a lot of reps together."

Though all four have consistently contributed in camp, the secondary did have one of the most serious injuries. On day one of camp, JP Osafo, who made two starts in 2021, tore his Achilles and is out for the season.

Reserve players include cornerbacks Bilhal Kone and Payton Edwards. Safeties are Kaleal Davis, Ray Vollmer and Micah Hauser.

Special teams

Since the Tribune-Star's special teams story published, Mallory said that Ryan O'Grady will be the placekicker, Stephen Ruiz will handle kickoffs and that Australian import Harry Traum will punt.

O'Grady is an intriguing story. He is quite literally a walk-on, having not even been on ISU's roster until camp began. The Lockport, Ill. native, however, barely put a foot wrong in preseason activities.

"Ryan is a walk-on when camp started and a late addition. He's come in and he's going to be our kicker. I've never had a guy come in this late, but the way he's kicked has really been good," Mallory said.