IndyStar IU Insider Zach Osterman breaks down the Hoosiers’ Outback Bowl loss to Ole Miss on Saturday.
The answer was so obvious to Mike Ziemba, the 6-foot-3, 254-pound outside linebacker could barely wait for the question to be fully asked.
Is he enjoying the remade “bull” position in the Hoosiers’ 4-2-5 defense?
“Hell yeah,” Ziemba said.
The senior continued more carefully, not to reveal the Hoosiers’ secrets. But he was still enthusiastic.
“It’s super fun, man. I’m not trying to give too much away. But we’re doing a bunch of stuff.”
Without further details, it may be hard to understand Ziemba’s bullishness on the bull. To a layman, it may sound like Tom Allen and his defensive coordinator, Charlton Warren, are just taking a defensive end in IU’s four-man front and standing him up in a two-point stance. Adding an outside linebacker isn’t a move toward a 3-3-5. It’s still a 4-2-5, just in a slightly different form.
But it’s the stuff Ziemba can’t talk about — specific blitzes, drop-backs, and alignments — that make the Hoosiers’ change from a defensive end to a hybrid defender a point of intrigue this spring. A defense that already employs one hybrid, the “husky,” a cross between a linebacker and safety, has added a second two-in-one piece. A defense that has thrived on pressure has invented another method of disguise, an edge-rusher that can pressure off-tackle, blitz the interior, or drop into coverage.
Indiana’s D.K. Bonhomme (42) celebrates a safety by Maryland quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020, in Bloomington, Ind. Indiana won 27-11. (Photo: Darron Cummings, AP)
It’s more than just a d-end in a different stance. It’s a new position that will garner significant resources on the field and in recruiting, including a coach in Kasey Teegardin.
“There’s a lot of coaching going on every single play, but those guys, the bulls, have been awesome and just taking everything in stride,” said Teegardin, who also runs special teams and the huskies. “It’s exciting to see the development of them within the scheme of the defense.”
The ultimate goal has ambition, adding long, athletic edge-rushers to one end of IU’s front four. It’s up to Teegardin to equip the bulls IU currently has, like Ziemba, Lance Bryant, and D.K. Bonhomme, with the skills that will make the scheme adjustment work. If they are deficient as pass-rushers, or run-stoppers, or in coverage, it will be all too easy for coordinators to pick apart IU’s charade.
It’s a challenge to execute. During individual periods, Teegardin is sometimes passing the bulls to defensive line coach Kevin Peoples for some pass-rush technique, or giving the huskies to safeties coach Jason Jones if the bulls need more time. If all hands are tied, Teegardin has a grad assistant, Ben Black, he trusts. The hardest thing for Teegardin may be keeping an eye on both the bulls and huskies when the Hoosiers are in team drills.
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“They are on opposite sides of the field,” Teegardin said. “It’s very similar to how Coach (Brandon) Shelby, he’s got one corner on one side of the field and one corner on the other. It’s hard to see both, so you try to keep your eyes and focus based on the call, if it’s scripted, where you think the point of attack will be.
“The key thing is getting those guys coached up off the field if you can’t get it on the field.”
They are making progress, and luckily for Teegardin, this spring isn’t his first shift on the job. In the middle of the 2020 season, Allen decided an outside linebacker was the next evolution for IU’s defense, assigning Teegardin to be the bulls’ coach. The concept of a stand-up end isn’t entirely new to the Hoosiers, either.
In 2019, the Hoosiers often had Ziemba, a former high school linebacker, standing up at the line of scrimmage, sometimes lined up on the edge, per usual. Other times, he was over a guard and a defensive tackle bumped out to an end. Those varied fronts just went from gimmick to obvious feature in 2020, especially when Bryant missed extended time and Bonhomme, the 6-3, 231-pounder from Ottawa, Ontario, stepped in at the bull.
At that point, it was obvious the Hoosiers were employing a new kind of athlete on the edge, someone who could play in space and cover ground.
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“He’s got twitch. He’s got burst,” then-IU defensive coordinator Kane Wommack said at the time. “I just think that his ability to be very versatile, it’s a critical position for us.”
The move to an outside linebacker at bull was more or less formalized leading into this spring. Teegardin’s ongoing task is helping players who were recruited as 250-plus-pound weakside ends, like Ziemba and Bryant, and getting them more comfortable in a backpedal, or taking a 230-pound linebacker like Bonhomme and continuing his progression at the line of scrimmage.
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The next phase, though, is attracting athletes who were recruited with both phases in mind.
Just like the Hoosiers search for a specific type of athlete to play the husky, a safety that’s just as comfortable playing in the box, blitzing, as they are splitting out in man coverage, that’s going to be Teegardin’s mission with the outside linebacker spot. Whether it’s a coincidence or not, IU’s first commit for 2023 was Denzel Moore, a 6-2, 225-pound outside linebacker from Georgia who pass-rushes out of a two-point stance at the prep level.
Speaking generally, Teegardin said the response from recruits to the bull concept has been “off the chain.”
“It’s exciting because you do see it opens up a world of opportunities,” Teegardin said. “We can recruit someone like D.K. Bonhomme, body type, skillset, OK. ‘Hey, we are going to move you and make you an athletic-type of bull where now you are just moving up four or five yards to the end position.’
“You can recruit linebackers. You can recruit defensive ends who have played out of a two-point or three-point stance and talk to them about the various positions and techniques they are going to use.”
It may sound ambitious to seek athletes who can do so much. Mention the concept of a pass-rushing outside linebacker, and names like Lawrence Taylor, Von Miller, and Clay Matthews come to mind. Those athletes are rare.
But IU’s coaches don’t necessarily believe there has to be one prototype for the position. It allows for a wide net.
“That what makes it exciting,” Warren said. “If you get a nose guard, they have to be 300 pounds and big and you need a bunch of those guys. The bull is different. You can have a 260 guy, you can have a 225 guy, you can have a 245 guy.”
Ideally, the bull just expands the toolbox the Hoosiers operate with defensively, both with the range of athletes in the program and the schemes built to suit them. The ultimate height of the Hoosiers’ ambitions with the position can be described with three letters.
In his opening press conference of the spring, Allen didn’t focus on the schematic advantages of the position as much as the benefits a player at the bull could reap. They won’t strictly be a linebacker or a defensive end to NFL teams. Hopefully, they do enough on the field to intrigue both 3-4 defenses that want edge-rushing linebackers and 4-3 teams that need either a linebacker or a hand-in-the-dirt defensive end.
“It’s like anything else,” Allen said. “When you’re trying to envision what you’re building for your team, you definitely want to do what’s best for us to win games now. But it’s how can we recruit the best players to play certain positions?”
Allen has high aspirations for the position, and Ziemba, Bryant, and Bonhomme get to be the first wave.
Again, it’s not an overly difficult adjustment for Ziemba, who has played out of a two-point stance in high school and college. Bryant may have the steepest learning curve, just because he’s played most of his snaps in a three-point at IU. But Ziemba has seen progress made.
“We’re really doing anything you can think of, setting the edge, dropping, there’s so many things,” Ziemba said. “But Lance, he can do it. He’s a dog. He can run, he can get his hands down in the dirt. He can do it all.”
Doing more is the mission, and attacking in new and different ways is obviously fun for Ziemba. In a few months, the experience may be very different for offenses trying to repel it.
That is Teegardin’s hope.
“I think it makes it harder for offensive coordinators, right, because of the window dressing we can provide,” Teegardin said. “If we are rushing off the edge one play, the next play we’re knifing into the gap, the next play we are dropping into coverage. It’s the disguises we can use.”