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Indiana Defensive Player to Watch: Linebacker Micah McFadden

This All-Big Ten linebacker is a difference maker for the currently banged up Hoosier defense.

McFadden will be leading an upset-minded defense on Saturday night
Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Tom Allen and his Indiana Hoosiers have been kicked in the teeth this season, plain and simple. The team has been decimated by injuries, and their schedule only exacerbated depth issues they were experiencing as a result. For a team that entered the season with so much promise (16th in the preseason AP rankings), 2021 has been a disappointment. Teams in every sport deal with a run of bad luck at some point, but fortunately for Indiana, this stretch should not end up being a momentum-killer for an ascending program.

I believe Allen is a hell of a football coach, and he has the Hoosiers heading in a positive direction… but a program like IU can only deal with so much adversity and roster depletion before it becomes too much to overcome. Michael Penix Jr. was a breakout star(ish) in 2020, but he had not been sharp while working his way back from an ACL injury this season. Now he is out with a shoulder injury, and the team is trying to keep it together with lesser options — Donaven McCulley time perhaps? Receivers have been banged up, the running game has shown little-to-no improvement, and the offense generally lacks explosion.

On the other side of the ball, injuries have had a similar impact. Sure, the offense is bad this season… but Ty Fryfogle and Peyton Hendershot are still catching passes, and Stephen Carr is (on paper) a solid addition at running back. Penix Jr. is down, but when he had a few clunkers last year, this defense was able to keep Indiana in some games they otherwise would have lost soundly. That has not been the case in 2021, as the defense has taken more than a few steps back.

Indiana finished 2020 with the following defensive rankings: T-19th in scoring defense, 43rd in total defense, 15th in sacks, 2nd in interceptions and T-10th in turnover margin (team stat). Thus far in 2021? Not great, Bob! I will spare you all of the numbers, but point out that the Hoosiers are currently surrendering 26.8 PPG (76th) and they have a total of eight sacks and four interceptions. Once again, injuries and the schedule have been a factor in their poor showing.

Tiawan Mullen was one of the better corners in the country last year, and he has missed the last two games. It sounds like he is likely to miss Saturday’s matchup as well. Reese Taylor was starting opposite Mullen, but he also sounds doubtful for the Ohio State game. Safety Devon Matthews missed the first three games, and a number of other players have missed at least one. Guys like Ryder Anderson and Raheem Layne are out there fighting without the full complement of their teammates. Leading this MASH unit, as he has done for the last few seasons, is senior linebacker Micah McFadden. If injuries forced him to do so, McFadden would take the field 1-on-11 and try to upset the Buckeyes. This week’s Defensive Player to Watch is a do-it-all linebacker, and he will bring everything he’s got on Saturday night in Bloomington.

Full disclosure: Micah McFadden might be my favorite linebacker to watch in the Big Ten, and that includes Buckeyes. Teradja Mitchell is a heat-seeking missile, Cody Simon is getting better at diagnosing plays on a weekly basis, and Steele Chambers looks like he could develop into a linebacker with crazy range… well, McFadden is all of those things. All the time. He may lack truly elite athleticism, but he makes up for it with great instincts and a high football IQ. On top of it all, McFadden has a motor for days. If he can get remotely close to a play, you can bet that he’s going to get himself involved. Give me a linebacker like that all day.

Indiana runs a 4-2-5 base defense, so you will see McFadden (pre-snap) in the middle of the field for the vast majority of the game. But his starting point is rarely where he ends up. He is an aggressive, attacking linebacker — not one of those guys who is primarily asked to roam the middle. He can also drop into coverage and/or cover the flats. His cerebral nature lends itself to improvisation when initially thrown off by the play design, giving him the ability to recover quickly. While he isn’t going to match up with Chris Olave or Garrett Wilson (I’m sure he would love to meet them over the middle), C.J. Stroud and TreVeyon Henderson should be on high alert for the Hoosier LB.

In the run game, McFadden is quick to diagnose direction and react accordingly. He has no problem taking on tight end blocks, and is more than willing to engage with lineman. He actually seems to enjoy going up against 300-pounders. Even though he is not the fastest guy in the world, he does have good change of direction skills, so he can react well to counters and cutbacks. If the play goes to the outside, he remains in pursuit until the play is over. That change of direction ability also serves him well when he needs to recover from a blitz. Indiana’s coaching staff likes to send McFadden through the A gap, but if the direction of the play goes elsewhere, he is not out of it completely. I have seen multiple instances where McFadden blitzes over the center/guard position(s), the play is a sweep or toss to the perimeter, and he is able to change course and somehow get involved in the stop. He may not catch Henderson in such a scenario, but he’ll chase down a ball carrier or two.

The senior linebacker is just as good, if not better, in the passing game. “Passing game”, in this instance, is not limited to coverage. Indiana loves to use McFadden as a situational pass rusher. He often blitzes right up the middle, tearing through the interior of the offensive line. For a middle linebacker-type player, he has solid pass rushing moves. He will either use a traditional bull rush, backed by a head of steam, or a nice dip-and-rip. Those setup moves, combined with his all-out approach, have helped him become one of the leading sack artists in the Big Ten… at any position. He led the conference with six sacks in eight games last year, and already has 3.5 in 2021.

If the Hoosiers prefer to drop McFadden into coverage, he will do just fine. He totaled four interceptions during the 2019/2020 seasons, and has a handful of passes defended this year. I think he could stick with Jeremy Ruckert if the gameplan called for it, but he should not be asked to do much one-on-one. He will likely sit in a zone more often against this Ohio State team and look to break on a couple balls in his general vicinity. Against a (still) young quarterback like C.J. Stroud, I would not be surprised to see McFadden break up a couple plays in the middle of the field.

Breaking up plays and causing chaos is what Micah McFadden does. He leads by example, and has been a bright spot during a turbulent season. IU’s season is far from over, and their players would tell you the same thing. Tom Allen would never let them believe or say otherwise. Saturday night’s game against the Buckeyes is an opportunity for the Hoosiers to avenge last year’s loss and play spoiler in the CFP chase. McFadden will be leading the charge, and I expect him to announce his presence early and often.