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Juwan Burgess, safeties growing into form as 2019 progresses

As redshirt sophomore Juwan Burgess continues to battle for a starting safety spot and more snap counts, his rotational safety teammates and himself continue to take shape as a unit as defensive coordinator Kane Wommack's philosophy becomes more familiar with each week.

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Indiana redshirt sophomore safeties Juwan Burgess (5) and Bryant Fitzgerald (31) break on a Ball State ball carrier in Indiana's season-opener in August. (USA Today Images)
Indiana redshirt sophomore safeties Juwan Burgess (5) and Bryant Fitzgerald (31) break on a Ball State ball carrier in Indiana's season-opener in August. (USA Today Images)

As the football season was nearing kickoff, the secondary appeared to be the strength of the Indiana defense. It was young, but it was talented, though it had big shoes to fill with Jonathan Crawford graduating out of the program.

With the anticipation at its peak for the young group, it’s been a slow start, for the safties in particular. Pro Football Focus only has one Indiana rotational safety – redshirt sophomore Juwan Burgess – graded among the top-50 safeties in the Big Ten.

But as of late, the safety position has appeared to shore up some of its vulnerabilities. Those recent efforts are highlighted by the Burgess forced fumble and fumble recovery in the fourth quarter against Maryland.

To safeties coach Kasey Teegardin, that fourth-quarter play, and the improvements at the position, couldn’t have happened without the depth the program has finally accrued.

“They push each other, and it helps knowing that you can’t take a day off because there’s a guy behind you that wants your job,” the safeties coach said. “That’s what saved us last week where as in the past, Jon Crawford would have had to play 70 or 80 plays. Monster (Devon Matthews) played 41 and Juwan played 39. Those two guys are great, dynamic players at that rover position, so at the end of the game, when we needed a play, Juwan was fresh.”

Burgess has led the charge for the four regular rotation safeties – senior Khalil Bryant, redshirt sophomore Bryant Fitzgerald, Matthews and Burgess – at both positions. His snap count hasn’t changed much over the course of the season – as low as 18 against Ball State and Connecticut and as high as 39 against Maryland – but he’s begun to make the most of his snaps, particularly in run defense.

So far, his 170 snaps have nearly surpassed his season total (188) from 2018. He has made a tackle on nine percent of his snaps – a number that isn’t bad for a rotational safety – and Pro Football Focus recorded him making six defensive stops that only he was able to make, the fumble being one of them. Only Matthews has more defensive stops (9) at safety.

Both Burgess and Bryant have usurped the starting spots from Matthews and Fitzgerald. Even though players are rotated into games and Matthews finished with more snaps than Burgess against Maryland, head coach Tom Allen said starting still has a significant meaning. That meaning, to Teegardin, is the effort in practice.

“Effort showed up to me in practice more than anything,” Teegardin said. Juwan really changed his game in August in camp and really started just challenging himself in practice to just run to the football, and it showed up. You turn on the game tape, and the play might have been on the opposite side of the field but he was always in the picture. When you see that as a coach, you have to honor that because that’s the effort you need to win, especially in the Big Ten.”

When the game began at College Park, it appeared to be more struggles for the Indiana secondary. Allen and defensive coordinator Kane Wommack both noted how Maryland came into the game with drastically different strategies than what it had shown to that point, and those strategies paid off in the passing game, as Maryland quarterback Tyrell Pigrome, who is not known for his ability to pass, threw 8-of-10 for 105 yards and two touchdowns in the first half.

The secondary also committed three penalties for 40 yards on the opening drive. Eventually it tightened up and allowed a total of 210 yards through the air.

Comparatively, the Indiana pass defense has grown significantly, jumping from No. 11 in the conference to No. 4, allowing 168 yards passing per game and limiting Rutgers to a 21st Century-record one passing yard on five completions. Certainly, it hasn’t been perfect, and expectations and inexperience aren’t all that’s at fault when fifth-year senior cornerback Andre Brown is beaten on a simple flag route against Maryland and the safeties get twisted up and surrender an easy touchdown to Michigan State at the end of the first half.

But that’s what the season will continue to be for the young secondary – up and down with flashes of play-making capabilities – until it fully understands the concepts of a Kane Wommack defense, and Teegardin said that relationship between the safeties and Wommack continues to grow. That goes for most of the defense too.

“They can anticipate what Coach Wommack is going to call and at what times,” Teegardin said. “Studying him and being around him enough, I think they get a better feel for, ‘Hey, we get into this situation, I could see Coach calling this.’ We can watch film, and they can sometimes call it themselves, just based on what Coach Wommack likes philosophy-wise.”

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