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Rashard Fant's return gives Indiana secondary strength

Rashard Fant spent the past weekend with his attention torn between two Indiana towns.

The senior cornerback was in Bloomington where he and his Hoosier teammates started spring practice Saturday. He just as easily could have been up the road in Indianapolis as part of a deep class of NFL draft hopefuls in the secondary.

Fant kept an eye on the 40-yard dash times and other data posted by his recent peers throughout the week to see how he would've stacked up had he decided not to return for a final season of college football. He said he was most recently timed at 4.36 seconds in the 40, which if accurate would have been one of the top five times in Indianapolis. His recent stats on the field put him in similar company.

Fant finished third among all FBS defensive backs in passes defended during each of the past two seasons. He collected a combined 39 total pass breakups in those two seasons -- more than anyone else in college football during the same stretch -- while flying relatively under the radar amid a well-stocked group of cover cornerbacks in the Big Ten.

"Some people would say 'he’s not that good he’s just on a bad defense,' but now you know they can’t say that anymore," Fant said in a phone interview over the weekend. "I got some respect, but I’ve got to keep going. It’s a good thing have those great corners to chase."

Fant considered jumping to the NFL this year, but his return gives Indiana's defense two things it hasn't had in recent memory. Along with linebacker Tegray Scales, another veteran defender who didn't get the attention his remarkable stats warranted last fall, the Hoosiers have a pair of first-team all-conference-caliber players who put a pro career on hold to return to Bloomington. They also have a chance to make another leap forward as a group after significant improvement in 2016.

First-year head coach Tom Allen helped the defense climb from No. 117 in points allowed to No. 57 in one season as defensive coordinator before he was promoted in December. Fant and cornerbacks coach Brandon Shelby think the experience the defense returns, especially in the secondary, gives them the potential to double down and shed the reputation of a program that only wins by scoring a lot of points. That would make for a 180-degree turnaround from where the defense was when Shelby first arrived at Indiana nearly seven years ago.

"When I came into Bloomington I had a head full of hair and now I’m bald," Shelby said. "It’s been a long process, but it was a good steady process. ... We’ve got everybody back except for one person. Let’s see if we can’t get Indiana as one of the top 25 defenses in the country."

To get there, Shelby said Fant will have to play a key role in getting the secondary to work together. Last year, the back end of the defense flourished by focusing on winning its one-on-one battles. This season, Shelby wants Fant to take the next step in his development and start seeing the whole field and how the defense fits together.

Shelby traveled to Georgia this winter to sell Fant and his family on spending another year in college. Along with telling Fant he could benefit from another year at the training table to add to his 175-pound frame, Shelby’s main recruiting pitch was about developing a deeper knowledge of the game and learning to deal with adversity when more people are watching.

"He’s (always) going to be fast, but development and maturing one more year I think in the end will pay off," Shelby said. "You’ve got to get a little vulnerable. You can’t just do your job, you’ve got to make sure you set the standard for the future guys coming along."

Fant said he and Scales talked to each other about leaving a legacy in Bloomington when they decided they both would return. Not many defensive players in Indiana’s recent past would have much of a desire to talk about how they’ll be remembered for their team on the field.

In January, shortly after they made the decision to return, Allen gave several members of the team a short, motivational book called "One Word that Will Change Your Life" and then had each player pick a word he wanted to focus on during the 2017 season. After some deliberation, Fant landed on "cherish."

"We have (our words) up around our lockers and our homes and our Instagram or Twitter bios. I think it’s a great thing," he said. "I decided I want to cherish the moments I have left here and cherish each day and every opportunity, cherish the moments with my family members and cherish being the underdog."

He would be wise to soak those moments up while he can. Another year at his current pace will put an end to his time at Indiana and his time as an underdog.