IU's Wilson begins building new foundation

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Kevin Wilson faces the two-pronged challenge of installing a scheme and installing a mindset this spring at Indiana.

There's no doubt which element matters more to the new Hoosiers' coach.

Wilson made it clear in a recent practice, eschewing his play-calling creativity in an effort to elicit the cornerstone values he wants in his program.

"It was third-and-1 or fourth-and-1, and every time we were going to run straight ahead and see if somebody knocks somebody backwards ... on either side of the ball," Wilson said. "Somebody's going to knock somebody backwards and get a stop or get a first down. A lot of times, we're running the same play over and over and over."

Wilson might have landed this gig because of his imaginative play calls as Oklahoma's offensive coordinator. But before Indiana can run Oklahoma's offense, the Hoosiers must practice like the Sooners.

"I don't think our talent is as far off as you or most [reporters] think," Wilson said. "But our mental approach, our physical approach to practice, is not what I'm used to."

Wilson can live with the mistakes as players adjust to new systems on both sides of the ball. But he won't tolerate practicing at anything less than full tilt.

"You've got to push them," he said. "There's no patience in going hard. Patience is learning schemes, and you need time, but going hard is just a mindset. Being physical is a mindset. Every year, you start back at ground zero. You build the physical-ness of your team, the toughness of your team and the attitude of your team."

Indiana's attitude needs to change after the team found creative ways to lose the past several years. There's no excuse for a 3-21 mark in Big Ten play since 2007, but Indiana hasn't been far away from getting over that elusive hump.

Every time the Hoosiers near a breakthrough, something goes wrong. There have been blown leads (28-3 against Northwestern, 24-14 against Iowa in 2009); tough calls (the interception/reception at Michigan in 2009, the touchdown reversal at Iowa in 2009, a 97-yard touchdown called back on a holding penalty that resulted in a safety against Michigan State in 2008) and heartbreaking moments (a dropped touchdown pass in the final minute against Iowa in 2010).

After so many disappointments, players are almost conditioned to expect failure, even in spring ball.

"I was joking with [linebacker] Jeff Thomas in practice," guard Justin Pagan said. "We were doing field goals, and he's like, 'He'll probably miss it,' and I'm like, 'Yeah, he probably will.'

"You've got to break the thinking of, 'We did a good play, but what's going to happen now?' It's like, 'What's next?' Instead of, 'OK, let's keep it going.'"

That's where Wilson comes in.

"He wants us to believe in ourselves more than we do," Pagan said. "He can see we believe in ourselves, but he thinks it can go way farther than where we are."

Although Wilson's background is on the offensive side -- he hasn't ruled out calling plays this season -- he understands that Indiana only will turn a corner when it upgrades the defense. The Hoosiers have finished no higher than 71st nationally in total defense in the past 11 seasons and ranked 88th or worse nine times.

Wilson faced some hurdles in hiring assistants -- four left for other positions shortly after coming to IU -- but his final staff has a defensive flavor. Indiana has assigned assistants to defensive tackles (Mark Hagen), defensive ends (Brett Diersen), safeties (Doug Mallory) and cornerbacks (Brandon Shelby). Co-coordinator Mike Ekeler will oversee the linebackers, as he did at Nebraska.

Wilson, meanwhile, is coaching Indiana's tight ends because of how he organized his assistants.

"I've never been involved in a staff where we've had five full-time [assistants] on defense," said Mallory, who shares coordinator duties with Ekeler. "It's nice to have an extra coach."

Added Wilson: "We're doing that to make the strides defensively."

Mallory says he hasn't watched any tape of Indiana's defense from 2010, wanting to give his new players a clean slate. Instead, players are seeing clips of defenses like Nebraska's and LSU's that Ekeler and Mallory helped to shape.

"They don't talk about the time they had there; they just bring what they did here," defensive end Darius Johnson said. "They're just trying to get us to do the same thing."

The new staff has demanded a lot from the players, from a ramped-up winter conditioning program to up-tempo practices this spring. Scheme installation is part of the challenge, but Wilson doesn't want to get too bogged down in details right now.

He isn't sure if he'll stick with the no-huddle offense that always seemed to keep Oklahoma ahead of its competition. He doesn't have a depth chart and seems in no rush to put one together.

"We're not trying to overwhelm them with being smart coaches in scheme," Wilson. "We're trying to overwhelm them with how to be a physical, tough, hard-nosed player on both sides of the ball."