Part of the reason Indiana went big on its running backs coach hire, bringing back Deland McCullough from the Kansas City Chiefs to run the room and hold the title of associate head coach, is because the running game was one of the only facets of the game in which the 2020 Hoosiers were not particularly strong.
In a 6-2 season in which the Hoosiers finished second in the Big Ten East and ranked No. 12 in the nation, they finished 12th in the Big Ten in rushing offense with 108.6 yards per game. They were even worse in yards per carry, finishing 13th in the league with 3.1 yards per attempts. Only Michigan State, which scored just two touchdowns on the ground all season, was worse per attempt with 2.7 yards per carry.
Indiana coach Tom Allen said shortly after the season ended with the Hoosiers’ loss to Ole Miss in the Outback Bowl that one of his goals for the offseason was to make the running game more multiple. McCullough declined to give specifics as to exactly how the Hoosiers would go about doing that, but said that they will and that his job is simply to make sure the running backs are prepared for whatever is asked of them.
“Without getting into a lot of specifics, there are some things that will be relatively apparent once we get to a situation to show what we’re working with,” McCullough said on a Zoom press conference with reporters Tuesday morning. “But the No. 1 thing is just continuing to bolster the confidence of the guys in the room. Putting guys in a situation to be successful. Showing coach (Nick) Sheridan, the offensive line coach (Darren) Hiller, and coach Allen that the running back room can be counted on to take us to the next level. Right now, we’re just taking care of our business, making sure we’re getting yards after contact, catching the ball, protecting the quarterback, and doing all the things we need to do to gain confidence as far as having the head coach and the offensive coordinator feel confident in us.”
McCullough takes over a running back room that has lost its most productive back from a season ago. Stevie Scott III averaged a modest 3.6 yards per carry as a junior, which was a career worst, but he still led the Hoosiers with 561 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns, with the scoring figure putting him second in the Big Ten behind Minnesota’s Ibrahim Mohamed. Scott declared for the NFL draft after three seasons leaving the Hoosiers without a back who rushed for more than 150 yards in the COVID-19 shortened 2020 campaign. No other running back scored a touchdown for the Hoosiers last season with quarterback Michael Penix Jr. responsible for the two rushing touchdowns Scott didn’t score.
Still, the backs behind Scott on the depth chart showed flashes of potential last season and McCullough is pleased with what he’s seen so far.
“My impressions coming in were that it’s a very smart, group, very talented, very much bought into the culture, and it shows every day,” McCullough said. “Guys are coming out and working hard and have really bought into what I’ve brought into the table as it relates to some different things, just as far as reads, eye discipline, a different way of doing things. We’re trying to get these guys ready to not only be the best version of themselves, but to help us become Big Ten champions.”
The Hoosiers’ leading returning rusher had just 22 carries last season, but he did a lot with his opportunities. Freshman Tim Baldwin Jr. finished with 141 yards, his 6.4 yards per carry average being the highest among the team among anyone who had more than 10 carries. Most of that action game in the Hoosiers’ win over Maryland when Baldwin rushed for 106 yards on 16 carries, with a 26-yard run among them.
“In the time he’s been out there, he’s looked good,” McCullough said. “Moving around well, picking up everything that we’re talking about just as far as the reads and some of the finer points of running back play to make him the dynamic player he wants to be.”
Baldwin’s closest competition for the starting running back job will most likely be sophomore Sampson James, the 6-foot-1, 220-pound four-star recruit and two-time all-state pick from Avon High School. In two seasons so far, James has rushed for 379 yards and three touchdowns on 113 carries. McCullough said he’s made himself an example for the rest of the position group.
“Sampson was one of the first guys I talked to when I got the job,” McCullough said. “Just hearing him be honest about where he is and what he wants to do, just being so open to some of the things. … Just getting his buy-in as one of the leaders of the group helped. Then obviously he’s been in position to sit back and see those things work. He was involved more as a participant today in practice and did some good things. Sampson is a leader in our room.”
Beyond those two, the Hoosiers have another backfield option in David Ellis, a 6-foot, 207-pounder who was recruited as an athlete and been used as both a slot receiver and a running back as well as a kick returner. He’s been officially moved to the running back room and McCullough is interested in everything he can do out of the backfield. Last season, he ran the ball 16 times for 61 yards and caught 11 passes for 137 yards and a touchdown.
“I’ve been very impressed with David Ellis,” McCullough said. “… I’m impressed with just his demeanor. The fact that he is very driven. He’s a leader in that room. His skill set is amazing as far as being able to catch the ball and make guys miss in space, he’s a big strong guy. I’m just excited to continue to build on his overall running back skill to make him not just, ‘Hey, I’m a great out-of-the-backfield receiver,’ but ‘I’m a legitimate all-around running back.’ He’s committed to doing that, and I feel very confident about being able to fill those spaces to get him where he needs to be.”
All three of those backs and more will have a chance to make an impact for Indiana in 2021. McCullough is not the type to give the job to one man and let him get all the carries. Last year, the Chiefs didn’t have a 1,000-yard rushers but had four running backs who rushed for at least 90 yards.
“My history has shown that I’ll play a bunch of guys,” McCullough said. “Obviously you want guys to separate themselves as the lead guy. There’s only one guy who can go out there at the time and one guy who can be at the top of the depth chart. However, you need a strong supporting cast of guys who can go in there and do different things and carry the load if someone gets chipped up. I’ve always been big on building the room from the bottom up. Yeah, you have some top guys, and you feel good about that, but what about your depth? … Their job is to make it hard for us to make decisions. Those guys have been doing that.”
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