By Dustin Dopirak
Tom Allen had a chance to reflect Tuesday with the 2020 season over and the awards still rolling in. The announcement that he had been named AFCA Coach of the Year gave him the opportunity to consider his personal journey, the journey of the program that promoted him to head coach in 2016 and the journey of the team that hung in there through a season that was canceled for a period and complicated by COVID-19 protocols.
But he also recognized that 2020 was not an end point but a next step and that there will not just be a hope but an expectation that the Hoosiers accomplish more in 2021 even though they finished 2020 ranked higher at No. 12 than any Indiana team since 1967. ESPN.com released its way-too-early Top 25 on Tuesday and the Hoosiers were ranked No. 10. A lot could change between now and August when the real polls are released, but it’s hard to imagine Indiana won’t be in the top 15 when they do come out.
“You are not sneaking up on anybody any more, and that is a great thing,” Allen said. “That is a good issue to have, a good problem to have to address. That is what I see moving forward.”
Since the offseason began and the Hoosiers have learned which players plan to leave and which plan to stay for next season, they have had little reason to lessen their expectations. The 2020 season will not count against any player’s eligibility because of COVID-19, so seniors who would have been out of eligibility after this season had the opportunity to stay and most of Indiana’s are sticking around. Wide receiver Whop Philyor, center Harry Crider and junior cornerback Jamar Johnson all announced their intentions to go pro, but so many other key pieces including All-Big Ten wide receiver Ty Fryfogle will be returning. Even fifth-year senior defensive back Marcelino McCary-Ball will be back for a sixth season after missing all of 2020 with a knee injury.
“I was a little surprised in some ways because you just don’t know,” Allen said. “It’s a unique opportunity for all of us to even have that decision to make. Usually when you’re a senior that’s your last year and you either move on to the NFL or you finish out your degree and go start working. It’s a different time now. But it’s been encouraging to see the guys who still want to be a part of this. It’s a great, great thing. It speaks to the fact that guys want to be a part of this.”
In some areas where the Hoosiers have had losses, they’ve already addressed them in the transfer market picking up center Zach Carpenter from Michigan to fill in for the departing Harry Crider, D.J. Matthews from Florida State for Philyor, and adding defensive end Ryder Anderson from Ole Miss.
If Michael Penix comes back healthy, the Hoosiers will return the Big Ten’s leader in averaging passing yards per game. In Fryfogle they’ll bring back the player who ranked No. 2 in the conference in yards per reception and seventh in yards per game. If middle linebacker Micah McFadden returns, they’ll have one of the conference’s leaders in tackles for loss, and even with Johnson gone, they’ll return three 2020 All-Big Ten defensive backs including All-American Tiawan Mullen.
Still, Allen knows the Hoosiers do have specific things to fix, and they’ve begun that process now.
“There’s schematic things,” Allen said. “We have to find ways to run the football better. I still feel like we gave up too many big plays defensively. We did a great job of playing really well in the red zone and created a lot of takeaways and did some good things for sure, but there’s a lot of things we have to get fixed.”
The running game is the most glaring issue. The Hoosiers ranked 12th in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game with 108.6, picking up just 3.1 per carry despite having talented backs. Junior Stevie Scott rushed for 10 touchdowns and young backs Tim Baldwin Jr. and Sampson James both showed promise.
Allen said it was a play calling and execution issue which largely stemmed from the fact that they lost so much camp time to COVID-19 and spent much of the season unsure who they’d have in practice and games from day to day because of protocols. They kept the playbook simple by design so it wasn’t difficult for young players to learn if they had to be thrust in to a bigger role in the middle of a week, but that also made it easier for defenses to counter and smother.
“We were more vanilla in some ways in that regard, but know we need to grow more than that,” Allen said. “I am not going to be too specific about what that is going to look like. I just see us expanding ourselves schematically and doing more things in the run game, being more multiple in the run game, and being able to have multiple types of abilities to attack certain points on the line of scrimmage and how we set those up as well. So, we are going to have an extensive study of that this offseason, and that is going to be huge for our offensive staff and for our program, is to run the football better.”
On the defensive end, they have to find a new defensive coordinator before they do anything, with DC and linebackers coach Kane Wommack having departed after the Outback Bowl to become the head coach at South Alabama.
“The No. 1 objective is to find the best fit,” Allen said. “If he’s not, we’d look at adjusting our staff. We can move guys around. … We’re looking at some different guys from different backgrounds. The No. 1 goal is to find the guy to be the best fit to run that side of the football. We’re in the process and working through that right now and anxious to get through it and get that guy picked.”
Replacing high-performing assistants because they get head coaching jobs is part of the gig for programs on the sort of trajectory Indiana is on. Allen is embracing everything that comes with it because the Hoosiers have been starved of it for far too long.
“To me, we have created a different level of expectation,” Allen said. “The belief has come from within this football team. It has spread out throughout our fan base and now other people have started to believe in Indiana football. To me, that is a great thing. That is what you want. That is what you strive for. So now, you have to live up to those expectations.”
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