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How IU football’s 2021 season imploded: Part two — a disappointing year from the wide receivers

As speedy slot receiver D.J. Matthews laid on the turf in Bowling Green clutching his knee, it was difficult to not wonder if Indiana’s season was lying there too, also perhaps unable to recover.

A year ago Ty Fryfogle earned the Big Ten’s receiver of the year due to what was effectively a run of three stellar games when he hauled in 25 catches for 560 yards against Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State.  With opposing defenses overloading their attention on Whop Philyor, Fryfogle had space to operate and often his man had no help over the top.  When teams realized Fryfogle was too good for that approach, the coverage schemes were adjusted and the run of big games ended.

The conclusion?

Fryfogle is a big-time talent.  You just cannot do what he did in those three games unless that is the case.  But based on the other five games last year and his production this year, he probably isn’t a marquee No. 1 receiver who demands the full attention of the defense.  He thrives in a complimentary role.  And when Matthews went down at Western Kentucky, any hope of revitalizing the passing game to its 2020 form went with it.

Matthews had started slow.  He had just two catches for nine yards at Iowa, and he was responsible for an interception when a Michael Penix, Jr. pass went right through his hands.  But by week three against Cincinnati, Matthews was emerging as IU’s multi-faceted big-play threat.  After returning a punt for a touchdown the week prior, Matthews had five catches for 120 yards against Cincinnati, and he added two rushes for 28 yards and a touchdown.

It seemed clear — Indiana had its playmaker in the mold of Philyor, and that was going to open things up once again for Fryfogle.

But Fryfogle hasn’t helped his own cause this year.  Among receivers with at least 65 targets, he is the third worst in the FBS with a 15.4 percent drop percentage.  Part of the challenge for Fryfogle is that with no Matthews or Philyor, he is drawing the No. 1 cornerback and being targeted in much tighter windows than he grew accustomed to over his first four seasons at IU.  The results have not been good, with Fryfogle snaring just 33 percent of the contested throws in his direction, which puts him in a tie for 11th worst among FBS wideouts with 65 targets.

For comparison, Fryfogle had just a 5.1 percent drop rate in 2020, and he caught 47.8 percent of contested throws.

This isn’t meant to be a condemnation of Fryfogle, who is about as nice of a young man as you will meet, and a highly talented football player.  It just hasn’t worked out this year — a season that was supposed to help him move up the NFL Draft board.

And Indiana’s shortcomings at wideout have been about much more than Fryfogle.  Of course much of the story centers on the chaos in the quarterback room, and we covered that here.  But any idea that IU had a talented enough group of receivers to navigate the poor play at quarterback and eventual injury-riddled revolving door quickly vanished early in the season.

Fellow starter Miles Marshall has been tagged as a potential breakout player for several years now, and 2021 was his chance to shine with defenses focused on Fryfogle.  Instead, Marshall has produced just 19 catches on the season.

Sophomore Javon Swinton is someone the staff likes long term, but to this point he hasn’t emerged as a player who can be counted on as a primary weapon.  He has just 12 catches for 100 yards and has struggled at times to come down with contested throws.

Texas A&M transfer Cam Buckley was someone who many thought could step in and produce, especially when Matthews went down.  But Buckley hasn’t been seen since the Western Kentucky game either.  He has just three catches on the season.  Indiana has never disclosed what his status is, but at this point it seems unlikely he will return this season.

Jacolby Hewitt is thought of as a potential big play threat and injuries opened up more opportunities for him, but he has produced just eight catches for 5.9 yards per grab.

David Ellis was another possibility to become a trusted playmaker, but the often injured junior was lost for the season to an ankle injury and caught just one ball while splitting his time between the running back and wide receiver rooms.

And that leaves a trio of freshmen wideouts who now appear to be the future.  That group includes a pair of 4-stars, Jaquez Smith and Malachi Holt-Bennett, along with Jordyn Williams.  They’ll be joined next year by another 4-star in Indianapolis based Omar Cooper, Jr.  Of the three freshmen this season, only Holt-Bennett was even targeted on a pass, meaning a quick progression will be needed to get this group right in 2022.

See also:

How IU football’s 2021 season imploded: Part one — the quarterbacks and injuries

The Daily Hoosier –“Where Indiana fans assemble when they’re not at Assembly”