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Indiana football 2020 position preview: The running backs

The Daily Hoosier is previewing each position group during the final days leading up to the opening kickoff of the 2020 Indiana University football season on October 24 against Penn State in Bloomington.

Today we take a look at the running backs.


Once again Indiana finds itself with a talented stable of running backs in 2020.

Still young but experienced, IU has a bruising 1-2 punch in junior Stevie Scott and sophomore Sampson James.

But the Hoosiers finished No. 106 nationally in 2019 in rushing offense.

With the attention focused on quarterback Michael Penix, Indiana will need more explosive plays and overall production from the group to fully balance out the offense in 2020.

WHO IS GONE

Indiana’s combination of youth and depth at running back led to a couple of talented players moving on.

Cole Gest was a midseason transfer who landed at Akron.  Ronnie Walker entered the transfer portal in February and recently received a waiver to play in 2020 for Virginia.

THE 2020 ROSTER

RETURNING WITH EXPERIENCE

Stevie Scott produced 1,000 all-purpose yards and 11 touchdowns in 11 games for 2019.  He also caught 26 passes for 211 yards as the bruising back became a weapon both on the ground and through the air.  Scott had a 5.5 yards per carry average over his last six games of 2019.  With 1,982 yards rushing for his first two years, Scott is ahead of where IU all-time rushing yardage leader Anthony Thompson was at this stage of his career.

Sampson James played as a true freshman in a reserve role behind Scott in 2019 for the most of the season.  He carried the ball 81 times for 275 yards (3.4 ypc) and three touchdowns.  James had a breakout game in Indiana’s win over Purdue to close out the regular season, rushing 22 times for 118 yards and a score.  The distribution of touches between Scott and James could be more balanced this year.

David Ellis is listed as a running back and he appeared as a wide receiver on the depth chart.  Truth be told, Ellis will likely line up everywhere, including kick returner.  The coaching staff hopes he can be the big play guy they are looking for in 2020.

Ahrod Lloyd was named IU’s Outstanding Walk-On Player of the Year in 2019.  He appeared in all 13 games and rushed 10 times for 19 yards.

NAMES ON THE RISE/IMPACT NEWCOMERS

Tim Baldwin is a true freshman who enrolled early to help him acclimate.  The No. 37 running back in the 2020 class according to ESPN, Baldwin figures to see the field this year.

Charlie Spegal was the 2019 Indiana High School Mr. Football.  While he joins IU as a preferred walk-on, Spegal has already made an impression at fall camp and figures to play a role as his career progresses.

WHAT THEY ARE SAYING

Running backs coach Mike Hart on the allocation of touches —

“I think that is all up to (offensive coordinator) Coach Nick Sheridan,” Hart said.  “The more we run the ball the more guys are going to get touches. I think you roll with the hot hand. I think we have a couple guys that can start in there, and they are all going to play, so we will see how it goes. It is how we practice, they all practice, so they are all going to play and we will see what happens as we go.

“As long as we run the ball, I mean if there are only 15 carries in the game it is hard to say someone is going to get seven and seven. But if you run the ball 25 or 30 times, you can go 20 and 10 or 15 and 15. If you only run the ball 15 times per game, you are not going to be able to do seven and seven. Guys cannot get into a flow that way. We will see what Coach Sheridan wants to do this year.”

Stevie Scott on his health and expected development in 2020 —

“Physically, I feel as though my body is in shape,” Scott said.  “We got a new strength staff during the offseason and I feel that they have been helping the whole team get better. They have improved every day on the little things to help our bodies stay healthy and to be physical players. For me, I want to improve on my breakaway ability, getting through the line of scrimmage and creating bigger plays for the offense.”

Sampson James on how his late season surge fueled his offseason training —

“It served as great motivation,” James said.  “Having an opportunity to start two games, I feel like the game speed is a lot slower. I’m starting to see stuff faster, quicker. I feel like I’m adjusting to the game, but it’s definitely pushed me to work even harder so I can play more and eliminate any kind of weaknesses. Those two opportunities at the end of the season definitely pushed me and were on my mind this whole offseason.”

THE OUTLOOK

A mid-season transfer and late season injuries in 2019 quickly illustrated how even a deep group can be tested over the course of a season.

Scott and James form a solid core, and it will be interesting to see how Baldwin and Ellis are weaved into the attack.

In 2019, early opponents stacked the box and forced Indiana to win through the air.  That changed as coordinators learned what the Hoosiers were capable of via the passing attack.

With turnover on the offensive line, the yards may not be any easier to come by.  But with defenses likely keyed in on Penix, there should still be space to run.

Scott, James and the supporting cast need to turn that space into more big plays in 2020, while also posing a threat in the passing game.


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