On the first day of spring practice, Indiana brought out three players who were named All-America by one service or another for a Zoom press conference to discuss the beginning of the build-up to 2021.
This is not something that would have been possible in almost any other season in Indiana football history. And not just because Zoom press conferences just became a mainstream necessity a year ago.
The Hoosiers have three returning All-Americans on the roster for the first time since 1946, the year after the only undefeated season in Indiana football history when the Hoosiers went 9-0-1 and finished fourth in the AP poll. George Taliaferro actually wasn’t part of the program after earning All-America honors that year because he was drafted into the Army, but Pete Pihos, Russ Deal and Howard Brown all returned after All-America seasons. The only other times in history that the Hoosiers had three All-Americans in the same year were 2007, 1987 and 1967, and some of those were seniors or NFL draftees who moved on.
But on Tuesday, cornerback Tiawan Mullen, linebacker Micah McFadden and wide receiver Ty Fryfogle all showed up for practice after being named among the country’s best players at their position last season. Of the three, Mullen was the only one who wasn’t eligible to enter the NFL draft after the season. McFadden and Fryfogle passed up the chance to get paid to be a part of what Indiana could be in 2021.
For Indiana, 2020 was a historic season in a sense. The Hoosiers won six Big Ten games for the first time since 1987. For the first time ever since Penn State joined the Big Ten in 1993 and began its series with Indiana, the Hoosiers beat the Nittany Lions, Michigan and Wisconsin in the same season. They also finished ranked No. 12 in the AP poll which is IU’s highest finish since 1967 when they lost the Rose Bowl to USC. But they still only had six wins in the COVID shortened season and they lost in the Outback Bowl, allowing their drought without a bowl victory since 1991 to continue.
This year, thanks in part to COVID-19 rules that allowed seniors including Fryfogle to stay who would have exhausted their eligibility last season otherwise, they will actually be expected to do more. They will likely start the season ranked in the top 15 for the first time since 1968.
“This football team, I feel like, we still left some stuff on the table,” Fryfogle said. “We got a lot more that we can accomplish. The future is bright for this team. We’re getting better each and every day. We just started spring ball. We’ve got 15 opportunities to get better and build off of what we did last season. I feel like we can accomplish anything we want to this season.”
Part of going further as a team means individual development for each. Fryfogle was named Big Ten Receiver of the Year with 37 receptions, 721 yards and seven touchdowns last season and had back-to-back 200-yard games against Ohio State and Michigan State. The 6-foot-2, 210-pounder excelled at making catches in traffic and outmuscling defensive backs.
But there is still more he could improve on and he believes a fifth year of college football will be good for his development.
“I could get better at everything,” Fryfogle said. “There’s some specific things I could get better at. Learning defenses. Cleaning my routes up. Top-end speed. I can get better at everything. I still have a lot of stuff to get better at.”
Mullen and McFadden, meanwhile, are spending the spring getting used to a new defensive coordinator in Charlton Warren after Kane Wommack left to be the head coach at South Alabama. The differences between the two aren’t drastic, but there is a slight adjustment.
“It’s just getting to know coach Warren as a person and as a coach as well,” McFadden said. “And getting down the terminology. Knowing what to communicate when and just getting everybody on the same page. All of those things are so important this spring.”
Individually, McFadden is trying to work on his body to make sure he stays at his target weight throughout the year and doesn’t go under. He finished fourth in the Big Ten last season with 10.5 tackles for loss and he led the Hoosiers with six sacks but still thinks there is a next level for him.
“It’s just mastering my craft,” McFadden said. “Getting all my individual technique down, getting my footwork down. And also being a leader out there. I think a big thing for me is going to be keeping weight on and playing at 230 pounds this year. That’s the biggest thing for me.”
For Mullen the next step is to use the status he’s earned and turn that into a leadership position. He was a terror both in pass coverage and on blitzes last season with three interceptions, four pass break-ups and 3.5 sacks and now his charge is to build on that production and become more vocal.
“It’s an honor,” Mullen said. “You should want guys to follow you to do the right things. … Just to have the leverage to help guys out, it’s a great honor. And just the way I hold them accountable, I’m gonna hold myself accountable.”
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