Before formally announcing that running back Sampson James had left his program for good, Indiana coach Tom Allen declared that he had someone to take his scholarship.
Jonathan Haynes, a graduate transfer safety from Ole Miss, officially joined the program on Thursday and practiced with the Hoosiers for the first time. Haynes played for the Rebels for two years after a junior college stint at Jones College. In two seasons at Ole Miss he recorded 86 tackles including 1.0 for loss and two interceptions.
“He made that decision to enter the portal and once he did, we reached out to him because we had guys who had coached him on this staff,” Allen said. “Guys that know him very well, and one of his former teammates (defensive end Ryder Anderson.) … We had an additional spot available and we chose to use that for him.”
It’s not immediately evident where Haynes fits on the safety depth chart for the Hoosiers. They always use five defensive backs, and that sometimes means using three cornerbacks with the third being the nickel back and it sometimes means using three safeties with the third being the Husky.
The Hoosiers bring third-team All-Big Ten safety Devon Matthews back at one of the two every-down safety spots. Raheem Layne, a fifth-year senior and converted cornerback, was clearly at the top of the depth chart after a strong spring. At the Husky spot, the Hoosiers return starter Bryant Fitzgerald from last year’s roster and bring back Marcelino McCrary-Ball, who missed all of last season with a torn ACL, for his sixth year in the program.
Allen doesn’t have Haynes pegged for any of those three spots yet, but simply likes what he sees out of him so far.
“He brings a lot of athleticism,” Allen said. “He’s over 200 pounds, about 205. Close to 6-foot. We played against him in the bowl game. We got a chance to study him then. … We’re a three-safety defense. There’s a lot of opportunities there. I know he gives us a lot of depth. Special teams is an area that I see him really flourishing in. He’s an extremely physical player and has really good speed. I like his length and athleticism. We’ll have to figure out where the best need is there to be able to give him the best opportunity for him and for us to best maximize his skill set.”
Haynes has to go through the NCAA’s required heat acclimation period that the rest of the players have already gone through. The Hoosiers are now allowed to practice in full pads, but Haynes could only practice in a helmet and “spiders” which are smaller, softer pads that are used for practices in which contact is limited. That meant Haynes couldn’t take part in every period in practice, but he was impressive when he was out there.
“He showed out in terms of making plays,” Allen said.
The loss of James obviously shrinks the running back room and ends his highly-anticipated Indiana career. The four-star recruit from Avon High School was originally committed to Ohio State before deciding to stay close to home. He spent the last two seasons stuck behind starter Steve Scott III, however, and rushed for a total of 371 yards and three touchdowns. Last year, he rushed for just 96 yards on 32 carries. He was part of an open competition for the starting running back job along with USC transfer Stephen Carr, sophomore Tim Baldwin Jr., and converted wide receiver David Ellis.
It’s not clear where he stood in that competition, but it’s also clear he hadn’t won it going away.
“He just made a decision for what he wanted to do,” Allen said. “We have a very strong running back room. A lot of depth. A lot of guys who have had good practices so far. I’m very excited about those guys. He’s made his decision and we wish him well.”
Allen made clear that the competition is still open for the starting job and that the Hoosiers could use an extensive running back rotation. Much of the determination will be made in the coming weeks now that the Hoosiers are in full pads.
“Those three guys right now (Carr, Baldwin and Ellis) would be the top three, but there’s several guys in that room that have talent,” Allen said. “We’re going to play a lot of guys. The whole process hasn’t played itself out. Today being our first day of full pads, we had never even hit before Sampson’s decision. Our scrimmage on Saturday is a great day to evaluate talent. … Running backs, you really need to be able to be live to be able to tell, who can make guys miss, who can pick up the blitzes, who can make plays in space, whether it’s catching the ball or running the ball. The evaluation process is ongoing and we’re going to play the best players whether they’re on scholarship or not.”