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IU football doesn’t know when Michael Penix can return, and that changed the plan for Donaven McCulley

Two years behind both Michael Penix, Jr. and Jack Tuttle eligibility-wise, the plan was to widen that gap and keep 4-star freshman quarterback Donaven McCulley at or under the four game limit that would allow him to redshirt this season.

But if you’ve been paying attention to this 2021 Indiana football season, you know nothing has gone according to plan for the Hoosiers on the offensive side of the football.

Like most freshmen, McCulley is raw when it comes to competing at this level.  But he showed enough at fall camp to inform the coaching staff that they had the special player that they thought they recruited.  And because of that, and the fact that Penix and Tuttle were in front of him, the plan was to maximize the seasons where McCulley was the clear starter.

And then Penix got injured, and Tuttle hasn’t been the steadying force the staff had hoped for, and so…

“We were going to (limit McCulley to four games).  Now we’re not,” head coach Tom Allen said on Monday.

“When Michael [Penix Jr.] went down, we had to make the decision that he’s going to have to go. But before that, that was kind of the thought, to just use those four games in a judicious way. Now he’s the number two guy, training to be the next guy in.”

The plan going forward, and it started on Saturday against Michigan State, is to use McCulley in designed packages of plays, occasionally stepping into the game for Tuttle.

The first iteration was awkward to say the least.  After Tuttle led an impressive 13-play, 70 yard opening drive, McCulley was inserted on the second play of Indiana’s second drive, and he threw a pass behind the intended receiver enough that it ended up being ruled a lateral.  On the next play Tuttle came back in and threw a pick-six.  Cause and effect?  Probably more just par for Indiana’s 2021 offensive course.  But the series highlighted that if Indiana wants to go with a two-quarterback experiment, there are still a few kinks to work out.

For McCulley, that means preparing not only to step in as the full-time quarterback on a moment’s notice, but also get ready for the special set of plays each week.

“The challenge with him is not only are you developing a few package plays for him, but you are also trying to get him caught up to speed on what the game plan is regardless of who the quarterback is,” offensive coordinator Nick Sheridan said.  “There is a balance to that because the guys who aren’t getting the ones (starters) reps, they need to be able to execute the game plan.”

The thinking behind throwing McCulley into the fire now probably goes beyond Penix’s injury.

Indiana’s offense has been inept, and that is in no small part because it lacks dynamic playmakers.  The one player the Hoosiers had with big play ability, wide receiver D.J. Matthews, was lost for the season.

Allen sees McCulley as someone whose dual-threat talents can give the offense a boost.

“We have to maximize our roster,” Allen said.  “To me he’s one of the guys that can make plays with the ball in his hand.”

The plan with McCulley suggests that Penix’s injury has the potential to be long-term, but Allen says that is something they don’t know for sure right now.

“Being honest in the fact that we don’t know the length of time [Penix will be out],” Allen said. … “We’ve been told it could be shorter, could be longer. We don’t know that right now. It truly is week to week.”

Indiana lost second year quarterback Dexter Williams to a season-ending knee injury during spring practice.  That meant, ready-or-not, when Penix went down, McCulley became the next man up should anything happen to Tuttle.  So to prepare him for that moment should it arise, the plan is to turbo-boost McCulley’s readiness with both a ton of reps at practice, but also what is likely to be an increasing amount of snaps in games.

Allen and the staff wouldn’t be designing packages for McCulley unless they thought he was good enough to help them score points.  They didn’t put Williams in the last two games last year in ostensibly the same situation.

But that also doesn’t mean McCulley was ready to seamlessly step-in and look the part of a Power Five quarterback.

“Self-admittedly a little nervous out there to start the game, which I can imagine,” Sheridan said.  “He tried to run directly at a guy and we’re trying to get him to maybe pick an edge there and not try to run over somebody but he’s just a young kid out there trying to do the best he can.”

Although the change of plans started due to an injury, truth be told Penix’s performance was not according to plan, and to this point Tuttle is having the same struggles.  That duo has combined for 10 interceptions in IU’s four losses.

If Indiana were to lose its next three games and in the process lose bowl eligibility, the plan might change again.  No sense in burning that redshirt on a season headed nowhere fast.

On the other hand, if Indiana were to gain some momentum and McCulley plays a key role in it, who knows much his playing time might grow.

While the uncertainty of where this 2021 Indiana season works itself out, the plan at least for now is clear — expect to see more of McCulley.

“I expect his role to grow, the things we can do with him to expand each and every week, we’ll see where it goes from there,” Allen said.

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