IU’s running back room may be one of its biggest weapons. And the Hoosiers plan to utilize it.
Sophomore Jaylin Lucas and fifth-year senior Josh Henderson were two of the team’s biggest offensive playmakers last year, and both figure to be integral parts of Indiana’s game plans this season. Redshirt sixth-year senior Christian Turner arrives from Wake Forest with a lot of collegiate experience, and gives IU a balanced back.
The Hoosiers have talked throughout the offseason about incorporating offensive wrinkles to get those players involved as much as possible. Two-back sets are in play. Lucas should see time at slot receiver. Indiana has operated through fall camp knowing that its running backs are one of the team’s biggest strengths and using them as such.
Running backs coach Craig Johnson was quick to point out that the group has a lot to improve on, and said he thought his running backs looked sluggish during Saturday’s intrasquad scrimmage. But he knows he’s working with some talented players who will be key to IU’s success this season.
“I’d like to think all of our guys can play multiple positions,” Johnson said. “We don’t really key them for one position or another. We try to have some one-back sets and try to have some two-back sets. Our guys try to learn every position. I think that’s key, that way they can play it if needed to go against our opponent. I think they’re all coming along in that. That’s really a challenge to have to play multiple positions, but it makes you a little bit more multiple. We’re going to continue to test those guys to the limit, especially in the preseason, and then see if we can be effective with that.”
Lucas playing looser
Lucas, for all the hype surrounding him entering this year, had an interesting freshman season.
He earned All-American honors as a kick returner, with two touchdowns and the fourth-best yards per return in the nation. But he never quite made as big of a mark on offense. He frequently looked the part of a dynamic playmaker, but he often didn’t receive enough playing time or touches to make use of it. He recorded 49 rush attempts for 271 yards and two touchdowns — both third on the team behind Shaun Shivers and Henderson. And Lucas caught 16 passes for 82 yards.
Indiana clearly knows what Lucas is capable of now, and the sophomore has his sights set on a bigger season. Lucas said he feels he’s improved in pass protection — his biggest area of weakness last year — as well as his rushing and receiving abilities. He’ll face bigger expectations this year, and opposing defenses will be keyed in harder on him in game plans.
But his mental strides since last year may be the way he’s grown the most, and it shows in his readiness to handle that.
“He’s just playing more free,” Henderson said. “He’s already a freestyle kind of guy. It’s fun to see him let loose and be what he does, or do what he does best and just make people miss, run all around the field. It’s cool to see him kind of play with a new confidence that he has from last year.”
Henderson stepping up as a leader
The North Carolina transfer was one of the biggest bright spots in Indiana’s offense last season.
Henderson finished second on the Hoosiers in rushing (90 carries for 398 yards) and third in receiving (24 receptions for 274 yards), and his eight combined touchdowns led the team. So many times, when Indiana needed someone to step up and make a play, Henderson was the one to do it.
Henderson will look to keep that going this year. He said he’s working on minimizing mistakes and becoming more consistent, both in practices and in games.
He’s also taken more of a leadership role in the running back room this offseason, and that’s something he’s taken pride in.
“I’ve been in college football for a while now. I know what to expect,” Henderson said. “So, it’s really just bringing confidence to the field, bringing people with me, being a leader on and off the field, and holding the youngest guys accountable and just elevating the style of play from everybody around me.”
Turner’s experience a plus
Henderson and Lucas return, but IU lost the third member of last season’s running back trio in Shivers. Turner comes into that spot, though the division of duties will look different this year.
Still, Turner should be a real contributor. He was Wake Forest’s second leading rusher last season with 516 yards on 128 carries with seven touchdowns. He added five receptions for 39 yards and a touchdown.
Turner feels his skill set is a blend of Henderson’s elusiveness between the tackles and Lucas’ speed. He said his experience at Wake Forest, especially in learning to read defenses, has helped him so far at IU and will continue to help him.
Johnson said Turner, like everyone, has things to keep working on. But Johnson is pleased with what he’s seen so far.
“He has a very good voice. Very good short-area quickness, and good pass protector. He has shown a lot in his snaps. I’m very excited about what he’s been doing,” Johnson said. “The greatest thing that he has done is he’s a relentless studier of the game. He is all in the details, and he is into football in a big way, and that’s a good thing.”
The Daily Hoosier –“Where Indiana fans assemble when they’re not at Assembly”