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IU football one of just six schools with four returning players graded in top-10 at their positions by PFF

The expectations are high for IU football in 2021 after one of the more memorable seasons in program history.

Despite a difficult schedule that includes a top-20 Cincinnati squad in the nonconference, another top-20 team in Iowa from the Big Ten West, and the usual suspects in the Big Ten East, Indiana is once again expected to be one of the league’s better teams.  One of the main reasons why many believe IU will be able to maintain momentum is due to a high number of returning starters along with an influx of talented transfers.  (See also:  Position-by-position who is returning, gone and new.)

Included in the long list of returners are four players with significant credentials coming out of that 2020 campaign, and collectively, they provide IU with a lofty distinction.  Indiana is one of only six schools with at least four players who rank in the top-10 at their respective positions according to Pro Football Focus, with the others being Alabama with nine, followed by Oklahoma (6), Ohio State (6), Clemson (4) and LSU (4).

Let’s take a closer look at what the advanced football analytics site had to say about Indiana’s four stars.

Quarterback Michael Penix, Jr. earned second team All-Big Ten after his season was cut short by injury.  He is the fifth ranked returning quarterback according to PFF.

“Despite playing behind one of the worst offensive lines in college football in 2020, Penix managed to post an 82.9 PFF grade in six starts before tearing his ACL in Week 13,” PFF wrote.  “Only four other FBS quarterbacks spent a higher rate of their dropbacks under pressure than Penix at 41%, yet the Hoosier overcame that to put together quality play. He remained calm in collapsing pockets, converting pressure to sacks at an astronomically low rate of 7.4%, the best mark in the FBS.

“None of this is surprising after what we saw from Penix back in 2019 when he posted an 84.0 PFF grade in six starts. And while his accuracy wasn’t quite as consistent as it was in 2019, he still managed to produce plus results in that area in 2020, ranking 19th in the FBS in the percentage of accurate passes thrown 10-plus yards downfield.

“Penix ended up leading all Power Five quarterbacks in big-time throw rate this past season and established himself as one of the top passers in the country before the injury. As long as he can stay healthy, the Hoosiers can be a top-10 team again in 2021.

Wide receiver Ty Fryfogle was as high as third team All-American and the Big Ten’s receiver of the year in 2020, and he is the No. 9 returning wide receiver according to PFF.

“Fryfogle had a mini breakout this past season when quarterback Michael Penix Jr. was on the field,” PFF wrote.  “In the five games prior to his quarterback going down with a season-ending injury, Fryfogle ranked ninth in the FBS in receiving grade (87.2). Like Bell from Purdue, Fryfogle isn’t going to win with separation. He beats opponents with his 6-foot-2, 214-pound frame and physicality at the catch point, line of scrimmage and along the route.

“For the season, no Power Five receiver generated a higher PFF grade on contested targets than Fryfogle. He was responsible for nine contested receptions of 15-plus yards in 2020, two more than any other Power Five receiver. His route tree is extremely limited, but he is a true go/back-shoulder weapon.”

Linebacker Micah McFadden was as high as second team All-American, first team All-Big Ten, and he is the No. 5 returning linebacker according to PFF.

“McFadden is the best blitzing off-ball linebacker in college football, and the Hoosiers will continue to take advantage of that despite the departure of former defensive coordinator Kane Wommack (now head coach at South Alabama),” PFF wrote.  “McFadden rushed the passer on close to 28% of his pass snaps in 2019, coming away with an 81.9 pass-rush grade. In 2020, that rate jumped to over 44%, and his pass-rush grade skyrocketed to 90.8.

“He did that while showing major growth in coverage and as a tackler, which was his downfall in 2019. McFadden went from missing a tackle on 27% of his attempts in 2019 to just 13% of the time in 2020. And all of his misses in 2020 came in two games (Penn State and Ohio State).”

Cornerback Tiawan Mullen was as high as first team All-American and first team All-Big Ten, and he is the No. 8 returning cornerback according to PFF.

“Football is in Mullen’s blood,” PFF wrote.  “His brother, Trayvon Mullen, is a starting cornerback for the Las Vegas Raiders, while his cousin is none other than 2019 NFL MVP and Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson. So, it shouldn’t be a surprise to hear that he is currently lighting it up in the collegiate ranks and that he is hands down the best returning cornerback in the Big Ten.”

“The 5-foot-10, 175-pounder has inside-outside versatility and is a ferocious blitzer. He was asked to rush the passer 16 times this past year, and he came away with five total pressures. Mullen is also the proud owner of the highest run-defense grade among cornerbacks since he came to Bloomington as a true freshman in 2019.

“And things only get better when we look at his coverage numbers.

“Mullen’s 22.9% forced incompletion rate since 2019 is the best among all Power Five cornerbacks. He has allowed more than 40 receiving yards into his coverage just once in his entire career — removing the games with just a few snaps played and looking at those with a minimum of 15 coverage snaps, Mullen has allowed fewer than 40 yards in 94% of his games, which is the best rate among qualifying FBS cornerbacks over the past two years.”

Indiana opens the 2021 season on Sept. 4 at Iowa.


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