There’s no shortage of talent in Indiana’s running back room in 2023.
The only questions from a personnel standpoint right now are who plays and how much.
Here’s our outlook for the IU running backs, with roster turnover, the projected depth chart, fall camp quotes, and more.
Prior preview: Offensive line
ROSTER TURNOVER — WHO’S GONE
- Shaun Shivers (out of eligibility),
- Charlie Spegal (transfer — Ball State)
ROSTER TURNOVER — WHO’S BACK
- Jaylin Lucas (sophomore),
- Josh Henderson (fifth-year senior),
- Trent Howland (redshirt sophomore),
- David Holloman (redshirt sophomore)
ROSTER TURNOVER — WHO’S NEW
- Christian Turner (transfer — Wake Forest)
(Note: Sampson James transferred back to IU during the offseason, but he isn’t listed on the roster and isn’t expected to play this fall.)
PROJECTED DEPTH CHART
Although one of the five scholarship running backs will be the “starter” on the field for the first snap, it’s probably better to think of this group playing roles rather than a traditional depth chart. When healthy, you’ll likely see several of them on the field each week.
Competing for the traditional lead back role on first and second down are Josh Henderson (5-foot-11, 225) and Christian Turner (5-foot-11, 205). Henderson has experience in the system and he’s had a healthier fall camp, so it’s possible he carries the larger early season load. But the staff is high on Turner’s potential, and this competition will ultimately come down to who is more effective on gameday.
Jaylin Lucas (5-foot-9, 170) is the change of pace/passing downs back. He doesn’t have the size to be a 30 carry per game back, and IU wants to keep him healthy and utilize him in many other creative ways. He’ll be on the field a ton, just not always as the lone back trying to find a crease off tackle. Indiana wants to get him the ball in space (think sweeps, options, screens, etc.), and he should be a major weapon on third downs too.
Third-year backs Trent Howland (6-foot-3, 240) and Davis Holloman (6-foot, 205) have a bit of a thunder and lightning aspect to them. It’s easy to see the bruising Howland being IU’s preferred short yardage back, while Holloman has serious speed. The staff has praised the offseason progress of both redshirt sophomores.
Also — it won’t always be a situation where only one back plays at a time. According to running backs coach Craig Johnson, IU will use some two back sets. So that should increase the engagement for this talented group. And with Lucas sometimes lined up in the slot, there could even be plays when three of the five are on the field.
Turner is the most accomplished back in this group, but he dealt with nagging injuries during fall camp.
After starting his college career at Michigan and then Wake Forest, Turner has 1,288 career yards, he’s scored 14 total touchdowns, and the Georgia product has a 4.1 yards per carry career average. Turner was obviously highly thought of coming out of high school, and there’s the potential he puts it all together in his final season of college football.
Pass protection is always a concern for the coaching staff, and that’s an area Lucas needs to have improved at during the offseason.
Running backs coach Craig Johnson on the growth of Jaylin Lucas from year one to year two:
“I think the early-game jitters when he was a true freshman, that was a lot for him. Now, he plays like a second-year player. I think he’s understanding the game, the pace of the game, what he’s got to do, practices at a really high level, football is very important to him, he works on his craft hard.”
Henderson on Turner:
“He’s a competitor. We’ve become really close because we lifted together all spring and all summer. He’s a competitor. We push each other more than I’ve ever been. He pushes me to be our best, and when he’s on the field it’s a constant battle.”
Lucas on utilizing two back sets and expanded responsibilities this year:
“It’s very different (the two-back formations). And I’ve got two roles, both as a receiver and in the backfield. So I’ve got to know a lot of formations and everybody’s role.”
WHY IT WILL WORK
Lucas is out of the bubble wrap this year. His mere presence on the field will create opportunities, both for him and others.
Henderson and Turner are smart, experienced, and versatile. Neither projects as a major star, but IU has two fairly complete and dependable backs in the duo. And Lucas will open up the field for both of them.
Also – the offensive line is experienced, healthy and under new leadership. There may be no Feeney or Spriggs in the group, but it is reasonable expect meaningful improvement up front.
WHY IT WON’T
Like any running back room, there are multiple variables out of the control of this group that could impact their success.
First, Indiana’s offensive line must generate significantly more push and space up front to allow the back to get to the second level. If the offensive line is swallowed up by Big Ten defensive lines, the IU backs will be trying to break tackles in the behind the line of scrimmage.
Second, Indiana must be able to legitimately threaten defenses with the vertical passing game. If the opposing secondary isn’t worried about the deep threat, the box will be stacked and there will be nowhere to go.
Moreover, Lucas is no secret coming into this season. Defenses will be keying on him as the top priority they need to stop.
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