The history of the Indiana football program is replete with examples of positive momentum meeting an unfortunate turn of events.
During the golden age in the 40’s, head coach Bo McMillin left suddenly for the Detroit Lions.
Less than two years after a 1968 Rose Bowl appearance, and on their way to what appeared to be a third straight winning season, John Pont’s Hoosier team saw 10 players quit the team mid-season in 1969. The program failed to achieve another winning season for a decade.
Head coach Terry Hoeppner seemed to have everything going in the right direction before his tragic passing during the summer before the 2007 season.
And Kevin Wilson led IU to consecutive bowl games for the first time since 1991 before he “resigned” following the 2016 season.
It is with that backdrop that we examine the current program, which is coming off an eight win season — its most since 1993.
The momentum of the current Hoosier squad has no doubt already met its share of obstacles in 2020.
There was an onside kick that the Hoosiers failed to recover in Jacksonville to start the year — but that was only the beginning. Since then we’ve seen transfers, coach and staff turnover, and of course the pandemic and racial unrest that has come to define 2020.
What is the state of the IU football program a month away from the start of their third schedule for the 2020 season? What is the state of anything, really?
But the season does appear set to start. And the fact remains, through it all, IU is coming off one of its best seasons ever, with expectations as high as they have been in a generation.
While unfortunate events have stymied momentum in the past, this edition of the IU football still has everything in front of it.
There may be no more important aspect to a college football roster in 2020 than continuity. And few teams can claim more of it than Indiana.
As it stood in February, Indiana was No. 11 nationally in returning production, and the top team in the Big Ten East according to that measure. With no opt-outs during the pandemic, Indiana has done nothing but improve its standing relative to its peers.
Head coach Tom Allen knows that is a big deal in a year like 2020, when nothing has gone according to plan.
“I think it can be a big advantage. We have a lot of players back from last year’s team, head coach Tom Allen said recently in a radio interview.
“By having so many guys back that played last year in the same system on both sides of the football, I do think those consistencies and similarities will help us. I can’t imagine trying to do this with a team that you don’t hardly know yet.”
Even with all of the returning talent, Indiana is still a relatively young team. The Hoosiers only have 14 players on the roster set to embark on their final season with the program, and three of them are either specialists or a walk-on. Even those 14 players might be able to return in 2021 due to changes in eligibility promulgated by the NCAA.
THE QUARTERBACK SITUATION
The fortunes of a football team can rise and fall with its starting quarterback. So much so that it is worth an assessment of that position.
With three more years of Michael Penix at the helm, the future is bright in Bloomington.
As we learned last year, you might only be as good as your backup. IU won’t have the luxury of turning to Peyton Ramsey in 2020 if Penix suffers another injury, but former 4-star recruit Jack Tuttle returns and should be ready to go.
Behind them is true freshman Dexter Williams, someone that Tom Allen has already praised for standing out among the group of newcomers.
Looking forward, IU secured a commitment from another 4-star recruit in class of 2021 in Indianapolis based quarterback Donaven McCulley.
Things can change in a hurry, but the bottom line seems clear right now. The Hoosiers appear to be operating from a position of strength at the quarterback position for the foreseeable future.
Moving up the ranks on Indiana’s young roster are players from its three most talented recruiting classes in the ratings era.
On the basis of average player rating, Indiana’s 2018, 2019 and 2020 were its best, and many of those players — such as Michael Penix, Stevie Scott and Tiawan Mullen — are now veterans in the program.
On the basis of average player rating, Indiana’s 2021 recruiting class is even more talented.
To be sure, Indiana is not recruiting at the top of the Big Ten, and that is not a realistic expectation at this time. The goal is not to out-recruit Ohio State right now.
This coaching staff has shown that it can deliver results on the field as the talent level gradually rises.
If Indiana can now consistently gain recruiting ground on the likes of Michigan State, Iowa, and other “next level” programs, it could find itself taking another step forward on the field. That of course is the ultimate goal.
THE COACHING STAFF
One of the first markers of success in college football for up-and-coming programs is the poaching of the staff, and Indiana has seen that in meaningful ways.
The headline loss was one-and-done offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer, who returned to Fresno State to become the head coach.
In his place will be program veteran Nick Sheridan, who will call plays for the first time in his career.
While the 32 year old Sheridan is very young by offensive coordinator standards, Allen believes the transition from DeBoer will be smooth.
“We have a new offensive coordinator but he was on our staff last year and has been the last three seasons, this will be his fourth year with us,” Allen said.
Allen has said that Indiana will keep the same offensive system that delivered success in 2019. Sheridan’s ability to continue the momentum with most of his starters returning will be one of the keys to the 2020 season.
Indiana also lost defensive line coach Mark Hagen, who left for Texas for personal reasons. He was replaced by Kevin Peoples.
Sheridan’s move to OC opened a spot filled by new tight ends coach Kevin Wright, a respected name with ties in important recruiting states Indiana and Florida.
The departure of special teams coordinator William Inge created an opening filled by Kasey Teegardin, who has been with the program for seven years. And that move created the opening filled by highly respected new safeties coach Jason Jones.
If DeBoer was the headline departure, the second most notable exit was that of strength and conditioning duo David Ballou and Matt Rhea. With that pair off to Alabama, Allen pulled off a major coup in securing the services of former New York Giants strength coach Aaron Wellman. While he has big shoes to fill and joins the program under imaginably difficult circumstances, Indiana did about as well one might have hoped in coming up with a replacement.
And while all of that sounds like a lot of change, Allen still has a reasonable amount of continuity on his staff. In addition to Sheridan and Teegardin, several long-time assistants are back.
- Mike Hart, running backs (4th season at IU)
- Grant Heard, wide receivers (4th season)
- Darren Hiller, offensive line (4th season)
- Kane Wommack defensive coordinator / linebackers (3rd season)
- Brandon Shelby, cornerbacks (10th season)
Indiana got their major football facilities upgrades completed just in time.
Needless to say, 2020 wasn’t going to be the optimal year to spend or even raise money for new projects.
Indiana doesn’t have beach front property on Lake Michigan like Northwestern, and it lacks the mammoth football only facilities that other programs have built with Big Ten Network revenues.
But at the same time there have been major advances, with modern new locker rooms, a massive weight room, and a fully enclosed stadium.
What Indiana lacks now is more in the details than anything glaring on the surface.
There is more to be done to compete in the war for talent, but IU isn’t in bad place — and it should be happy that the most urgent upgrades were finished before 2020.
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