Nick Westbrook was the wrong guy to ask the obvious question.
A business major, named three-time Academic All-Big Ten, on the Wuerffel Trophy Watch List, and also a nominee for the Allstate Good Works Team — the 22 year old fifth year wide receiver has the kind of resume that can make a guy feel inadequate.
With a new offensive coordinator on board, and not two but three potential quarterbacks to build chemistry with in that system, one would reasonably expect that Indiana’s deep and talented wide receiver group has had a less than optimal offseason.
I quizzed Westbrook on that topic. Perhaps a career in politics awaits?
You wouldn’t expect Westbrook to openly acknowledge any challenges in preparing for the 2019 season, but the Lake Mary, Fla. product expertly spun the response.
“I wouldn’t say it’s too much of a challenge not knowing (who the quarterback is going to be), because we get chemistry with all of them and we get reps with all of them,” Westbrook told The Daily Hoosier. “I am more than comfortable and happy with whoever we end up having start for us at QB.”
Okay sure, but perhaps someone is standing out right now at the quarterback spot? The nimble Westbrook continued before that question could even be asked.
“It’s a great group of guys, and all equally as talented and athletic as they can be,” Westbrook added.
All equally talented? Admittedly not the answer I was hoping for, but then of course it was the only answer if you are sitting in Westbrook’s chair.
In a perfect world, IU would have had a clear starting quarterback in January when it hired new offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer. That would have allowed for a full eight months for the entire starting offense to collectively prepare for the 2019 season.
Instead, IU had three guys — Peyton Ramsey, Michael Penix and Jack Tuttle that all appeared to be legitimate contenders for the job.
Since then, Tuttle missed a decent portion of the spring, and Penix has only just recently been fully cleared after recovering from a torn ACL.
Clearly not the ideal scenario from many angles, but rather than needlessly admit that, Westbrook described how Indiana has been managing the situation.
“We’re getting reps with all of the quarterbacks,” he clarified. “It’s not just I’m only working with Peyton, or only Peyton’s getting the 1’s and Mike’s only getting the 2’s.”
Instead, the 6-foot-3 and 219 pound Westbrook indicated that each quarterback has been getting reps with each receiver group on the depth chart. In his mind, that will at least provide for some degree of familiarity when the day one starter is determined and the season opens on August 31 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis against Ball State.
“That way once that final decision has been made, it’s just smooth sailing from there and there’s no learning curve that we have to deal with,” Westbrook said.
All three quarterbacks have their own learning curves in DeBoer’s new system. That aspect would seem to put them on an even playing field coming into fall camp.
But there is a clear distinction when it comes to the wide receiver group and their familiarity with the trio of quarterbacks.
Ramsey of course has that advantage with 20 games under his belt at IU.
Westbrook was a favorite target of Ramsey in 2018, starting all 12 games and leading the team with 590 yards, 49.2 yards per game and 14.0 yards per catch.
One reason why DeBoer is now at IU in the place of former coordinator Mike DeBord is due to a lack of explosive plays from the offense.
While Ramsey was highly efficient throwing the ball (66% completion percentage), Indiana rarely threw the ball down the field and drives often stalled out.
Whether the offensive shortcomings were due to Ramsey’s arm, the scheme, or both, Westbrook was more than willing to openly discuss what he expects to change when it comes to the new IU offense.
Perhaps that is because it is music to a receiver’s ears.
“A lot more aggressive, big shots down the field, explosive plays,” is how Westbrook initially summarized what is new under DeBoer.
But before you conclude that approach will hurt returning starter Ramsey in his quest to retain his job, Westbrook quickly clarified.
“Coach DeBoer really preaches that explosive plays don’t have to be 50 yard bombs,” Westbrook said. “We’re going to try to make more with our bubble screens, or a short little hitch route, make somebody miss.”
Whoever the quarterback is, and whatever play is called, Westbrook will be more ready than ever in 2019.
Already just the 19th Hoosier to reach 100 catches (102) and 1,500 yards (1,654) in a career, Westbrook is now almost two full years removed from a season ending knee injury — and in peak condition.
“I would say it’s the strongest I’ve felt, the fastest I’ve felt, and the most technique sound since I’ve been here,” he said.
Westbrook should present an athletic, smart and trustworthy weapon for whichever quarterback ends up throwing balls his way.
He’ll even tell you that there is already chemistry with that quarterback to be named later.
Just don’t expect him to let you in on who he thinks it should be.
Watch: Nick Westbrook at the spring game.
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