It was already going to be one of the better Indiana University football quarterback competitions to watch in recent memory. Back in the early spring you had the presumed front runner Peyton Ramsey being pushed by true freshman Michael Penix. Others were lurking in the shadows like Nick Tronti, Johnny Pabst, and of course 2017 Indiana Mr. Football Reese Taylor.
And then Brandon Dawkins happened, and the dominoes started falling. Indiana announced that Dawkins was going to transfer to IU as a graduate with one year of immediate eligibility remaining back on April 10, just days before the annual Cream and Crimson spring game. With the Arizona transfer not yet in Bloomington, Ramsey and Penix started in the spring game, with Pabst also playing and impressing some folks.
Not long after that, Tronti announced that he would be transferring. The working assumption for now is that Taylor is going to focus on the defensive side of the ball — but don’t be surprised if the Hoosiers find some wrinkles in the offense for him. Pabst, a redshirt freshman, has potential but probably isn’t far enough along to compete yet.
That leaves three primary contenders. You don’t have to go back too far to recall another legendary QB battle at IU. Tre Roberson and Nate Sudfeld competed for multiple years for the top spot, and at times both saw the field. Cam Coffman was involved in that battle for a while too. Roberson and Coffman eventually transferred, while Sudfeld, no doubt in part spurred on by the competition, eventually made it to the NFL.
As we look forward to the 2018 season and the three primary contenders, it’s fair to wonder who is going to emerge, and what will become of those that get left behind.
BRANDON DAWKINS — THE PRESUMED FRONT RUNNER
As soon as Dawkins announced that he would be transferring to Indiana, the conventional wisdom became that he would be the starter — but is that right?
Why he’ll start
Two words — experience and talent. Many believe that Dawkins will start because he has been there and done that, and he has the multifaceted game to back it up.
Dawkins was the starting quarterback for Arizona in 2017 before he suffered an injury in week 5. In 23 career games at Arizona, Dawkins passed for 2,414 yards. He completed 56% of his passes and threw 15 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
As a dual-threat quarterback, Dawkins is an elite runner. For his career he ran for 1,582 yards and 20 touchdowns with the Wildcats. He wouldn’t make the comparison with the media yesterday, but we see Russell Wilson in his game.
Why he won’t
There are two main question with Dawkins. First, will he have enough time to learn and excel in a new system that will likely emphasize the running game first, and reading progressions in the passing attack? Dawkins acknowledged as much in an interview yesterday:
“The biggest contrast is some of the reads on offense, having a peer progression offense, that’s not what we did at Arizona. It was a lot more run/pass.”
It may not sound like much, but that is a sea change from a quarterback’s perspective. Is it enough of a difference to inhibit some of his natural abilities? Dawkins did go on to say that the Hoosiers were planning to incorporate some of the zone read sets that he is more accustomed to.
The second question relates to accuracy. Dawkins’ career 15 to 12 touchdown to interception ratio and 56% completion percentage doesn’t blow you away. Similar to what happened to Richard Lagow last year, if he cannot gain the confidence of the coaches to face the elite defenses in the Big Ten East, he could find himself as a backup or sharing duties.
(Note: You can see the full interview with Dawkins here.)
PEYTON RAMSEY — THE FORMER PRESUMED FRONT RUNNER
Ramsey held the front runner title until Dawkins entered the picture, and he was the first team starter in the spring before the Arizona transfer arrived on campus.
Why he’ll start
As a fan base, we’ve already doubted Peyton Ramsey — and we were wrong. All he did in his first significant action against Virginia last year was complete his first 11 passes. For the game he went 16 for 20 for 173 yards and threw 2 touchdowns, leading IU to a win. He also added 32 rushing yards and a touchdown in that game. He added a 321 yard passing game against Charleston Southern and completed 31 of 41 passes against Maryland.
This was as a redshirt freshman. The kid can play — and it is clear Tom Allen believes in him, and is willing to play him over any supposed front runners. It isn’t just Allen. After Indiana lost an overtime thriller to Michigan last year, Jim Harbaugh went out of his way to seek out Ramsey and tell him that he was “proud of the way you competed”, and “you’re a tough kid.” That’s high praise.
Why he won’t
It shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that a freshman struggled at times against Penn State and Michigan. This may be where Dawkins’ elite athleticism gives him the edge over Ramsey. When you play against the best of the best in the Big Ten East, you need to be able to escape. Ramsey took a beating against Michigan, which is what in part drew Harbaugh’s praise. But after a while those hits land you on the sidelines, and at the trainer’s table.
The other thing to watch for with Ramsey is his ability to throw the deep ball. IU needs someone to be able to take the top off of a defense to help the running game. That was missing from his game in 2017, but could determine whether he sees the field in 2018.
MICHAEL PENIX — THE CONTENDER
Penix was one of the headline late additions to the 2018 recruiting class, as the Hoosiers snagged the Florida native and former Tennessee commit away from Florida State.
Why he’ll start
Despite being a true freshman, Penix actually has a head start on Dawkins. He’s been on campus since January, which has allowed him to learn the system and accelerate his conditioning. After eight months of training, Penix is likely to look and play nothing like a high school kid come September.
Penix, a pro-style quarterback, is a natural fit for offensive coordinator Mike DeBord’s system. It’s only high school, but the left-hander’s stats were eye-popping. He threw 61 touchdowns and just six interceptions in his two years as a starter against high level competition in the state of Florida.
Why he won’t
A true freshman in the Big Ten East? That may be too much to ask. While Penix probably could start, the question is whether you need to throw him into that fire with two more proven commodities seemingly above him right now. The future is very bright for the Tampa native. We wouldn’t count him out just yet, but he likely will need to wait his turn.
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