INDIANAPOLIS — Michael Penix Jr. will be ready. That’s what he’s willing to say right now.
Over and over again Friday at Big Ten Football Media Days, the Indiana quarterback was asked about the state of his right knee almost eight months after he tore his ACL in a win over Maryland on Nov. 30. He answered that question by saying how he expects to feel a little over month from now when the Hoosiers play at Iowa in the season opener but wasn’t nearly as elaborate about how he feels right now.
“Right now, I’m where I need to be right now,” Penix Jr. said, declining to use a percentage figure to describe how close he is to full health. “I’m going to be ready Sept. 4.”
Nothing is more important for the ascendant Indiana football program this season than making sure that remains the case, and that Penix makes it through the whole season without another setback or injury. He is entering his fourth season at Indiana, but he has suffered season ending injuries in each of the previous three — another ACL tear in 2018 and an injury to his sternoclavicular joint in 2019 ended those seasons early before last year’s ACL tear. In three years in which he has been at or near the top of the Indiana quarterback depth chart, he has still played in a total of just 15 games.
The Hoosiers have a functional quarterback behind him in Jack Tuttle, a four-star recruit from California who started his career at Utah and led the Hoosiers to a win over Wisconsin in his first start last season. However, the offense clearly wasn’t as potent with him behind center as with Penix. The win over Wisconsin was a 14-6 slog and the Hoosiers fell 27-20 to Ole Miss in the Outback Bowl because they struggled to find rhythm on offense. Under Penix, that rarely seemed to be a problem and the Hoosiers never scored fewer than 24 points in a game he started. He threw for 1,645 yards and 14 touchdowns in just six games, earning second-team All-Big Ten honors behind Ohio State’s Justin Fields. With Fields gone, taken by the Chicago Bears with the No. 11 overall pick in the NFL Draft, there is every reason to consider Penix the best returning quarterback in the Big Ten — when healthy.
So as confident as he is that he will be healthy and ready, he’ll also be careful. It’s customary for starting quarterbacks not to be hit in preseason practice anyway, even if they are healthy, but the Hoosiers plan to be particularly cautious when he drops back in practice. Showing him a serious pass rush isn’t nearly as important as making sure he gets through August unscathed.
“There’s definitely a progression,” Indiana coach Tom Allen said. “He’s right where he needs to be, where our medical staff has put him. That’s going to be very important for sure to get him in those positions and get him comfortable and get him around, but he is not going to get hit until Sept. 4. That’s a given. That’s not really any different than any other year at any level college or pro. But there is no doubt that we’re going to be closely monitoring that. But we’re just going to keep building and building so he’s able to be full bore.”
There is evidence available on the internet that he’s already getting there. He attended two summer quarterback camps — Flight School, a camp run in Georgia by quarterback teachers Sean McElway and Quincy Avery, and the Manning Passing Academy run by Peyton and Eli Manning. McElway and Avery said it would be hard to tell Penix had been injured if he hadn’t been wearing a knee brace. He seemed comfortable with every move he had to make in the pocket, they said, and with every throw.
Indiana wide receiver Ty Fryfogle took it a step further. He actually said he believes Penix is in better shape than he was because of the rehab and that he’s moving better now than he did before the injury.
“He’s way more ripped than he was,” Fryfogle said. “He’s fast, he’s a totally different football player. He’s been working hard for sure. He’s going to be way more mobile this year. He can already make every throw on the field. Being more mobile just makes him harder to stop.”
While working on his body, he’s also worked on his leadership, which he considers just as important. There were mechanical details he honed working in the two passing camps he attended, but his biggest takeaway was that a quarterback should not be afraid to be demanding of his teammates and to keep them working beyond the point that they feel like it. He began throwing with teammates in early June when players returned to campus, and as the summer has worn on he’s become more of a stickler for precision.
“The main thing Peyton and Eli said is control what you can control,” Penix said. “We have to work on everything until we can’t get it wrong. That’s the thing Peyton said is that whenever he used to do routes with his receivers, he said they didn’t run the route until they got it right, they ran it until they couldn’t get it wrong. That’s something I really took back with me. That’s something you don’t really think about. You do a route, you catch the ball, that’s it. But I think you have to get down to the details. He wants every receiver to run the route the same way. … It just shows the guys that I care. And the fact that they want to do it shows me that they care.”
The receivers, the veteran among them especially, have embraced having Penix become even more assertive.
“We’ll be running a route and I feel like it will be a perfect play,” Fryfogle said. “But he’ll be like, ‘Let’s do that again.’ I didn’t do the drop right, I didn’t do something right. I’m like, ‘Alright, let’s get it.’ Whatever he wants to work on, we’re good with it.”
He has certainly earned that respect after his third rehab from a major injury. Since arriving at Indiana, Allen has emphasized his desire for grit in players, and said that Penix’s work this summer epitomized that.
“Perseverance and passion towards a long-term goal,” Allen said. “That’s what he’s living out right now. As hard as it’s been, adversity is hard, nobody wants it, but we all know it makes us who we are. He’s been blessed with a lot of adversity to shape him into a very special individual. Just been so impressed with him. He never hung his head. At first it was devastating, I get all that, but he fought right back. It makes you respect him that much more.”
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