Let’s be honest, we’re flying a little blind here.
Indiana played it safe throughout spring practice while COVID-19 vaccinations were still making their way from higher-risk people to the general population and the Hoosiers ultimately decided not to have a spring game that would showcase the progress made in the course of the spring period.
So when we discuss who might be ready to make a leap from second or third string or from someone else’s roster to prominence in 2021, we’re mostly going off what we’ve heard from coaches and not what we’ve seen.
But Indiana made enough assistant coaches available throughout the spring period who applauded enough players to give us at least some sense of who might be ready to make some moves in 2021. The Hoosiers have most of their stars and their starters coming back thanks to the NCAA’s decision not to count 2020 against anyone’s eligibility, but here are three players on each side of the ball who have a chance to make a bigger impact for Indiana this year than they did a year ago.
D.J. Matthews, senior wide receiver
We’ll go ahead and get the obvious one out of the way first. Matthews is a Florida State transfer and a former U.S. Army All-American. The 5-foot-10, 153-pounder is small of stature, but has electrifying speed, which he used to put together 582 yards on punt returns in three years in Tallahassee. He fits an obvious need at the slot receiver position with Whop Philyor moving on to the Minnesota Vikings, and IU coaches were thrilled with his professionalism from the beginning.
“I think the thing I was most pleased with D.J. was the level of maturity, the experience, the preparation, the note taking, and the film study,” offensive coordinator Nick Sheridan said in late April. “Some of those things that a player like him and the overall experiences that he has had, and his maturity has rubbed off on the whole group. I think that is probably, aside from the on-field production and plays that he made, that was what I was most pleased and excited about was his maturity, work ethic, and preparation on a day-to-day basis.”
He was named one of Indiana’s Most Outstanding Offensive Players during the spring. The Hoosiers have much bigger targets on the outside in Ty Fryfogle and Miles Marshall, but Matthews’ speed should stretch defenses horizontally on screen passes as well as vertically. Of any new addition on the roster on either side of the ball, he seems to have the best chance to make an immediate impact.
A.J. Barner, freshman tight end
Barner was barely used in his first year at Indiana, getting almost all of his work on special teams, but that doesn’t count against his eligibility and he still has four years left. At 6-foot-6, 240 pounds, he has the prototypical body for his position and IU coaches were thrilled with the advancements he made in his first spring. He was named one of Indiana’s Most Improved Players on offense and also was given an LEO award for his performance on special teams. The former high school outside linebacker is a physical player who can be a reliable downfield blocker and also make plays in the passing game. The Hoosiers have a returning tight end in Peyton Hendershot, but he was the only tight end who caught a pass last season, so Barner has a chance to earn time and provide Indiana depth at that position.
“He’s laid a foundation in spring practice that we feel like he can contribute,” Sheridan said. “… We feel very confident in that room. A.J., in his career, will make a big contribution. He has the frame that you’re looking for and the toughness.”
Zach Carpenter, redshirt sophomore center
Harry Crider’s decision to enter the professional ranks left Indiana with a hole at center, but they immediately filled that by grabbing Carpenter from Michigan after he’d started two games at center for the Wolverines this season. At 6-foot-5, 320 pounds he has plenty of size for the spot. He can move over to either one of the guards if necessary, but more likely he’ll be in the middle.
“We think he has position versatility, which is important,” Sheridan said. “We think he can snap and play center, and we’re going to give him the opportunity to start at any of those positions if he earns that.”
Raheem Layne, senior safety
Layne moved over from cornerback to safety in the spring of 2020 after three years on the perimeter, but the spring was cut off early by the pandemic and Layne missed the entire 2020 season due to injury. However, with Jamar Johnson having moved on to the NFL draft, where he was taken in the fifth round by the Denver Broncos, there is an open spot at safety next to Devon Matthews and Layne is at the head of the pack to fill it.
Layne has shown physicality on the edge with 30 tackles including 28 solo tackles as a junior in 2019 and he can handle the coverage responsibilities that come with the position that Johnson was particularly strong at. Despite all the lost time, IU’s coaches say that at this point it seems like Layne always was a safety.
“I was really impressed with Raheem,” defensive coordinator Charlton Warren said in April. “If I were a guy coming off the street, I would not have known that he had not played that position prior. He was very savvy. He showed ability to tackle. He showed an ability to learn, which is very important at the safety position. Raheem was able to grasp concepts, especially when things moved or changed pre or post snaps. I was impressed with his progress and I think he has a lot more growth potential, which is awesome. If you told me he played nine games last year and got 40 snaps a game I would have believed you.”
DeMarcus Elliot, senior defensive tackle
Elliot started six games at the end of last season, so he isn’t coming out of nowhere exactly, but the Hoosiers are expecting him to be even more impactful. After recording 14 tackles last season, Elliot got work at both tackle spots in Indiana’s four-man front — the nose tackle position and the three-technique — this spring and was named one of the Hoosier’s Most Outstanding Defensive Players. With Jerome Johnson gone to the NFL, he’ll have an opportunity to make plays at both spots.
“With Demarcus, I am trying to make him more versatile upfront and play multiple positions,” Indiana coach Tom Allen said in April. “I thought he had a step quicker and is really strong in his consistency every single day. He has always been that way as such a consistent guy, so that has continued in his leadership role.”
Ryder Anderson, senior defensive end
Indiana led the Big Ten in sacks last season with 25, but most of them came from positions away from the edge rushing spots that tend to lead the way in that category. Starting linebackers Micah McFadden and Cam Jones combined for nine. Cornerback Tiawan Mullen had 3.5, defensive tackle Jerome Johnson had four, and no defensive end starter had more than 1.5.
The Hoosiers do have some returning talent at the position with James Head Jr. coming back as well as a slew of returners who will be competing for the stand-up Bull position. But in the 6-foot-6, 266-pound Anderson, a transfer from Ole Miss, they bring in a player who loves bringing pressure off the edge. He had 2.5 sacks last season playing both tackle and end, but he expects to play mostly on the edge at Indiana. The Hoosiers liked his performance in the spring enough to name him one of the Most Outstanding Defensive Players along with Elliot.
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