Running back shaping up as one of Indiana football’s most interesting position battles

Indiana doesn’t have many starting spots left open after its 6-2 season in 2020, thanks largely to the fact that the season didn’t cause anyone to expend a year of eligibility and players who would have normally been forced to move on had the option to stay.

Of the 22 positions on the offensive and defensive depth charts, they have starters back at 17 positions. Of the five that are open, there are obvious heirs for most of them. They lost slot wide receiver Whop Philyor to the NFL and the Minnesota Vikings, but they gained D.J. Matthews, a transfer from Florida State who fits the spot perfectly. Center Harry Crider moved on and signed a free agent deal with the Philadelphia Eagles, but they grabbed Zach Carpenter, a transfer from Michigan who started his last two games with the Wolverines at center. Safety Jamar Johnson was taken in the fifth round of the NFL draft after he left a year early, but the Hoosiers have Raheem Layne back after missing last season due to injury. He was in the midst of a transfer to safety from corner last spring and this spring he performed like he’d never missed a beat. Even at defensive tackle, where the Hoosiers lost Jerome Johnson, who signed with the Miami Dolphins, they have several options to step in to that rotation including transfer Weston Kramer from Northern Illinois.

But the next step for the running back position as the Hoosiers look to replace Stevie Scott, who signed with the New Orleans Saints, is much less obvious. There are returners and there are transfer options, but there is not a clear cut heir apparent, and that is part of the reason the return of running backs coach Deland McCullough was such an interesting one.

They return three backs who had carries for Indiana last season, but none of them have a clear claim to the position. Sampson James is the most experienced member of that group, having been part of the running back rotation each of the previous two seasons. The former four-star recruit from Avon, Ind. and two-time all-state pick rushed for over 3,400 yards as a high schooler but he’s had a much harder time producing numbers as a college player. He rushed 81 times for 275 yards and three touchdowns as a true freshman, but just 32 times for 96 yards last season without a touchdown. The 6-foot-1, 220-pounder has a career yards-per-carry average of 3.3 and just three career receptions for 30 yards.

McCullough said he sees potential in him, and Indiana coach Tom Allen has faith based on what he’s seen so far, though he was limited in the spring because of a lower leg injury.

“We feel great about him and where he’s at,” Allen said in April. “He’s done everything we asked him to do. He’ll be 100 percent by the time we finish everything up.”

David Ellis.  Photo by Mike Schumann / The Daily Hoosier

Tim Baldwin Jr. had the most yards last season of any returning player with 141 on just 22 carries with 106 of those coming in one game against Maryland. The former all-state pick from Virginia showed power, speed and change of direction in his limited opportunities last season.

“He’s picking up everything we talked about as far as some of the finer points and making him the dynamic running back he wants to be,” McCullough said in April. “… Tim’s been doing good things.”

The other player who had carries last season is converted wide receiver David Ellis, still something of a hybrid back, as he finished with nearly as many receptions (11) as carries (16). The 6-foot, 213-pounder will certainly have a role in Indiana’s offense. It seems unlikely that he will be the featured running back, but not impossible.

“I’m excited to build on his overall running back skill, so he’s not just an out-of-the-backfield receiver,” McCullough said in April, “But a legitimate all-around running back. He’s committed to doing that.”

At the end of spring practice, however, Indiana decided it wanted to add to the running back room and may have found its 2021 starter in the transfer portal in Stephen Carr, the former five-star recruit who played four seasons at Southern California. In four seasons, he’s rushed for 1,319 yards and 12 touchdowns on 264 carries. He’s never been USC’s top back in that period, but that experience still could put him ahead of the rest of the backs in Indiana’s room.

“Stephen brings experience, explosion, and play-making ability to our offense,” Allen said in the release when Carr was signed. “Deland McCullough knows Stephen and his family very well and is looking forward to reuniting with him. Stephen’s character fits perfectly with what we have built within our program.”

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