Season in chaos: Why the IU football staff went with the fifth-string walk-on quarterback

Indiana has across the board questions after a 54-7 beat down against Ohio State, but nowhere are those uncertainties greater than at the quarterback position.

Will original starter Michael Penix, Jr. return this year?

How serious is Jack Tuttle’s injury suffered against the Buckeyes?

And who is even ready to play if Penix and Tuttle can’t go against Maryland on Saturday?

One question was answered, and it wasn’t what anyone had hoped for:  If freshman 4-star recruit Donaven McCulley is the future at Indiana, the future wasn’t Saturday night.

Although Tuttle was injured in the first quarter and Indiana needed the passing game all night after falling behind early, McCulley completed one pass on just six attempts at Memorial Stadium.  McCulley was often taken out of the game, with the Hoosiers opting for fifth-string passer, walk-on Grant Gremel.

Yet another question:  What was going on with that?

“Well, so, basically, you know, Grant has taken some reps in practice,” head coach Tom Allen said on Saturday night after the game.  “But there was sometimes it felt like Donaven was a little bit rattled, you know, and just kind of get him calmed down.”

Gremel is a redshirt sophomore from Noblesville, Ind.  He walked-on in 2019.  Number five on the depth chart in the spring when factoring in sophomore Dexter Williams who was also injured and lost for the season, Gremel was never expected to take snaps this year, especially not in a first half against the No. 5 team in the country.

“Grant, obviously, is a guy that can throw the ball. But, yeah, that (him playing) was never a thought going into the season,” Allen said.

“Grant’s been here quite a big longer (than McCulley) and knows them (the plays) way better. So that was the reason why we used him in those situations.”

Earlier in the week Allen admitted that the plan was to redshirt McCulley.  Even in Indiana’s blowout win over Idaho the IU staff opted to protect him by not playing him rather than throw him out on the field unprepared.

The redshirt plans were abandoned when Penix went down at Penn State a few weeks ago, and IU developed a special package of more run-focused plays for McCulley starting last weekend against Michigan State.

But when Tuttle went down last night, yet another pivot was required.  And the decision was made to not throw McCulley to the wolves against elite talent and shatter his confidence.

“I think there’s definitely some concern of him just being ready for that,” Allen said.  “He’s got to grow for. It’s got to expand without a doubt. But I think it’s not one to put him in a bad spot to get back there and have to make some complex reads. I think that was kind of the thought process.

“When Jack goes out so early, it was really kind of — it really kind of put us in a position that we really didn’t want to be in.”

And now the question becomes — how long will Indiana be in that position?

Tuttle’s x-rays were negative, but he couldn’t finish the game and will undergo more tests.  Penix’s status is week-to-week.  But Maryland is a certainty.  The Terrapins will be waiting on Saturday at noon.

With IU finally facing some winnable games on its schedule, the staff may be facing the unenviable decision of starting either the fourth-stringer who isn’t ready, or the fifth-string walk-on who no one thought would ever play.

“Based on what happens with Jack, we’ll have to come up with an expanded plan for him (McCulley) without question,” Allen said.

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