After venturing deep into the quarterback depth chart during the 2021 season, Indiana has a luxury of riches at spring practice.
The Hoosiers saw four different players start games behind center during a tumultuous campaign last fall, and a fifth was injured before the season began.
Fast forward just a few months, and the Hoosiers have five healthy quarterbacks competing this spring who are either on scholarship or have meaningful game experience — and in the case of the three of them — both.
IU opened spring practice on Saturday with an opportunity head coach Tom Allen hasn’t seen much of since taking over as head coach a little over five years ago.
“If you go back and look at the history of spring ball since we’ve been here, we’ve had very few quarterbacks that were healthy to be able to have full participation throughout the spring,” Allen said. “That’s definitely a positive (this year), and with having a new offensive coordinator, that’s going to be critical.”
The new offensive coordinator is Walt Bell, the former UMass head coach IU hired to replace Nick Sheridan. The hiring of Bell puts all of Indiana’s quarterback on somewhat equal footing since no one has the advantage of being better versed in his offensive system.
That variable is especially beneficial to the lone newcomer, Missouri transfer Connor Bazelak, who arrived in Bloomington just a couple months ago but would seem to be the best bet to start when IU opens the season in September. He’s by far the most experienced and accomplished. Bazelak threw for 5,084 yards with 23 touchdowns, 17 interceptions, and a 66.4 completion percentage in 20 starts (24 games) from 2019-21 for the Tigers.
But while Bazelak is learning Bell’s system along with the other four, he doesn’t have the advantage of having earned respect in the locker room. That part only comes with time.
“I think more than anything, learning the system and being able to win the team just because he’s just new; they don’t know him,” Allen said of Bazelak. “He’s been here since January, but they’ve never even been in a practice with him yet. Workouts, yes, and when the guys throw on their own, that’s happened already, but to be able to do those things in a normal practice setting with our coaches there, with everybody there is different.
“The starting quarterback has to win the locker room, and the guys’ belief in them.”
Bazelak is well aware of his primary shortcoming as spring practice opens.
“The biggest thing is getting to know the players,” Bazelak said. “That’s such a big part of being a good team, players meshing and trust each other and love each other. It takes time. That’s what I’m working on.”
If Bazelak is the assumed starter, his presumptive backup would be last year’s opening day backup — Jack Tuttle.
Entering his fourth year at IU, Tuttle has appeared in 14 games with four starts. He has shown flashes of high-level play, such as the 15-play, 75-yard scoring drive he engineered in October against Ohio State to tie that game. But he was hurt on his touchdown pass to Peyton Hendershot to cap off that drive, and injuries have become a theme during his time at IU.
“Jack is obviously the most experienced of the group from the guys coming back from our program, and just obviously getting him healthy was a big objective this off-season, which has been accomplished,” Allen said.
Tuttle completed just 51.7 percent of his throws in 2021 with two touchdowns and five interceptions.
What will it take for Tuttle to win the starting job this season?
“To me it’s just the on-field consistency and being able to put the team on his back and lead them,” Allen said.
For his part, Tuttle is coming into the spring with a renewed resolve. That 2-10 season? Not acceptable.
“I have a giant chip on my shoulder,” Tuttle said last week. “I’m not happy. I’m motivated. Every day is a grind and an absolute push to be the best we want to be. I don’t like talking about it, and venting. It’s doing it. Every day has motivated us to work our fricking tails off and be better.”
The quarterback most impacted by the revolving door in 2021 was Donaven McCulley, who was a true freshman last fall. And it isn’t clear whether that impact was positive or negative.
Allen openly admitted that he had no intention of playing McCulley until his hand was forced after the injuries to Michael Penix, Jr. and Tuttle. McCulley ended up starting four times and he played in seven games, burning a potential redshirt season in the process.
While he was one of IU’s highest-rated recruits during the rankings era, it became clear McCulley wasn’t far enough along in his development to meet the challenge as a true freshman. And that wasn’t altogether surprising.
A year ago at this time he was playing alongside IU basketball recruit C.J. Gunn on the Lawrence North hoops squad.
“When you think about Donaven, this will be his first spring football ever. He’s never played spring football, never had a spring football in high school or college, and to be able to have him in there learning the things that we’re doing is going to be very, very important, as well,” Allen said.
McCulley showed flashes of what he’ll likely be able to accomplish as his game develops. He completed 35-of-85 for 475 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. His legs were the highlight with 135 sack-adjusted yards with two touchdowns.
“He’s just one of those guys, he’s such a good athlete and he’s big and he can run — he’s one of our best football players, so that’s a guy that I want to be able to see grow,” Allen said of McCulley.
The other two competing this spring are Dexter Williams and Grant Gremel.
Williams was a true freshman in 2020 and nearly saw the field when Tuttle was injured at Wisconsin. He suffered a knee injury last spring that caused him to miss the entire 2021 season, but he is fully recovered and back in the mix this spring as well.
Gremel, a walk-on from Noblesville, Ind., entered last spring fifth on the depth chart but ended up playing in five games and starting in the finale at Purdue. Given the circumstances, he accounted for himself quite well and he gives the team another veteran to lean on this year.
It’s all a major reversal from last spring, when Tuttle was the only healthy scholarship quarterback available.
And if you subscribe to the theory that healthy competition is good for everyone involved, it should lead to a better product on the field in September.
“It’s a full room, a competitive room,” Allen said. “Excited to see how it’s going to make each other better.”
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