With much of its roster back in 2021 and several key transfers, Indiana goes into preseason practice with most of its positions filled or with relatively obvious front-runners.
The Hoosiers have seven starters back on offense, 10 on defense, and two key specialists returning for a total of 19 returning starters. They’re set at quarterback and tight end and return two of three starting wide receivers and three of five starting offensive linemen. They bring back both of their starting linebackers, starters at five of their six secondary positions and most of their defensive line rotation. They have clear choices at a few of their open spots, including slot receiver where Florida State transfer D.J. Matthews seems to be the obvious choice to step in for Whop Philyor, and center where Michigan transfer Zach Carpenter seems destined to take over for Harry Crider.
Still, there are several spots where Indiana will have to make important decisions between Friday when preseason camp begins and when the Hoosiers open up at Iowa on Sept. 4. The most intriguing position battles follow.
Stevie Scott decided to go pro after three seasons, taking his 2,543 career yards and 30 career touchdowns with him to the New Orleans Saints, who gave him a free agent contract. Tim Baldwin Jr. and Sampson James are back after serving as backups who combined for a total of 237 rushing yards last season. Added to the mix is USC transfer Stephen Carr, a former five-star recruit who is spending his fifth year at Indiana after rushing for 1,319 yards and 12 touchdowns in four seasons with the Trojans when he was never the No. 1 option.
Carr comes in knowing that he’ll have to be a different runner than he was at USC, which in this case means that he has to be more of a North-South runner and spending less time at zero velocity while trying to change direction and make people miss. His experience still seems to make him the front-runner for the job, but James is himself a four-star recruit and one of the highest-rated high school players to sign at Indiana in the recruiting service era and Baldwin averaged 6.4 yards per carry in his limited work last season. For what it’s worth, Baldwin was listed at the top of Indiana’s pre-fall camp depth chart.
Also part of the discussion is David Ellis, the converted wide receiver. The Hoosiers spent the spring working on making him more of a complete back, but even if he doesn’t get there he’s still a very effective third-down option because of his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield.
Mackenzie Nworah originally announced that he planned to return for a sixth year at Indiana but he is no longer on the roster and is listed in the media guide as a starter lost.
Nworah started 15 games at right guard over the past three seasons including six last season. Lineman Dylan Powell started the other two games at right guard last year and four at left guard, but he’s listed as the starter at right guard on the preseason depth chart.
Fighting for the job will be two linemen from Pennsylvania with tackle like frames. Mike Katic, a 6-4, 312-pound redshirt sophomore is the front-runner after having started four games at left guard last year, but he will be challenged by the 6-6, 315-pound Tim Weaver, who played in five games last season and had a very strong spring practice session.
This is one of two spots where the Hoosiers have a returning starter who isn’t the least bit guaranteed to maintain the job this season. The other is Husky where Marcelino McCrary-Ball is expected to take his job back from Bryant Fitzgerald, who started last year while McCrary-Ball was out for the season with an injury.
James Head Jr. started seven of eight games last season at defensive end for the Hoosiers, but his production was less than spectacular. He finished with 17 tackles including two for loss and 1.5 sacks. The Hoosiers could use more from the edge, so they picked up Ole Miss transfer Ryder Anderson, who had 42 tackles including 7.0 for loss and 2.5 sacks last season. The 6-foot-6, 275-pounder moved back and forth between tackle and end during his four years in Oxford, but he wants to spend his final college season rushing off the edge and being more productive there. He was, according to the staff, one of the most impressive defensive players in spring practice, so he appears to have an edge coming into fall practice. Both players will certainly get opportunities, but Anderson has a solid chance to win the job.
The Hoosiers are staying with a 4-2-5 formation under new defensive coordinator Charlton Warren, but there will be a slight twist up front where they will stand up one of their defensive ends and call him a Bull. The Bull will still line up at the same position a defensive end would be, but because he’s standing up, he has the opportunity to drop back in coverage instead of pass-rushing on every pass down. The position will use several players and is for the moment one of the most wide open on the team.
Super seniors Alfred Bryant and Michael Ziemba, D.K. Bonhomme and Jonathan King each started at least one game at defensive end last season but combined for a total of two sacks among them. Auburn transfer Jaren “Stone” Handy will also be part of the discussion. He had just one sack in two years with the Tigers, but was highly recruited out of Mississippi and could make an impact. There will certainly be a rotation of players at the spot, but someone will have to emerge to make sure the Hoosiers aren’t trying to play four different players.
Jamar Johnson was the only Indiana player who left early and actually got drafted. The All-Big Ten pick’s departure leaves a significant hole, but the Hoosiers do have two options to fix it. Converted cornerback Raheem Layne appears to be in the lead to win the job after an excellent spring in which Warren said that if he didn’t know Layne had missed the 2020 season with an injury and just converted to safety in spring practice, he wouldn’t be able to tell.
However, Juwan Burgess is also a viable candidate for the job. Burgess has played his whole career at safety and has 62 career tackles including 4.0 for loss there. Even if he doesn’t win the job he can provide depth at the spot and become part of a rotation there.
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