Curt Cignetti has yet to see Bloomington in daylight since starting as Indiana’s head football coach at the beginning of December.
He’s had to grind through his first three weeks on the job, as the transfer portal officially opened just three days after he started, and National Signing Day not far behind that. Cignetti knew this period would be critical to IU’s outlook for next season, and he’s dedicated long hours to building the sort of momentum he knew the program needed. That’s meant a lot of days beginning before 5 a.m. and not returning home until 11 p.m.
But Cignetti knows what it takes, and he makes that clear to everyone he recruits.
“It’s pretty simple. I win,” Cignetti said during Wednesday’s media availability on Zoom. “Google me.”
The result of this initial period, which he called “20 days of fourth and one,” is the 31-player class of high school commits and transfers that signed to play for Indiana. Seven of those have not yet been announced, as they’re all transfers playing in bowl games. Cignetti said the program will announce those additions after their bowl games.
Here are some key areas Cignetti addressed from his first class at IU during Wednesday’s availability.
Cignetti’s work in evaluating Indiana’s roster began before he even arrived in Bloomington. The hire was officially announced on November 30, and he flew in the next day.
In that day before he arrived, Cignetti said, he had the entire previous staff rank their top 50 players returning to IU, in order, regardless of whether or not they entered the transfer portal. That gave him several different perspectives of IU’s roster and who the most important players were, and that information was on his desk when he walked into his office for the first time.
That gave Cignetti some baseline information to work with before he held individual conversations with each Tom Allen’s assistants, which he said lasted 20 minutes to an hour. He retained only one coach from that staff — offensive line coach Bob Bostad — but the assistants were all still on IU’s staff at that point.
“I respect those guys. I’ve been fired before as an assistant coach when I was young. It’s part of the business. I get it. They aren’t bad coaches. There are a lot of damn good coaches that were on that staff last year,” Cignetti said. “But we talk about the kids. I’ll make a few notes. So I have a little bit more of a feel. Not only for what they were ranked in the top 50, but is he a good teammate? Is he consistent? Does he work hard? Is he committed? Is he a pain in the ass?”
From those conversations, Cignetti was able to begin determining which transfer portal entrants were most important to prioritize getting back, and which current players may no longer fit into future plans.
Reeling in Rourke
Quarterback is the most important position on the field, and it was a critical position for the Hoosiers to attack this offseason. Brendan Sorsby entered the transfer portal after showing a lot of promise late in the season, and it left IU with just two scholarship quarterbacks on the roster.
So Cignetti got to work, and it yielded results. IU added Ohio transfer Kurtis Rourke from the transfer portal, and signed James Madison decommit Alberto Mendoza and Duke decommit Tyler Cherry (Center Grove High, four-star). Cherry is IU’s first four-star quarterback signee since Donaven McCulley in the class of 2021.
Rourke, though, gives IU a veteran presence at quarterback it didn’t have in 2023. He comes to Bloomington after a very productive career at Ohio, which is what caught Cignetti’s attention.
“He’s got a body of work, and that’s what I look for in the portal. I look for guys that have a body of work, guys that have started, played the entire season without getting injured and have production,” Cignetti said. “Multiple years of production is even better because I firmly believe this: Like there are some intangible qualities that it takes to be a starter and make it through a season. You’ve got to be able to handle adversity, success, have consistency in performance. There’s just some characteristics and traits.”
Cignetti said Rourke will compete for the starting job, while also noting that Cherry and Tayven Jackson will also be strong candidates.
Rourke’s pedigree and experience will be an advantage. He was named MAC Offensive Player of the Year in 2022, and threw for over 7,600 yards across his four seasons at Ohio. Cignetti also noted that he led the Bobcats to 10 wins this year and nine last year.
The track record Cignetti, offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan, and quarterbacks coach Tino Sunseri built working with quarterbacks at JMU helped them attract quarterbacks to Bloomington.
“Right now quarterbacks are attracted to us because, when you take four different guys in five years and they’re all Player of the Year in the conference and they all have different styles, they recognize that you do a great job of developing quarterbacks,” Cignetti said. “That’s a credit to Tino Sunseri, our quarterback coach, and Mike Shanahan, offensive coordinator, and I’m involved in that a little bit too.”
Bringing back McCulley
Wide receiver was one of the biggest areas IU needed to address in this class, particularly in the transfer portal.
IU has some promising guys returning next year, in Omar Cooper Jr., E.J. Williams Jr., and Kamryn Perry, among others. But with McCulley and Cam Camper entering the portal, the Hoosiers lacked a true No. 1 receiver and just an overall veteran presence in the room.
The staff attacked that need and landed a trio of transfer portal wide receivers in Ke’Shawn Williams (Wake Forest), Myles Price (Texas Tech), and Miles Cross (Ohio). Cignetti called that group “our kind of guys.”
But securing McCulley’s return to Bloomington was bigger than any of those other commitments — and that’s not to say anything about those players, who could all be productive for IU. But given the significant strides McCulley made this year, he could be one of the top receivers in the Big Ten next year.
Cignetti is extremely confident in the operation he’s running at Indiana and the winning that will follow, but he was less sure that McCulley would come back. But he called Cignetti around two hours after Rourke committed, and he said he’d come back to IU.
“That was a great day. I truly was not expecting that because the word on the street was Florida State,” Cignetti said. “I think they (IU players who entered the portal) all feel the excitement and they all believe what’s going to happen here. And I think Donaven saw that, and being close to home too and having a brother here and the receiver development that we’ve put in the record books speak for itself. We’ve had two 1,000-yard receivers two of the last three years. We freed guys up in the pass game. We’re cutting edge offensively. And we’re going to find ways to free him up. But he can make contested catches too. We can take his game to another level. I know what he wants, but he’s a team guy. So I think it’s a great marriage.”
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