Tom Allen still has every reason to believe that Michael Penix will be ready by Sept. 4 when Indiana plays Iowa in the 2021 season opener. And if he is ready, the second-team All-Big Ten pick will be the Hoosiers’ starting quarterback, no questions asked.
But in spring practice, the Indiana coach saw everything he wanted to see out of redshirt sophomore Jack Tuttle, who took over the starting job when Penix was injured and took almost all of the first-team snaps in spring practice. Tuttle’s load got even heavier early in spring freshman Dexter Williams, who was expected to compete with him for the starting job, went down with an ACL tear, but Allen said Tuttle handled it all well considering he knows he’s unlikely to be the starter.
“It speaks to his character,” Allen said Wednesday in a Zoom press conference to wrap up spring practice. “It speaks to the way he was raised by his parents. Just his ability to be a selfless guy. I know he’s seen other teams, other situations when a guy is not guaranteed a spot and he bolts to go somewhere else. That’s a decision they have to make. I recognize that’s not easy, and I recognize he has a special love for this team.”
Tuttle arrived at Indiana as a transfer from Utah in 2019 after a spectacular career at Mission Hills High School in San Marcos, Calif. He threw for 41 touchdowns as a senior and was a four-star recruit, ranked as one of the top five pro-style quarterbacks in the nation.
Three years into his college career, he’s played in just eight games and started two — last season’s win over Wisconsin and the Hoosiers’ loss to Ole Miss in the Outback Bowl after Penix went down with his ACL tear. He’s not likely to start many more this season if Penix stays healthy and Penix still has three years of eligibility remaining. But Tuttle remains devoted to Indiana for now and gives Allen the trust that he can go right back to him if Penix is injured again.
“He’s not guaranteed any of that,” Allen said. “He does know that Michael is the starter. But he’s just been unbelievable in his preparation and he continues to be. He was all last season. He was ready when called upon. That’s why he won the LEO award for the whole team at the end of the season at our banquet. … The unselfishness. The living out that phrase to his teammates. Whenever he is called upon, he is going to be ready. And I believe that.”
At the end of spring practice, Allen sees Tuttle as a much better quarterback than he was when the period began thanks to all of those first-team reps. He threw for 201 yards against Ole Miss in the Outback Bowl, and got better as the game wore on until its final drive, but he struggled to read defenses and utilize his progressions and he threw a key interception. Allen saw improvement this spring in some of those areas.
“I feel like Jack really grew,” Allen said. “… The knowledge of our system, for Jack, continuing to recognize pressures by defenses, things that you’re looking for, getting protections right, getting the run calls right, getting us in the right call. … I saw growth in that.”
Allen said specifically that Tuttle improved in ball security and avoiding interceptions.
“Taking care of the football, even before he played last year, was always an area I felt like he had to do a good job of not, when he was pressured, not making a bad decision,” Allen said. “I’ve seen him grow in that. The two-minute situations. Being able to make good decisions when those moments are there, when they happen in the game, and simulating those is really, really big.”
The improvements suggest that Tuttle has advanced past the point of simply knowing the plays and now can command the offense to do what he wants it to do.
“He’s really grown in those areas, and that’s important because that’s what playing quarterback is all about,” Allen said. “Getting the ball to the open receiver. Getting the front right, getting the offensive line set right with protections and pressures. Trying to read and anticipate and communicate, and just that communication piece. Being loud and confident. I’m really excited about that.”
Other notes from Allen’s spring wrap-up press conference follow.
— Allen said the walk-on quarterback that most impressed him was freshman Grant Gremel, a 6-foot-3, 200-pound walk-on from Noblesville who hasn’t played in his first two seasons on the roster. He redshirted in 2019, and 2020 doesn’t count against anyone’s eligibility, so he still has four years left. With Williams and Penix out and Tuttle running with the ones, Gremel got extensive work with the second team.
“Of all the other guys in that room, he really has grown and developed,” Allen says. “He really runs the offense and can distribute the football and make good reads and checks and adjustments. I really feel like he’s the next guy who can really be in position to play if called upon.”
— Allen continues to be thrilled with the play of Florida State transfer wide receiver D.J. Matthews, who was named one of the team’s most outstanding players on offense.
“It was from Day 1,” Allen said. “His quickness. He’s a very, very good route runner. Not a very big guy, but extremely quick. Good speed. Really good ball skills. Had a great attitude and just a really likable person. Excitable and thankful to be here. Accepts hard coaching and accountability, all of those things. … He gives us another weapon in our throwing game which we really need. He gives us a chance to replace what Whop (Philyor) gave us in that position.”
— The other player who was named most outstanding player on offense along with Matthews was running back Davion Ervin-Poindexter, a walk-on running back from Chicago. He was an honorable mention all-state pick as a senior at Brother Rice High School but wasn’t even recruited to play at Indiana. However, he played in all eight games last season on special teams and was helpful on the scout team. It will take some doing for him to climb up the running back depth chart with Tim Baldwin Jr. and Sampson James returning among others, but Allen said he will be an important component in some facet.
“He has really good suddenness to him as a running back and really good ball skills,” Allen said. “He can catch the ball out of the backfield. He makes really good cuts. He’s quick, he’s explosive, he’s tough. He makes plays on special teams with the cover unit and the return unit. You have to remember, he came to us as a tryout walk-on. We have two types of walk-ons in our program, you have preferred walk-ons that you invite after you watch their high school film and you have guys that are already on campus that tryout. We haven’t had one of those for a while because of the pandemic, but the last time we had one we had maybe 30 guys tryout and we took maybe two or three and he was one of them. It’s a credit to his perseverance.”
— Allen said he will look into the transfer portal this offseason to add depth in certain areas, specifically at safety and the defensive line.
” I do think there is a need for some more depth at safety,” Allen said. “That is definitely something that I would consider. Defensive line as well. Always looking for guys there that can maybe give you something more than what you have in terms of skillset wise. I think you’re always looking for the best available guy on offense that gives you a chance to increase your depth on the offensive line, whoever that might be. I’m not saying for sure we’re going in that direction. With Dexter’s injury at quarterback, that puts a little bit of concern on that spot. A little more pressure for our guys coming in to step up and be ready and to get Michael back 100% healthy like is the expectation. Playmaker on offense. Obviously, you don’t have a ton of spots, just a few, to look into and consider. Always looking for those options to be able to improve your football team.