10 biggest questions I have as Indiana enters preseason camp
Indiana faces a big training camp as it tries to build upon the great successes of the 2020 season.
It’ll be up to Coach Tom Allen and Co. to make sure the Hoosiers are ready, because the schedule doesn’t leave much room for early hiccups.
1. How does Indiana deal with success?
After a 6-2 season that saw IU become a national storyline, especially after it took Ohio State to the brink of defeat, the Hoosiers won’t be able to surprise anyone.
And they’re going to have to learn how to deal with that in 2021.
That resolve will be tested immediately this season, as Indiana opens on the road at Iowa, then two weeks later, the Hoosiers get a marquee non-conference foe with a visit from Cincinnati. A 2-2 start isn’t out of the realm of possibility (and neither is 4-0), but a slower-than-desired first quarter of the season might put the Hoosiers on edge.
We’ll have to see how they handle the ups and downs of a full 12-game slate.
2. Can Penix Jr. stay healthy?
This answer matters more than any other.
The Hoosiers will go as QB1 goes. Unfortunately, the electric play-maker has seen his first three seasons in Bloomington end on the sideline, with him blowing out a knee last season vs. Maryland. It was on a routine play too, just a scamper up the sideline.
Jack Tuttle was nothing more than a game manager during his starts; IU would rather keep him on the sideline. Maybe IU has more options this season should Penix go down, but Allen doesn’t want to test any of them, either.
Ideally, the lefty stays in all 12 regular-season games, plus a bowl.
3. Does the new D coordinator change anything?
Charlton Warren takes over a unit that was pretty salty last season, and returns all but two starters. He’s unlikely to try to change much.
The Hoosiers were opportunistic, to say the least, last season, with 20 takeaways, helping the offense to short fields and easy points. Maybe Warren, an assistant the last two years at Georgia, would like to develop more pass rush out of his front four, rather than having to generate it from various spots in the defense.
But if IU can replicate what it had done under Kane Wommack, then Warren will be doing his job.
4. Is secondary still one of the best in the Big Ten?
Yes, Indiana loses All-Big Ten safety Jamar Johnson, but it still returns 5 of its top 6 in the secondary and sees the return of Marcelino McCrary-Ball to the “husky” position.
Indiana has arguably the best set of cornerbacks in the Big Ten in All-American Tiawan Mullen and fellow second-team All-Big Ten cornerback Jaylin Williams., along with nickel Reese Taylor.
Veteran Devon Matthews, a third-team All-Big Ten member who had 40 tackles in ’20, can pick up some of the slack left by the vacated Johnson. But McCrary-Ball, who plays the hybrid husky position, along with DB Raheem Layne, who also missed all of last season, will help put more play-makers in the defensive backfield.
IU should expect to be superior again.
5. Does IU’s running game become more diverse?
Stevie Scott III was great in the red zone and at picking up short yardage, but IU’s running game didn’t have enough speed to make defenses scared.
And the Hoosiers will try to change that this season.
At least a couple players will get a crack at changing Indiana’s dynamics in the backfield, potentially returnee Tim Baldwin, who showed flashes in his few opportunities last season, and USC transfer Stephen Carr, who had more than 1,300 yards rushing in his Trojans career.
Sampson James, who had a huge game as a fill-in starter vs. Purdue to end ’19, might reemerge as a short-yardage bruiser.
6. What is the next step?
Well, good question.
After making the Outback Bowl but getting trounced by Ole Miss, the Hoosiers must find their motivation this season. It should be to repeat as a relevant player in the Big Ten East and get back to a marquee bowl game, maybe part of the New Year’s 6.
7. Does another young play-maker emerge at WR?
IU has a lot of play-making ability back, even with the graduation of former All-Big Ten receiver Whop Philyor.
Ty Fryfogle, who is back for his super senior season, had a huge year on his way to Big Ten Receiver of the Year, and junior Miles Marshall looks ready to step into a bigger role after being a big-play reserve.
Transfers will add a lot to the Hoosiers, like Camron Buckley from Texas A&M and D.J. Matthews from Florida State. And there might be room for a freshman, too. Maybe high-profile rookie Jordyn Williams can carve out a role in what looks like a loaded pass-catching group.
8. Will IU’s O-line stay healthy?
It’s probably remarkable that Indiana’s offensive line held together last season, because it was held together often by bandages.
Indiana had five different combinations on its offensive line in eight games last season; never did it start the same group more than two weeks in a row, yet Indiana was still one of the best groups, at least in terms of pass protection, in the Big Ten.
Center Harry Crider has graduated. But Indiana returns much of the rest of the unit and for those guys pressed into starting roles, that experience pays off now. Plus, IU feels exceedingly solid at tackle, with Caleb Jones and Matthew Bedford.
9. Where’s the biggest position battle?
It’s at center, where Harry Crider was excellent for the Hoosiers.
But with the All-Big Ten performer gone, IU has a hole to fill. It might be a newcomer who has the first crack, with Zach Carpenter getting a shot after his transfer from Michigan. The sophomore started two games last season for the Wolverines before deciding to transfer from the program.
But IU has other options there too, including Dylan Powell, who could be penciled in as the starting right guard, but has center experience from his days at Stanford as well.
10. Was the Ole Miss debacle a mirage?
Probably so. And Indiana will spend training camp making sure it puts the bowl game far in the rearview.
Indiana looked so pedestrian in the game, losing by a final of 26-20 in a contest that didn’t feel that close. Tuttle was exposed, especially as the Rebels took control early in the game and Indiana struggled to get its offense rolling.
With Penix back, one hopes, the Hoosiers should become more dynamic offensively once again.