Better or worse? Previewing Indiana's offense in 2020
This is Michael Penix Jr.’s team.
That wasn’t the case for Indiana a year ago, when Penix narrowly beat out incumbent Peyton Ramsey and showed off his flash — and immeasurable potential — in the first half of the season. But injuries took him off the field, and the keys to the Hoosiers were taken back by Ramsey for the final six games and the Gator Bowl.
But Ramsey’s gone now, having grad-transferred to Northwestern, where he’s likely to take over as the starting quarterback, and Penix is the man in Bloomington.
He’ll have to stay healthy; it was a clavicle/sternum injury that took him off the field last year and a knee injury as a true freshman in ’18, so there’s a history. But if he stays injury-free, he might be one of the most dynamic dual-threat players in the Big Ten.
The sophomore has help, particularly in the backfield with the likes of veterans Stevie Scott and Sampson James. But it’ll be up to new offensive coordinator Nick Sheridan, the former tight ends coach, to mold the unit, and he’ll have a challenging task to replicate the numbers of a year ago. Then, under the guidance of Kalen DeBoer, who took the Fresno State head coaching job in the offseason, the Hoosiers ranked third in the Big Ten in total yardage, averaging 432.8 per game. And DeBoer did so without his No. 1 quarterback and his top offensive lineman (Coy Cronk), and with other skill players missing significant time as well.
Key losses: Peyton Ramsey, QB; Nick Westbrook, WR; Coy Cronk, OT; Simon Stepaniak, OG; Hunter Littlejohn, C; Logan Justus, PK
Key returnees: Michael Penix Jr., QB; Stevie Scott, RB; Sampson James, RB; Whop Philyor, WR; Ty Fryfogle, WR; Peyton Hendershot, TE; Matthew Bedford, OT; Harry Crider, OG
Potential breakout players: Dylan Powell, OG/OC; Chris Bradberry, OL; Rashawn Williams, WR; David Ellis, RB
Passing offense: Even
Although Indiana’s passing offense ranked second in the Big Ten last season, averaging 302.4 yards per game, don’t expect a drop off with Penix taking over full time.
In fact, his ability to drive the ball down the field, combined with undervalued accuracy — he completed 68.8 percent of his passes in ’19, the sixth-best percentage in Big Ten history, with nearly 1,400 yards and 10 TDs in six games — could be maddening for Big Ten East opponents. He’ll need to be more durable, but the 15 pounds he added between the end of last season and the spring should help, bringing him up to a more sturdy 6-3, 220.
Penix has weapons. Senior Whop Philyor is as good as it gets in the league, an All-Big Ten second-teamer who caught 70 passes for 1,002 yards and 5 touchdowns last year, and senior Ty Fryfogle is coming off a solid season. Nick Westbrook will be missed.
Tight end Peyton Hendershot is a threat, but offseason legal troubles — he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor after facing charges of domestic battery involving an ex-girlfriend — have clouded his senior season. In mid-July, Coach Tom Allen cleared Hendershot to return to the football program after he had been on the team only in a “modified way” for the previous few months. The 6-foot-4, 250-pounder’s on-field ability isn’t in doubt, after he had 52 receptions last season.
The addition of Stanford graduate transfer Dylan Powell will help bolster the offensive line, which has been one of IU’s better units in recent years.
Rushing offense: Better
The Hoosiers would like a little more balance in 2020, after their rushing attack was the third-worst in the Big Ten last season, averaging 130.4 yards per game.
They might be able to achieve it. Penix adds a scrambling ability that Ramsey lacked, particularly showing that off against Ball State in the opener last season when he had 67 yards rushing.
But it’s the running backs who have the most to gain from a renewed interest in the rushing attack. And they’re good ones. Junior Stevie Scott III had 845 yards in ’19 despite missing the final two games of the season. In one of those, backup Sampson James filled in nicely, going for 118 yards and a score vs. Purdue.
To get a marquee Big Ten East victory this season, the Hoosiers likely will need to protect a lead late. And to do so, it must be able to run the ball effectively.
Special teams: Worse
Odd hiccups in the Purdue game aside, place-kicker Logan Justus was outstanding for the Hoosiers in 2019, hitting 17 of 21, including all but one from inside 40 yards.
But he’s graduated.
Sophomore Charles Campbell has the only experience on the roster, hitting 2 field goals last season, including a critical 41-yarder in the fourth quarter of the overtime win at Purdue.
Former safeties coach Kasey Teegardin is the new special teams coordinator. One of his tasks is to improve a pedestrian return game, one that seemingly has more potential, in terms of talent, than what it showed in 2019.
The Hoosiers’ longest kickoff return was 39 yards — versatile backup running back David Ellis averaged 20.7 yards per attempt — while their longest punt return was 11. That was from Philyor, who had only 38 additional yards in his other 14 chances.
With recruiting ticking up — IU had the No. 36 class overall in 2019, per 247sports.com and No. 58 in ’20 — the Hoosiers are bringing more talent to Bloomington. It could mean more depth.
Sheridan, who is expected to run an offense similar to his predecessor, has the pieces, with a ringleader who could turn into one of the more feared offensive players in the conference. But the Hoosiers, unlike a year ago, will need to stay healthy if they’re to build off the 2019 eight-win season.