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Indiana Football 2018 Preview: Quarterbacks

Indiana freshman quarterback Mike Penix Jr. drops back to pass during the Hoosiers 2018 Spring game. Penix expects to be in the mix for the starting quarterback role along with Peyton Ramsey and Brandon Dawkins. (Mark Timko/HN)

* With nine weeks remaining before Indiana opens its 2018 season at Florida International, The Hoosier Network will be releasing its position previews on a weekly basis every Friday until kickoff. *

When Peyton Ramsey was summoned last season and played valiantly in nine games as a freshman, it figured to be his job to lose with Richard Lagow graduating from the program. Ramsey was essentially thrown into the fire, possibly too early, but impressed with his decision-making ability and dual-threat capabilities regardless.

And then head coach Tom Allen and the Hoosiers received a late commitment from 3-star dual-threat quarterback Michael Penix Jr. Penix chose Indiana over Florida State, enrolled early, and displayed his arm strength and poise during the Spring Game.

Ramsey and Penix both expected a battle, between each other, for Indiana’s starting quarterback opening. Instead, Arizona graduate transfer Brandon Dawkins committed to Indiana for his final season of eligibility, and there are now three horses in the race.

Brandon Dawkins, Gr. 6-3, 210 lbs.
Dawkins is the favorite to take the first snap on September 1st at Florida International in Miami. Graduate transfers, especially at the quarterback position, rarely transfer only to backup. The Hoosiers worked hard to secure the commitment of Dawkins, who picked Bloomington over the likes of Chip Kelly and UCLA, Lane Kiffin and Florida Atlantic, and Nebraska’s Scott Frost. It’s pure speculation that Dawkins is the favorite. But his experience as a starter for a program such as Arizona, coupled with proven dual-threat versatility, is a match made in heaven for Mike DeBord’s offensive vision.

At Arizona, Dawkins appeared in 20 games for one of the nation’s top programs. He was Arizona’s starter for 10 of 12 games in 2016 after Anu Solomon suffered a knee injury. This past season, Dawkins won the starting job over Khalil Tate (and Solomon, who transferred), and played in the Wildcats’ first five games before sustaining an injury of his own. In his career, Dawkins has thrown for 2,353 yards, 15 touchdowns, and an alarming 12 interceptions. He is more than his arm. The 6-foot-3 California native has rushed for 1,481 yards and 18 touchdowns — including a 79-yard sprint against eventual CFP Semifinalist Washington.

The question surrounding Dawkins is his ability to quickly adjust to a new offense. The 6-foot-3 quarterback was not able to practice at Indiana until June, following his Arizona graduation and the start of IU summer classes. He is familiar with both quarterbacks coach Nick Sheridan and offensive coordinator Mike DeBord. If Dawkins starts for the Hoosiers, there will likely be an extra emphasis on allowing the quarterback to run. Indiana’s vision at quarterback has always been dual-threat, but with Lagow, it just wasn’t feasible. Earlier this month at media availability, Dawkins was asked about the transition:

“The biggest contrast is some of the reads we have on offense,” Dawkins said. “Having a pure progression offense, that’s not what we did at Arizona. It was a lot more run-pass and obviously we’re going to incorporate that because that plays to my skillset, the ability to run and pass.”

While there may be concerns with Dawkins’ capabilities in the pocket, his ability to throw on the run certainly helps keep the defense guessing. As seen in his sophomore highlight video from Arizona, Dawkins is explosive from the second he receives the ball.

“I describe myself as a dual-threat quarterback,” Dawkins said on the HN’s IUFB Podcast in April. “I have the ability to push the ball downfield, as well as being able to stretch the defense with my legs to add an extra threat to our offense. We have great running backs, receiving corps, and offensive line. But my legs can put more points on the board and get the ball downfield.”

If Dawkins can adjust to DeBord’s offense and remain healthy, the Hoosiers will likely receive a level of consistency unknown to the position since Nate Sudfeld was IU’s gunslinger. The Hoosiers led the Big Ten in pass attempts last season under Lagow and Ramsey, yet 12th in rushing offense. If Dawkins starts, those two statistics will surely change.

Peyton Ramsey, R-So. 6-2, 211 lbs.
As shown last season in Bloomington, the quarterback position is often compromised with injuries and questions. Even if Dawkins is named the starter prior to Indiana’s season opener, Ramsey will certainly be showcased in DeBord’s offense. To what extent, is unknown. But the Hoosiers remain very high on Ramsey’s ability to run their offense, and his potential moving forward.

A year ago, Ramsey won the job from Lagow because of his efficiency. The Cincinnati native completed 65.4 percent of his passes, throwing for 1,252 yards, ten touchdowns, and five interceptions in nine games. While Ramsey did not possess the arm strength of Lagow, he was historically accurate — as 134-of-205 is an IU single-season record, and good enough for second in the Big Ten last season. Without Ramsey, the Hoosiers may have lost at Virginia last year. And with a healthy Ramsey, Indiana may have been able to escape Maryland with a victory. The Hoosiers’ quarterback in 2017 was often decided by health and momentum, and IU benefited from times when Ramsey held both.

All three players have welcomed the competition in the quarterback room. Dawkins has been competing for playing time since he stepped foot at Arizona. Ramsey spent an entire season going back-and-forth with Lagow. And by enrolling early, Penix has only helped his chances and thrown his hat in the ring. IU head coach Tom Allen has said repeatedly that the Hoosiers’ quarterback competition will be a fair fight.

“When you have talent in the room and other guys that are going to push you, it’s helpful for everybody,” Ramsey said at the Spring Game. “Not only for me, but the whole offense as well.”

It was rather challenging for the Hoosiers to play both Lagow and Ramsey, given their incredibly different skillsets. It was always the plan for Ramsey to play, but his four starts gave offensive coordinator Mike DeBord a significant challenge. The playbook was altered, but it was impossible to rewrite IU’s offensive scheme when Lagow was either injured or struggling. Nonetheless, Ramsey was exceptional on the run — scampering for 327 yards and a pair of touchdowns in nine games.

The intrigue with Ramsey, likewise with Penix, is his potential. As a freshman, thrown into the fire with an offense structured for Lagow, Ramsey was valiant. He gave the Hoosiers a chance to win, more or less, in every game he played. In his third year at Indiana, Ramsey will be the most familiar quarterback on the roster to both DeBord, Sheridan, and Allen. He could be the safest play for the Hoosiers in 2018 — and whether he starts or not, he will surely play.

Michael Penix Jr., Fr. 6-3, 198 lbs.
After Lagow graduated and Penix enrolled early, there was a legitimate possibility of Indiana starting its first true freshman at quarterback in memory. After all, Penix’s combination of arm strength and desire to compete have impressed Indiana’s staff thus far. It’s tough to assume Penix would start over a proven quarterback with 22 starts in a PAC-12 offense, or the incumbent in Ramsey. The question, now, turns to utilizing Penix in a way that benefirs the Hoosiers long-term. If Dawkins wins the job and remains healthy, there is a chance Penix could redshirt his freshman year and retain his eligibility for next season.

With Ramsey, and at times, Dawkins, the question is surrounding the arm. Ramsey is accurate, but his longest completion last season was 45 yards — and relied heavily on quick slants to move the offense. Dawkins has strength, but accuracy has been questioned after he threw six interceptions in ten games during 2016, including three against Utah. Arm strength is not an issue with Penix, even as a true freshman. The left-handed gunslinger can flatout throw — across-field, downfield, and on the move.

At Indiana’s Spring Game in April, Penix displayed in a very small sample size why he was a fringe 4-star prospect from Florida in high school: poise. It was a rapid recruiting process for Penix, who decommitted from Tennessee in December and decided between Indiana and Florida State, among others, a week later. In two seasons at Tampa Bay Tech, Penix threw for 4,423 yards and 61 touchdowns — to only six interceptions. He can escape the pocket with ease, along with executing options from the gun.

On paper, Penix is the quarterback that Allen has been envisioning since he took over for Kevin Wilson at Indiana. Despite enrolling early with the hope of playing as a true freshman, Penix would certainly benefit from a year of adding strength and progressing as a college quarterback. But as we saw last season, Indiana’s heralded freshman could be only an injury away from taking a snap.

Teddy Bailey

I am a senior from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, studying in IU’s School of Global and International Studies. Prior to joining The Hoosier Network, I spent two seasons covering IU Athletics for the Indianapolis Star alongside Zach Osterman after becoming the Sports Editor of the Indiana Daily Student as a freshman. While I found myself studying Italian in Florence this past summer, I interned with The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2017 — my hometown paper. In case you want to talk cheesesteaks or the Philadelphia 76ers, you can find me on Twitter, @ByTeddyBailey.

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