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Indiana Football 2018 Preview: Receivers/Tight Ends

* With almost five weeks remaining before Indiana opens its 2018 season at Florida International, The Hoosier Network will be releasing its position previews on a weekly basis until kickoff. *
Week 1: Quarterbacks
Week 2: Running Backs
Week 3: Dawkins Q&A

6-foot-3 receiver Simmie Cobbs is gone to the NFL, and so are his brilliant one-handed snags and redzone presence. But in 2018, the Hoosiers return quite a lot of talent at the receiver position. Among others of note is redshirt junior Nick Westbrook — who continues his way back following a season-ending ACL injury suffered on the opening kickoff against Ohio State last season.

Westbrook is a good place to start, considering the sure-handed 6-foot-3 wideout caught 54 passes for 995 yards as a sophomore in 2016 — along with being named to the Biletnikoff Award Preseason Watch List. Westbrook was Indiana’s leading receiver two years ago, and will be the Hoosiers’ primary deep threat for the program’s laundry list of quarterback options. The strongest part of Westbrook’s game are his route-running and pure catching abilities, two characteristics welcomed by any quarterback. ACL injuries generally have different impacts, however, and Westbrook’s recovery has been well-documented in the offseason. Westbrook was not dressed for Indiana’s Spring Game and wore a blue non-contact jersey during spring practice. With legitimate questions at both quarterback and tight end, Westbrook is one of Indiana’s most crucial players for success. His number will likely be called early and often, starting September 1st against Florida International in Miami.

It wasn’t just Westbrook that suffered a season-ending injury in 2017. Indiana’s receiving corps was battered a year ago — as Donovan Hale missed the final nine games with an unspecified injury and J-Shun Harris tore his ACL for a third time against Maryland. At 6-4, Hale is talented enough to complement Westbrook as one of the Big Ten’s best outside wideout combinations. In fact, Hale technically started Week 1 against Ohio State last season over Westbrook. It’s just that Hale has been a bit of an enigma so far in Bloomington, mostly due to various injuries and inconsistent playing time. Is this the year he breaks out as a reliable weapon on the other side as Westbrook? For offensive coordinator Mike DeBord, it would be quite ideal. Hale is a certified deep threat, that can create separation and use his height in 50-50, jump-ball situations.

Indiana’s 2018 roster boasts a few strengths that rival even the Big Ten’s most dominant programs: one is the Hoosiers’ secondary, and another will likely be at slot receiver. 6-foot Luke Timian is back for his senior season after inheriting the position from cornerstone Mitchell Paige. Behind Cobbs, Timian was the most reliable receiver for the Hoosiers last season — snagging 68 passes for 589 yards and a pair of touchdowns. While mostly a slot receiver that runs a deadly slant route, Timian is versatile enough to lineup on the outside as well. He will accompany sophomore wideout Whop Philyor quite well in 2018, one of the emerging players for Indiana as a true freshman. Philyor is a weapon for DeBord who can beat defenders over the middle or take handoffs out of the backfield — as seen for a touchdown against Maryland last season. He tallied 33 catches (third on the team) for 335 yards and three touchdowns in 2017. Against the Terrapins, Philyor caught 13 passes for 127 yards. Only one Big Ten receiver caught more passes in a single game than Philyor, so keep an eye out for how the 5-foot-11 receiver is utilized this season. Lastly in terms of slot receivers, we’ll see how J-Shun Harris is employed past punt returns for his final campaign. Before yet another ACL tear, he only caught three passes for 14 yards a year ago.

There is serious depth and incoming talent for receivers coach Grant Heard and the 2018 Hoosiers. Injuries are quite frequent at the wideout position, so pocket three names: Ty Fryfogle, Chris Gajack, and Jacolby Hewitt. At 6-foot-2, Fryfogle saw time in eight games as a freshman last season, and Indiana was confident enough in the Mississippi native to burn his redshirt. While a walk-on, Gajack appeared in eight games and even started against Wisconsin last season. He’ll be a junior in 2018. And then there’s Hewitt, an incoming freshman who enrolled early for spring practices. Allen and the Hoosiers are very high on Hewitt, a 6-foot-1 who ESPN ranked as the No. 29 recruit in Tennessee. It would be rather surprising to see a redshirt year for him.

When DeBord was hired as offensive coordinator last offseason, instant speculation was directed towards Indiana’s tight ends. After all, DeBord has always promoted the usage of the position, and doubles as tight ends coach for Allen’s program. A year ago, Ian Thomas emerged as the current NFL talent known today — grabbing 25 passes for 376 yards and five touchdowns. Thomas will play on Sundays for the Panthers in the fall, so who’s left? 6-foot-2 senior Ryan Watercutter will likely start at tight end after hauling in 12 passes for 69 yards behind Thomas last season. There’s questions elsewhere, though. 6-foot-4 Peyton Hendershot appeared in four games as a freshman before a season-ending injury and subsequent medical redshirt. The Hoosiers love his potential, and he’ll compete for playing time with 6-foot-5 junior Austin Dorris and 6-foot-3 sophomore Shaun Bonner — who have only played on special teams thus far for Indiana.

News & Notes from Big Ten Media Day

  • Linebacker T.D. Roof will be eligible for the Hoosiers in 2018, Allen announced at Big Ten Media Day on Tuesday. The Georgia Tech transfer was originally slated to sit-out this coming season due to NCAA transfer rules, but his early transfer has allowed Indiana to play him now. The news is significant for a linebacker corps that lost Tegray Scales and Chris Covington to the NFL. Only seniors Dameon Willis and Mike McGinnis had recorded snaps at linebacker for Indiana. Roof meanwhile, played in all 11 games for the Yellow Jackets as a freshman — recording 17 tackles and a pair of sacks.
  • Indiana’s 2018 roster was updated for the summer on Tuesday. Arizona grad transfer quarterback Brandon Dawkins will wear #13, his number for the Wildcats. Syracuse grad transfer defensive lineman Kayton Samuels will wear #52, his number for the Orange. Both have the ability to produce right away for the Hoosiers at positions of need. Lastly, Allen announced linebacker Kiante Walton (medical) and defensive back LaDamion Hunt (personal) are no longer with the program. Walton forced a fumble against Virginia last season but was plagued by regular injury. Hunt appeared in seven games last season, primarily on special teams and made a pair of tackles.

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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