MIAMI — With the indefinite suspension of Morgan Ellison, Indiana must turn to life without its starting running back. The Hoosiers are prepared to play it by committee, but the specifics will be unknown until Indiana kicks off against Florida International on Saturday. Cole Gest has been named the starter, and he feels prepared to handle the job.
“I’m ready, man,” Gest said after practice on Tuesday. “Mark my words, I will not fail. I will give it my all and come out on top.”
Indefinite means indefinite, and Ellison is no longer in the cards for Mike DeBord’s offense. But Gest is, and the 5-foot-8, 194-pound tailback acknowledges the importance of moving on as the next man up. Gest is listed as the starter ahead of Saturday’s season opener, along with capable backups in seniors Mike Majette and Ricky Brookins, as well as with true freshman Stevie Scott – who has impressed.
“Losing Morgan for whatever reason, I pray that he’s doing okay and things work out with that,” Gest said. “Not having him there sucks, but you’ve got to move on as the next man up. With our running back room, we’re still pretty solid. We’ve got a lot to offer and in practice, we look great. I hope everything’s okay with him, but we’ve got to move on.”
Gest has endured a rollercoaster two seasons in Bloomington. The redshirt sophomore suffered a season-ending injury after three games in 2016 as a true freshman. Despite a crowded backfield last year, he emerged as a reliable weapon in his first prolonged action. Gest ran for 428 yards on 93 carries in ten games, battling injury yet again and missing a pair of games. He’s started before. Indiana ran him 23 times against Rutgers, 17 times against Illinois, and produced one of IU’s biggest highlights in a touchdown against Maryland.
He is not the prototypical Big Ten running back. Michigan State’s L.J. Scott is 6-foot-1, 227 pounds. Minnesota’s Rodney Smith and Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor are both 5-foot-11. Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins and Michigan’s Karan Higdon are 5-foot-10. In a conference that perennially breeds tailbacks, Gest will be overlooked at 5-foot-8. So was Mike Hart at Michigan, though, and IU’s running backs coach is able to relate with his newly named starter. DeBord also sees Gest’s shorter height as an advantage, allowing the Ohio native to hide behind IU’s offensive line and burst through a hole.
“A lot of the defensive players say that I’m so fast and hard to catch, but sometimes we can’t even see you,” Gest said. “I just think it’s funny. Some people see it as a weakness that I’m a smaller back, but it can actually be an advantage and work to my benefit.”
Some of Gest’s assets cannot be found elsewhere in IU’s running backs room. He is arguably the Hoosiers’ quickest back, and the most explosive as a backfield receiver. But Gest struggled at times with his vision during his first 13 games for the Hoosiers, hitting the wrong hole or being inconsistent at finding one. Gest says his patience has improved, in large part because of the true freshman Scott. At 6-foot-2, 236-pounds, Scott is the polar opposite of Gest. But with his slower speed, Scott is a useful reference for Gest harnessing his speed at the line.
“You can learn from anybody, older or younger,” Gest said of Scott. “I’ve took that from him, I’m really, really slow now on the initial mesh. It’s helped me see everything clearer and get bigger runs. My brain is just wired that I want to go right now and show my speed. But in the past, it’s worked as a disadvantage. I had to take a step back and harness it.”
Gest, with improved vision, speed, and muscle endurance, will likely take the first carry for the Hoosiers against Florida International. The Panthers boast a legitimate defensive line, bolstered by a pair of 4-star junior-college recruits and significant experience up front. Defensive tackle Tayland Humphrey is 6-foot-5 and 350 pounds. So, despite his size, Gest will be tasked with replacing Ellison’s ability as a power-speed hybrid – and there’s no shortage of confidence ahead of his second start at Indiana.
“With Morgan, he can be a big power back and a speed back. Personally, I believe that I can do it too. They might prefer a bigger back to do it, but I think I hold my weight pretty well against the big guys.”