In Saturday night’s season-opening win, Indiana’s new offense clicked when it needed to most. Among flashy defense (led by senior safety and cousin Jonathan Crawford) and near-perfect quarterback performances, wide receiver Donavan Hale, home again and better than before, provided a spark plug in the most key moments.
Hale’s been waiting a while — nearly his entire tenure in Bloomington — for an opportunity to play a legitimate difference. Originally entering the program with intentions to help at quarterback, Hale broadened his skill set in 2016 but stood in the background. Poised to make an impact in 2017, the then-junior’s season was cut short after three games. Though never actually tearing his ACL, Hale had knee surgery and was ruled out for the season. For Hale, 2018 is a chance at a breakout year. The 6-foot-4 wideout has shown flashes since he arrived, but injuries have largely plagued him.
Before Indiana, there was Largo High School and Hale’s high school football career in southern Florida. Hale wasn’t the only one who realized he’d be coming home when the team saw FIU on the schedule. Crawford, quarterback Michael Penix, and wide receiver Whop Philyor, among many others, all played their high school ball in different parts of Florida. The Hoosiers have 24 players on the roster from the sunshine state.
“For Crawford to get the pick-six, and Donavan to get a couple touchdowns and some big plays, that’s how you script it,” Head Coach Tom Allen said. “This state’s really important to us. We wanted to come down here and do a great job. It’s great to get the win.”
When most desperate to find a man during key moments of Saturday’s victory, it was Hale who Peyton Ramsey found not once but twice in the end zone. Why so effective? During his time at IU, Hale has quickly evolved, learned the value of his size, creating separation and breaking down coverage. Hale is ultimately becoming a key element to Mike DeBord’s upgraded offense in 2018 and at 6-4, 229, should see his stock continue to rise with each passing week this fall. Especially in the redzone.
“He’s a big strong dude that can flat out be a mismatch for any DB,” Allen said. “I don’t care what coverage you play in. He went up and got the ball with some strong hands and positioned his body and did an awesome job. He played the way I expect him to.”
Hale’s not one to have always had the opportunity to show out in the way he did Saturday. A guy who’s been a Swiss army knife for Indiana, Hale was brought in to play quarterback in 2015 but soon clicked as a wide receiver. Because of injury, the last sustainable time for fans to watch Hale was in 2016, when his role expanded but was still limited in contributions behind Simmie Cobbs.
“I’ve challenged that guy. I believe in him,” Allen said. “This is an opportunity for him to rise up and take over and be a guy that they can not cover.”
In short, it was absolutely what the Hoosiers needed in order to pull off the win Saturday. Indiana executed in critical moments against FIU, finishing drives with touchdowns rather than field goal attempts. It’s a characteristic to keep an eye on as Indiana readies for Virginia this week.
“It’s been a point of emphasis for us to score touchdowns, especially down in the redzone,” Ramsey said. “I think we did a good job of that tonight, when we got down there we punched the ball in. It’s good to see what we emphasize get put into action.”
More than anything, Hale’s sheer athleticism is now on full display. Hale’s touchdown grabs came on 2nd and 4th down, respectively, and in those moments, he effectively created mismatches as the easy go-to for Ramsey, who’s working on finding opportunities in his own right.
“He’s such a weapon, such a big bodied guy who can go up and take the ball out of the air,” Ramsey said. “If you just put it in his radius, he’s going to snatch it.”
If Hale proves to be a consistent target for the Hoosiers, he will see his role expanded. Based on what was shown Saturday, Hale could certainly lead this team in touchdown receptions. DeBord has more weapons to work with here in 2018, but in the redzone, Hale’s arguably the team’s best target. It showed Saturday.