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Monday Notebook: Allen has decisions to make with talented freshmen

A look at the various strategies Indiana is taking in 2018. (Mark Timko/HN)

Hello again for another Monday notebook — probably the least eventful Monday we’ve had thus far in 2018. I suppose that might keep you from reading any further, whoops, but it’s a good opportunity to look at a new, and underrated aspect of college football. Tom AllenMike DeBord, and select players spoke of Indiana’s 38-10 win vs. Ball State and its preparation for Michigan State on Saturday night:

24 Freshmen, 1 Indiana

It’s no secret how young Indiana is, we’ve documented that immensely through the first three weeks of the season. Indiana is the 19th-youngest team in the country, and fourth-youngest in the Big Ten. Through a fourth of the season, Allen has played 24 freshmen — 12 true, 12 redshirt. It’s more than usual for a variety of reasons: first, these freshmen have been recruited by Allen himself, not Kevin Wilson. Second, the Hoosiers are very happy with their last two classes and unlike in past years, do not feel the same risk with playing them early. And lastly, the NCAA’s new redshirt rule has allowed Allen to sprinkle his freshmen into certain situations — while still maintaining the possibility of extending their eligibility by a year. He expects the number (24) to grow as the season moves forward.

“That’s really where I think you’re going to see the true benefit of the rule,” Allen said Monday. “Is to be able to maximize those guys late in the season. They may not have been ready to help you in the beginning, but they may play on offense, defense, for certain snaps, still be able to keep the redshirt. That to me will play itself out here the next several weeks.”

12 true freshmen have played, and Allen said Monday that he expects seven or eight of those to “keep on rolling.” I’d suspect a few are set in stone: Michael Penix, Reese Taylor, Stevie Scott, Ronnie Walker, James Head, Matt Bjorson, Devon Matthews, Cam Jones, Micah McFadden I suppose that is nine right there — but who knows with the likes of Penix/Head and potential injuries. The list could certainly grow, especially if Allen’s freshmen keep playing well. It’s a good problem to have, although the Big Ten season could limit how far Allen goes down his depth chart. Head (injury) and Walker played in their first games against Ball State, so they still have three remaining, while Penix has two. It’s something to keep an eye on — how much Allen values a long-term strategy of extending the stays of a very talented freshman class … compared to winning now. I’ve been covering Indiana for the last four seasons, and I’ve never seen this many true freshmen become staples in their various rotations so early. But for the sake of long-term benefit, the Hoosiers will likely hold some back.

For the sake of clarification, if Taylor, Scott, Bjorson, McFadden, or Matthews play against Michigan State and then Rutgers, they will all be sophomores in 2019. The rest have more games remaining. They can play up to four and maintain the ability to redshirt.

“There’s another quarter of them, three or four, we’ll see what we do with them moving forward,” Allen said of his true freshmen. “There’s some guys we’ve already said, you know what, probably going to be redshirting those guys. That can change. There’s still going to be opportunities.”

Indiana’s 2019 class is shaping up to be even more impressive, at least on paper, than its last. I would suspect that the Hoosiers will not *have* to play this many true freshmen in 2019 because of how young they are in 2018 — so technically, IU will benefit more from the NCAA’s new redshirt rule next season. Restocking and keeping players around an extra year is vital for the growth of any program, as collegiate strength and conditioning is leaps and bounds above anything in high school.

Weekly Injury Update

It’s remarkable how much healthier Indiana is this season than last. Still early, of course, and not suffering a torn ACL on the opening kickoff was already improvement. Aside from Cole Gests season-ending injury against Florida International, the Hoosiers do not have a long-term injury, that we know of. Right guard Mackenzie Nworah was not dressed for Ball State, and will miss Saturday’s game, Allen said Monday. The Hoosiers hope to get him back in the next two weeks, or so, for offensive line depth. Defensive end Gavin Everett, walk-on turned scholarship, also did not dress for Ball State but was a game-time decision. Allen said he expects Everett to suit up on Saturday night, an important addition to a defensive line that played its best game against Ball State.

“I’ve not been here very long,” Allen said. “In the few years I’ve been here, this is the healthiest we’ve been going in … “I do think it’s a variable. I know injuries are always that age-old question of how do you prevent them, nobody wants them. They’re always going to be there in some form or fashion. We definitely focused on doing things in our preparation that would limit soft tissue injuries. Purchased different mechanisms for that. The guys have bought into it. Even part of their diet, as well, some things we try to emphasize, their hydration. Those all go into that part of your body.”

That is all for injuries, and while it’s very much the luck of the draw, Indiana’s revamped strength and conditioning program likely deserves some credit here as well. David Ballou and Dr. Matt Rhea have both spoke of the importance of limiting soft tissue injuries, and the Hoosiers have done that early on. I asked J-Shun Harris if he had any insight on why Indiana is markedly healthier this season, and he said my guess was as good as his was — but definitely attributed the new conditioning program as well.

“Injuries can’t be prevented completely,” Allen stated. “But there’s no question that we are currently experiencing less than we had a year ago, and that’s a good thing. Hurt us last year. Got to continue to have that.”

Quick Look at Michigan State

On paper, I thought Michigan State would be a potential Big Ten champion. I still think that. But the first two weeks have not been impressive for the Spartans — squeaking by Utah State at home, and then losing to an Arizona State team that laid an egg against San Diego State last week. But there is no doubting that an Indiana win on Saturday night would be an impressive upset — and the Spartans have a few advantages in this matchup.

“They’re really good again this year,” Allen said of Michigan State. “Haven’t given up hardly any rushing yards all, stingy down in the red zone. The expectation is we got to score touchdowns when we get down there. You don’t beat a team like this kicking field goals.”

First, Michigan State is coming off an early bye week, giving Mark Dantonio more time to prepare for Indiana and work on its defensive flaws that showed in the first two weeks of the season. Indiana will be facing its most proven quarterback to date in Brian Lewerke, its most proven running back in L.J. Scott, and a group of receivers in 6-foot-3 Cody White and 6-foot-2 Darrell Stewart, along with 6-foot-6 senior tight end Matt Skol. It’s a handful, and A’shon Riggins said Monday that he expects the usual Michigan State team that runs the ball well, and then tries to catch you off-guard with deep passes over the top.

But fortunately for Indiana, the Hoosiers are dealing with a very similar team that beat them, 17-9, in East Lansing last season. IU hasn’t claimed the Old Brass Spittoon at home in consecutive attempts since 1991 and 1993. While Michigan State has dominated this series, the last few meetings have been incredibly close and relatively low-scoring. Not to get ahead of things here, but an IU upset would give the Hoosiers a solid chance at starting 5-0 with lowly Rutgers the week following. I’d have to dig through the record book for the last time Indiana started 5-0 — as the Hoosiers have only began 4-0 in six seasons … dating back to 1990 for the last time it included a Big Ten game. I’ve seen questions from fans wondering if Indiana would be ranked at 5-0 going into Columbus. I’m inclined to say yes, but it would be close.

My apologies for the hypothetical. Indiana appeared very focused Monday with Michigan State. I’ll write later this week about that, and how the Hoosiers feel a chip on their shoulder after last season’s game. In a crowded Big Ten East, I get the sense that Indiana sees Michigan State as a program it can potentially overtake in the future. But you have to consistently beat those programs to accomplish that.

“We have to play great defense,” Allen said. “We’re still developing and growing. We are going to have to play our best game of the season, have our best week of preparation, execute at the highest level in all three phases.

Talk to you all, casually, next Monday.

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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