Rewind to Week 1 of last season. Indiana had just hung with No. 1 Ohio State for a half, as former quarterback Richard Lagow, former receiver Simmie Cobbs, and former tight end Ian Thomas put on a show in front of a sold-out Memorial Stadium. The Hoosiers eventually lost, 49-21, and the resulting story was depth.
In the second half, Indiana’s second stringers or fatigued starters weren’t able to keep up with the seemingly endless talent of Ohio State. It was Tom Allen’s first regular season game as IU’s head coach. He spoke of culture changes, breaking through, and most important of all, building depth.
“We’re still not where we need to be depth-wise,” Allen said last August. “It is what it is. We have to recruit better. We take out our No. 1s and right now there’s too big of a drop off. I felt like especially in some of those big plays in that third quarter, it shouldn’t have happened.”
Since Allen replaced Kevin Wilson at the helm before Indiana’s Foster Farms Bowl appearance in 2016, he has been craving for the luxury of taking his starters out and maintaining the same level of production and performance. It has been a luxury that has always been sought after in Bloomington, but has never matured. Depth is, of course, a direct result of recruiting.
This is the youngest Indiana team in recent memory, in terms of both age and on-field experience. The Hoosiers were senior-laden a year ago, and impressive freshmen — both true and redshirt, have filled those holes. Michael Penix at quarterback, Stevie Scott and Ronnie Walker at running back, James Head at defensive end, Micah McFadden and James Miller at linebacker, Cam Jones at husky, Bryant Fitzgerald and Juwan Burgess at safety, Jaylin Williams at cornerback, and Reese Taylor, well, everywhere. Those are just 11, but the list goes on. 16 true freshmen have played for Indiana in 2018, and there are still two weeks remaining. Only 12 true freshmen appeared for Allen last season.
“There are so many new faces on defense,” Allen said Monday.”And we’ve had injuries still. We’ve lost some very productive guys on offense that haven’t played much at all or any this year. And other guys had to step up, whether it’s the receiving corps, or in the running back room. It’s just part of it. We’re still probably a couple classes away from having the depth that we need to have.”
What does this mean? The short answer is that Allen and the Hoosiers are getting closer to their desired depth. In theory, these freshmen will benefit immensely from playing right away. It surely has caused some headaches for Allen and growing pains for this 2018 team, but he has acknowledged that in the long run, it should pay off. Allen’s depth has increased from last season despite graduating 14 seniors and additional key contributors from last season’s team, such as Cobbs (NFL) and transfers such as WR Taysir Mack, DB Zeke Walker, DB Tyler Green, and RB Devonte Williams.
It has allowed Indiana’s coaching staff to sprinkle freshmen in at opportune times, or at least, prepare them. The NCAA’s new redshirt rule has aided this, but Allen’s freshmen aren’t just playing special teams and garbage time snaps. Fitzgerald leads the team with three interceptions, while the Avon product Fitzgerald and Cam Jones lead the Hoosiers with a pair of forced fumbles. If football was basketball, Allen’s freshmen would be considered as playing starter minutes.
“Just settling in,” Fitzgerald said last week. “I was really nervous for the first half of the season. It was the first time being out there, I didn’t know how I was going to play. I was out there just worrying. But now, I’m finally just playing my game and starting to settle in.”
Recruiting under Allen has changed slightly. Generally speaking, his staff is targeting strong and versatile athletes, while worrying about positions at a later date. IU true freshman running back Stevie Scott is the clearest example — recruited by Allen’s staff as a running back or linebacker, with the hope that Scott would pan out in the backfield. The Syracuse native is second nationally among freshmen in rushing yards, with 894. True freshman Jamar Johnson, meanwhile, can play all five positions of Allen’s secondary. Johnson has appeared in eight games, highlighted by a crucial interception at Rutgers earlier this season.
“You look at that offensive line from Maryland, and there were a bunch of fifth-year seniors,” Allen said. “I’ve said it before and say it again, those are grown men. We’ve got some young guys playing on defense that are 18 years old, a bunch of them. That’s a big difference. Those four years make a — that’s four years of a lot of things that change for you in this time of your life.”
It will take time, but the margin of depth appears to be closing between Indiana and its Big Ten East rivals. While unfinished and unsigned, Allen’s incoming recruiting class features multiple pieces that are primed to contribute in 2019 — specifically 4-star running back and former Ohio State commit Sampson James, 4-star Carmel defensive end Beau Robbins, and defensive backs Tiawan Mullen and Larry Tracy. Even potential slot receiver David Ellis has made highlight reels from his senior high school season in Michigan. Allen’s 2019 class is currently ranked 41st in the nation by 247 Sports, which would set an IU record since recruiting rankings began in 2002.
Indiana’s football program has progressed into solidified expectations of perennially winning all three non-conference games and competing for bowl appearances. This 2018 team has helped in that, despite growing pains seen weekly — such as allowing 353 rushing yards to Maryland last week and being outclassed by Iowa. The next step is what Allen perpetually calls the breakthrough. What used to be seen as a fallacy is now starting to come into focus, by allowing Indiana’s 25 contributing freshmen to contribute early in their collegiate careers. Reinforcements are coming.
“We recruited well with this current freshmen class, and we’ve got to do it again,” Allen said. “And we’ve got to do it again, to be able to create and have the depth from all four classes together to be able to withstand injuries and the ups and downs of the season, and playing against a very mature guys.”