*Disclaimer: These are simply projections. The offseason is far from over. Current players could still depart, and incoming players remain a possibility. Plus, we haven’t seen the incoming class play a snap. But for the sake of 2019 preparations, away we go…*
Ah, the offseason. It’s been a bit longer than Indiana would have liked, given its second consecutive bowl absence despite a 4-1 start to the 2018 season. Losses at Minnesota and to Purdue were the deciding factors in this, plus an offensive scheme that resulted in quarterback Peyton Ramsey finishing as the country’s ninth-worst in yards per attempt. His 6.4 yards per attempt in 2018 was nearly half of the nation’s best offense in Kyler Murray and Oklahoma. Despite season-long hopes of wanting to stretch the field with talented outside receivers Nick Westbrook and Donavan Hale, IU’s 2018 offense was stagnant, unthreatening, and one-dimensional.
There were, however, many bright spots and reasons for optimism in 2019. It starts at the top, where offensive coordinator Mike DeBord announced his retirement after two seasons calling plays in Bloomington. Prior to DeBord’s arrival, the 2015 and 2016 offenses of Kevin Wilson and Kevin Johns finished 14th and 56th, respectively, in total offense. DeBord’s two seasons, with drastically different personnel, were 52nd and 69th in 2017 and 2018. Excluding five seasons in the NFL, DeBord coached 29 seasons of college football and brought instant name recognition to Bloomington. It’s unfair to doubt his resume, but at IU, his personnel often went underused or rarely matched his envisioned scheme. Enter Kalen DeBoer, IU’s latest and most expensive offensive coordinator in school history. He has improved his units at Southern Illinois, Eastern Michigan, and Fresno State respectively — and couples a versatile redzone offense with an affection for passing the ball. DeBoer inherits an offense with both questions and known entities.
Here’s a very early look at Indiana’s projected offense in 2019:
Starter: Michael Penix Jr.
Backups: Peyton Ramsey, Jack Tuttle, Grant Gremel
Question to Consider: Does Indiana flirt with two quarterback options for the third consecutive season?
Overview: As February marches to its close, the NCAA has still not announced its decision on Jack Tuttle’s eligibility. The Utah transfer did not play a snap for the Utes last season, and based on the NCAA’s green-light ruling on Ohio State (and former Georgia) quarterback Justin Fields, all signs point to Tuttle being eligible as a redshirt freshman in 2019. The entire point of these projections is to speculate, but let’s try a more grounded approach here: it’s safe to say, that if healthy, Michael Penix very well could have started the remaining four games of last season. Allen and DeBord went to Penix during the Penn State game in hopes of finding a spark. His 9-of-19 for 94 yards weren’t necessarily the prettiest, but it was clear that Penix instantly gave life to IU’s offense — with both his arms and legs before tearing his ACL.
Thus, I’m penciling in Penix as the February starter solely because of that decision. It was apparent that IU’s staff was looking for something different last season to improve a frustrating offense, and well, offense starts with the quarterback. It’s hard to project where Tuttle stands given that he hasn’t even had a practice yet, so that’s why he is slated third. Indiana’s 2019 quarterback room might be the most complicated competition in the nation. Ramsey (66% completion percentage, 2,875 yds, 19 TD’s, 13 INT’s) is the two-time incumbent starter that brings experience, mobility, and comfort to go along with strong accuracy numbers — he should not be written off. He is, though, a limited downfield passer and did not earn the respect of opposing defenses, downfield, in 2019. Part of that could be IU’s past offensive schemes.
Then there’s Penix (21-34, 219 yds, 1 TD), with his home-run left arm and quick legs. He does not shy away from letting the ball loose, although there could be accuracy concerns — we just have not seen him play enough to know. His return from a torn ACL is going as expected, if not ahead of schedule, according to the program. Tuttle throws a wrench in this competition, given his stature as a recruit and quarterback in the PAC-12. From film, he is a gifted passer that can make almost every throw. There are reasons why schools like Alabama offered him, given his talent in the pocket and mobility that is enough to be considered an asset. Look, it’s February. But all three quarterbacks expect themselves to play, and there could be an odd-man out here. It will be an intense spring and summer for new OC Kalen DeBoer, who is also coaching quarterbacks in his first power-conference season.
For clarification, Grant Gremel is slated to be Indiana’s only walk-on at quarterback for 2019. He will be a freshman after completing his career at Noblesville. Johnny Pabst is no longer on the roster and Mike Fiacable has graduated.
Starter: Stevie Scott
Rotation: Sampson James, Ronnie Walker Jr., Cole Gest
Question to Consider: Does Stevie Scott rush for another 1,000-yard season? Or are the Hoosiers led by a committee of tailbacks in 2019?
Overview: This is another complicated depth chart to sort out. As touched on here, Scott returns as the starter after a historically impressive freshman campaign. He shattered the IU freshman record books and proved to be durable and ready for Big Ten play. At any other school, this depth chart is complete after a few sentences. Except Scott will be pushed by many, starting with 4-star and Ohio State de-commit Sampson James. But sophomore Ronnie Walker is also slated for carries after showcasing his speed as a true freshman in 2018 — taking 32 carries for 141 yards. Cole Gest is back for 2019 after a season-ending ACL tear in Week 1 against Florida International.
Scott projects to be Indiana’s lead back in 2019, with James and Walker figuring to steal a decent amount of carries each game. Gest, meanwhile, will be very valuable in the receiving department. He is by far IU’s most proven and most talented receiving tailback, and it wouldn’t be surprising for Gest to be the Hoosiers’ 3rd-down back in 2019. Even behind Gest, there is competition. Incoming freshman Ivory Winters raced for 59 touchdowns and 2,700 yards in high school and redshirt freshman walk-on Kristian Pechac was recruited by power-conference programs as well. Injuries at this position are unfortunately commonplace, and IU’s staff has to be feeling confident in its talent and depth at running back. But can the offensive line prove consistent enough for it to matter?
Starters: Nick Westbrook, Donavan Hale, Whop Philyor (slot)
Rotation: Ty Fryfogle, Reese Taylor (slot), Miles Marshall, Jacolby Hewitt, David Ellis/Da’shaun Brown (slot)
Question to Consider: Under DeBoer’s offense, do the usage rates of Westbrook and Hale increase?
It appears that 6-foot-3 senior Nick Westbrook and 6-foot-4 senior Donavan Hale will return to Indiana in 2019, and their presence alone gives reason for optimism. In his introductory press conference, Kalen DeBoer noted IU’s big-bodied receivers on the outside. Except Westbrook saw his production decrease from 54 receptions and 995 yards (18.4 yards per catch) in 2016, to 42 receptions and 590 yards (14 ypc) in 2018. Both of those seasons for Westbrook led Indiana in receiving. He is IU’s most complete receiver, while Hale is exceptional in the redzone. Both of them will start, with Ty Fryfogle (29 rec, 381 yds in ’18) likely as the third outside option for his junior season. 6-foot-1 redshirt freshman Jacolby Hewitt, 6-foot-4 redshirt freshman Miles Marshall, and 6-foot-4 true freshman Jordan Jakes are pegged as the future for Indiana at receiver, and will compete for snaps in 2019.
As seen in 2018, this Indiana offense operates exceptionally better when speedy 5-foot-11 slot wideout Whop Philyor is healthy and involved. Philyor, a junior in 2019, is such a tough cover for defenses over the middle. His sophomore season was derailed by injury, starting against Michigan State where he caught 13 passes for 148 yards to bring the Hoosiers back into the game. Someone must fill the shoes of the graduated Luke Timian and J-Shun Harris, and given the competition at RB and DB, it will likely be Reese Taylor. If nothing else, it will benefit Taylor to have a concrete position in 2019. The versatile 5-foot-11 option caught 28 passes for 174 yards — and the combination of Philyor and Taylor over-the-middle could be deadly for defenses, especially in the redzone while operating in the slot and backfield.
They won’t be alone. Indiana has two possible options behind them in true freshmen David Ellis and Da’shaun Brown. Ellis scored 15 touchdowns and raced for almost 900 yards as a high school senior in Michigan. Brown could play either defensive back or slot receiver, and was one of Wisconsin’s top 2019 recruits. There is a lot to like at this position, as long as the Hoosiers figure out their quarterback and offensive line.
Starter: Peyton Hendershot
Rotation/Backups: Matt Bjorson, T.J. Ivy, Shaun Bonner, Gary Cooper
Question to Consider: What does Hendershot’s involvement as a receiver look like as a sophomore?
Overview: Hendershot could very well be the underrated gem of IU’s offense in 2019. He checks most boxes for a solid tight end — gifted athleticism, size, strong hands, and mobility — but his blocking will be tested. No matter the quarterback, DeBoer’s offense will greatly benefit with Hendershot as a consistent threat. He made his mark with a 32-yard touchdown at Ohio State in 2018, and is primed for more snaps with Austin Dorris choosing to grad transfer at Bowling Green and Ryan Watercutter’s graduation. Hendershot will almost surely start at tight end, with sophomore Matt Bjorson also receiving significant time after playing a decent amount last season. Hendershot led IU tight ends with 15 receptions, 163 yards, and two touchdowns a year ago. The Hoosiers have made tight end a consistent priority in recruiting classes and have Ivy, Bonner, and Cooper at the position as well.
Starter: Coy Cronk
Backups: Britt Beery, DaVondre Love, Matthew Bedford
Overview: Cronk has started at left tackle ever since he came to Bloomington as a freshman in 2016. He will be the left tackle and leader of Indiana’s offensive line in 2019. If Ramsey or Tuttle start, Cronk will be the primary lineman covering their blind spot. But he’s done that for years, and done it quite well. When healthy last year, only Cronk manned Tom Allen’s left tackle position.
Starter: Harry Crider
Backup: Mackenzie Nworah
Overview: Based on need alone, it would appear that Indiana would add a left guard or right tackle through a graduate transfer. Allen has made that possibility clear, and it’s mostly due to losing Brandon Knight, Wes Martin, and Nick Linder to graduation. The grad transfer market for offensive linemen is tricky, though, and comes usually in the form of a flier. Nevertheless, it can’t hurt the Hoosiers to add here — given open scholarships and at the very least, a need for depth. That being said, I’m going to pencil in junior Harry Crider here. At 6-foot-4, 306 pounds, Crider has played in 14 games during his first two seasons. He transitioned from center to guard last season and has improved physically since arriving in Bloomington.
Nworah, meanwhile, made six starts in 2017 and only played against Maryland last season due to injury. He will be in the mix here, and elsewhere as the Hoosiers try to quickly patch some holes on the line. It is Indiana’s biggest question mark heading into spring practice.
Starter: Hunter Littlejohn
Backups: Harry Crider, Mike Katic
Overview: Littlejohn started all 12 games at center in 2017 as a sophomore before Indiana brought in Miami grad transfer Nick Linder. Littlejohn won the job out of summer camp, starting the first four games until he was replaced by Linder for the remaining eight. Regardless, both Littlejohn and Linder split time last year — with Littlejohn only allowing three sacks in 904 snaps. Indiana could again add a grad transfer at center if it feels an upgrade is necessary, but an addition at left guard or right tackle seems more likely. Littlejohn is expected to start again at center as a senior in 2019.
Starter: Simon Stepaniak
Backup: Mackenzie Nworah
Overview: Stepaniak was a workhorse at right guard in 2018, playing 44 of the 48 offensive series in the final four games to end the year. He has started games ever since his redshirt freshman season in 2016, and will start at right guard in 2019.
Starter: Caleb Jones
Backups: Britt Beery, DaVondre Love, Matthew Bedford
Overview: Right tackle is interesting. There is the massive, 6-foot-8, 360 pound sophomore Caleb Jones, who obviously has the size but is improving upon the agility requirements that come with tackle. He played in 11 games last year and notably improved, at least from my recollection. Then there is the sophomore Carmel product Beery, who converted from defensive end and appeared in four games last season. He is 6-foot-6, 301 pounds … so there is a 60-pound difference between Jones and Beery. DaVondre Love decided to return for his final year of eligibility after all, but has never quite cracked the rotation. Finally, true freshman Matthew Bedford (6-6, 270) is here as an early enrollee. The Hoosiers fended off South Carolina and Mississippi State for him, and as an early enrollee competing in spring practice, Bedford has a fighting chance to play as a true freshman. If so, right tackle would be the spot with Cronk on the left. For whatever it’s worth, this would be the blind spot of Penix. Jones is the penciled starter due to prior playing time, but Indiana could also add a grad transfer at tackle.
There are more options for Indiana’s holes on offensive line, including redshirt freshmen Aidan Rafferty and Nick Marozas. Their positions on the line are unknown due to their redshirt status last season.