As the rain poured down at Memorial Stadium on September 8, 2018, a freshman running back made his mark.
Indiana was looking for someone to emerge as a lead back, the fallout of Morgan Ellison’s dismissal leaving the position in flux.
It was on that rain-soaked night against Virginia where Stevie Scott took command of the running back room, rushing for 204 yards. He finished the year with a freshman record 1,137 yards and 10 touchdowns. He became the 13th Hoosier to have a 1,000 yard rushing season, and his total was the 14th best in school history.
As he enters his sophomore year only one thing is changing for Scott: his number. His role won’t change. Scott enters the 2019 season as the entrenched starter at running back.
This preseason, Scott was named to the watch list for the Maxwell Award, given to the nation’s best college player, as well as the Doak Walker award, given to the nation’s top running back. While Scott may not be the favorite for either award, the success he achieved in his freshman year has earned him national attention.
With a year under his belt, Scott will be expected to improve as a sophomore. Having a new offensive coordinator isn’t likely to impact Scott’s workload as offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer knows how important his sophomore running back is to the offense.
But while Scott may have the largest workload, he might not have to be a workhorse. In fact, he probably won’t be.
IU’s running back room did improve from a year ago, headlined by a prized freshman.
The biggest addition is Sampson James, a freshman from Avon, Indiana. IU was able to flip James away from his previous Ohio State commitment and doing so in the hours after IU’s loss to Ohio State in Columbus.
James is a consensus four-star recruit and Rivals ranks him as a top 10 running back nationally. He is IU’s second highest rated recruit ever according to 247 Sports, and the highest ranked prospect in IU’s program-best 2019 class.
Barring injuries, it’s unlikely James eats much into Scott’s workload. But DeBoer is going to get the ball into James’ hands. James didn’t play much during spring practices, but he was able to take part in spring and summertime work with strength coach David Ballou.
Even without as many reps as others during the spring, James’ ability is unquestioned and will be an asset DeBoer will use as a change of pace from Scott. James’ carries will be an interesting storyline to watch this season as the more highly touted recruit tries to make his mark alongside the established starter.
Cole Gest will also make a return this year from his season-ending ACL injury sustained in the first game of last season. He’s the most experienced of the group as a redshirt junior. Gest opens fall camp listed second, right behind Scott, on IU’s depth chart. A third down role — given Gest’s ability to catch, block, and handle carries — seems to make sense.
— Indiana On BTN (@IndianaOnBTN) October 28, 2017
Many had high hopes for Gest leading into last season, after proving himself as a consistent and reliable second string back in 2017. As for what’s left in the tank, only time will tell, but Gest brings Big Ten experience and a veteran leadership presence for a still very young group.
Sophomore Ronnie Walker flashed his speed in his opportunities a year ago, traits that serve well to be a change-of-pace back from the bigger, more physical Scott. With the return of Gest and the addition of James, it’s a crowded room for Walker to compete for reps. Still, he now has a year of experience and development, just like Scott, as he looks to take the next step in his second year. He made nine appearances in 2018, rushing for 141 yards while finding the end zone twice.
— Indiana On BTN (@IndianaOnBTN) September 15, 2018
The group is rounded out with two additional newcomers, freshman Ivory Winters and redshirt sophomore Ahrod Lloyd, along with redshirt junior Connor Thomas, who did not see action last year. Winters comes from Missouri and has experience at running back and linebacker. He scored 59 touchdowns in his senior season alone and as many as eight in one game. Greeting the media for the first time as a Hoosier, Winters said he “loves hitting people,” if it’s an indication of anything good to come.
At IU’s media day, DeBoer said he wants the running backs to be more involved in the passing game. This small adjustment is just one example of DeBoer’s effort to make Indiana’s offense more dynamic than maybe ever before. 2018 running backs receptions leader Mike Majette is gone, leaving an opening for Scott, Gest and Walker who have all shown an ability to work as a receiving back too.
There won’t be a competition for the starting job as fall camp opens for IU. While Scott is the clear starter, the running backs behind him have their own competition. They’ll be competing for carries.
Scott will be the leader in carries this season, but he won’t get every carry.
Fall camp will have a competition between James, Gest, Walker and possibly even Ivory Winters for carries. It will give DeBoer an opportunity to figure out the best role for each running back as he looks to incorporate the different skill sets into his plan.
DeBoer has talent and depth at the running back position. It’s not clear exactly how he will feed the different mouths, but he has more talent at the position than IU has had in years. It’s a good problem to have.