It took one throw for Stevie Scott to know Michael Penix was ready to be the starting quarterback.
Scott was running a wheel route down the sideline and as he looked up, he saw the ball coming, a rare deep ball for the Hoosiers’ bruising starting running back. It was a perfect throw, right into Scott’s hands and it went for a touchdown.
“I wasn’t really expecting him to throw it as far as he did,” Scott said. “I ran underneath it and it was a beautiful pass. I’m thinking as the season starts more plays like this, more explosive plays, him getting other receivers the ball, other playmakers.”
Scott saw Penix as the guy who could get the ball to IU’s assortment of playmakers. He saw Penix as the guy who could give the offense a different, more explosive dynamic.
Tom Allen and Kalen DeBoer saw it too. Allen made his decision last week, Penix would be the starting quarterback.
“I was very excited, it was a hard working process,” Penix said. “Every single day out there competing and Peyton and Jack they gave me a run. I always had to be on my toes and make sure I competed to the highest level. I’m very excited that I was named that.”
DeBoer said that both the consistency and playmaking ability that Penix showed throughout camp pushed him to the starting job. It was a job Penix had nearly won midway through the 2018 season, until it all fell apart in an instant.
Penix had never been through an injury before. But as he sat on the ground out of bounds after sustaining what he would later find out to be a torn ACL, his freshman season had ended. He would have to rehab for the first time.
As he went through that first rehab Penix was limited during spring practice. He only was able to play in a seven-on-seven abbreviated spring game. In June, he felt healthy for the first time and now both he and his head coach are sure he’s back to full strength.
“He actually took a hit, not intentionally, but during one of our scrimmages, he got rolled up on, which I think was probably a positive thing just to know that, ‘Hey, I took a hit,'” Allen said. “And he was probably concerned at first, but was like, ‘Okay, I’m fine, I took a hit and now I’m good to go.’ He’s going to get hit on Saturday. So it’s live bullets now. There’s no more blue jerseys. He’s 100 percent.”
IU defensive coordinator Kane Wommack had to face Penix every day in practice. He saw firsthand how Penix had returned to being at full strength as well as both the consistency and dynamic ability that DeBoer saw on the opposite sideline. Every day he had to think about how his defense would face the sophomore quarterback.
Now he doesn’t have to, and he’s glad.
“I’m truly glad he’s on our side,” Wommack said.
Penix and Ramsey separated themselves from Tuttle in the competition during fall camp. Ramsey will be the top backup and Tuttle the third string.
DeBoer said that he had considered using multiple QB systems in the back of his mind, but ultimately decided against it. Penix will be the team’s quarterback and there isn’t anticipating of multiple quarterbacks seeing time in games barring a need for a change in garbage time.
“He’s our starting quarterback here at Indiana, it’s not a game-to-game decision,” Allen said. “He’s gotta go and lead our team and he knows that we’ve made our decision and he has my full confidence.”
When Penix proved to be at full strength, he proved to his coaches to be the best quarterback in the room.
DeBoer’s new offense will have big plays, and Penix proved to be the guy to make those plays. As Scott said, Penix was able to utilize all his playmakers — wide receivers, tight ends and even the running backs all at different points on the field.
“If you just talk about him at that position with his arm talent and his legs those are two pretty obvious things,” Allen said. “It’s the placement of the football to create the space for an underneath route that creates the separation by ball placement and velocity to be able to get him in position to take it and run with it after he catches it. And that to me are the variables that he brings to the table.”
When Penix was at full strength 10 months ago he was on his way to beating out Ramsey with his performance against Penn State. He only completed nine of 19 passes before tearing his ACL, but in his 118 total yards Penix began to earn the confidence of his coaches.
“I don’t like to speculate on things that didn’t happen, but there’s no question he was playing well against Penn State,” Allen said. “So I guess those things could have played out a certain way. He was definitely getting to the point where we were believing in him.”
The chance to win the job for good slipped away when Penix suffered his injury. But once healthy again, he picked up where he left off and was to be the same guy Allen was beginning to trust as his quarterback.
10 months later Penix sat in the Henke Hall of Champions having been named the starting quarterback. His first snap against Ball State this Saturday will be the first time he sees live game action since Penn State. He came into camp behind the incumbent starter and needing to prove he was the same guy before his injury. He did that. He knew he was going to.
“I never doubted it,” Penix said. “I just knew that I had to work extremely hard. I took that setback as an opportunity to get better. More time to study in the film room, make sure that I’m on my game whenever I get back and that’s what I did.”