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‘Taking matters into our own hands’: Without two leaders, a changing offensive line hasn’t missed a beat

Coach Cronk comes into practice each day on a scooter, and on Saturday against Rutgers, he crutched his way out to midfield as a captain for the coin toss.

Or at least that’s how he’s referred to now.

His last time on the field this season, Coy Cronk lay on the ground injured near the midfield logo in the first half against UConn. IU’s offensive line was suddenly without its senior leader.

Three weeks later, the next time Indiana was home, fifth-year center Hunter Littlejohn limped off the field from the north endzone.

And still the offensive line hasn’t missed a beat. The production may have even improved.

Caleb Jones is a key reason why. The redshirt sophomore is hard to miss. He looks down on most defensive ends he’s up against, and not by choice. Jones is 6-foot-8 and 358 pounds. He hadn’t started a game before this season, yet quickly has become a leader. He’s had to.

Simon Stepaniak and Stevie Scott embrace during Indiana’s 38-3 win over UConn on September 21. (Jared Rigdon/HN)

“After the first few games and after Coy went down especially, [it came down to] just kind of sucking it up and taking on the role of being an older guy,” Jones said. “Even if I’m not technically an older guy, in comparison to some of the other guys playing, I am.”

When Cronk was lost, Matthew Bedford, a true freshman, became the answer. All while Jones is learning how to play right tackle, and protecting the blindside of Michael Penix, his bookend is playing college football for the first time.

As Littlejohn left the game Saturday, Charlie O’Connor, a redshirt freshman, took over as the center. Right guard Simon Stepaniak is a fifth-year. Junior Harry Crider is the closest to him in terms of age. Of the five taking the field to start the second half against Rutgers, only Stepaniak had started a game before the 2019 season.

“When he went down, obviously we rallied around him,” Jones said. “We had to make sure he was okay. But once he was off the field it was like, ‘OK, it’s time for us to step up, each and every one of us. It’s time for us all to make sure we’re doing our job.’ We can’t rely on Coy to tell us what to do or to hype us up before the game. We have to take matters into our own hands to get the job done.”

IU won’t be without Littlejohn for long — Tom Allen expects him back for Maryland this weekend, but the running game took off against Rutgers despite the great inexperience on the offensive line.

Jones and the rest of the o-line went into the locker room at halftime with a 21-point lead over Rutgers. It wasn’t good enough for them. They were without Cronk and Littlejohn, but took a commitment to making a stand and getting the running game — which had struggled all year — going once again.

IU finished with 260 rushing yards against Rutgers as Stevie Scott caught fire in the second half. Scott had 164 of those yards in what became a breakout performance after totaling just 281 yards in the first five games of 2019. On Monday, Allen harped on the importance of patience with the process.

“There’s no doubt, you come into the season, you rush for all those yards as a freshman, and kind of come out of nowhere, everybody talks about you the whole offseason,” he said of Scott’s early struggles.

The patience paid off. It came against one of the worst rush defenses in the country, but Scott had his breakout.

Take away a game against Ohio State and one of the best defensive fronts in the nation, and IU’s offensive line has been among the best in the Big Ten in pass protection. The shifting pieces haven’t made for any hinderance.

Penix has been sacked once, total, in 2019.

Penix, offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer and members of the offensive line credit communication for the success. That’s been tested in practice as IU has used a noise machine to simulate the type of environment it had against Michigan State, though that may not be quite what Indiana will have to deal with in College Park, Maryland.

Penix hasn’t seen a drop off with his offensive line amidst the new faces. He said all the offensive lineman spend enough time watching film to be prepared to enter at a moment’s notice, which is exactly what O’Connor and Bedford had to do.

“It was really impressive on Saturday,” DeBoer said. “I was super proud of the way our guys just showed that resolve. It happened with Coy’s situation and now with Hunter. Hopefully we get Hunter back, but if not, I think our guys are gaining confidence that it’s the next-man-up mentality.”

The Hoosiers likely will have Littlejohn back against Maryland. They assuredly won’t have Cronk. Cronk’s new role as a coach sees him help the younger, less experienced players in practice and in the film room. But there’s only so much he can do on the field.

Pro Football Focus put Jones on its Big Ten Team of the Week for his performance against Rutgers:

For a couple quarters on Saturday, he had to become a leader on the field the way Cronk and Littlejohn have been, as he blocked alongside Stepaniak.

Allen and DeBoer have tried other combinations at points, working in DaVondre Love and Aidan Rafferty. They’ve had to take away the redshirt anticipated for Bedford.

And Coach Cronk hasn’t seen the group miss a beat.

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