On the field, fifth-year offensive lineman Simon Stepaniak wants to be a bully, imposing his will and doing it with an edge. At 6-foot-4, 321 pounds his frame is intimidating. A year ago on the field in Ann Arbor Stepaniak was at the center of controversial hit on Chase Winovich, hitting him slightly late a play after Winovich stepped on his leg.
Off of it he watches Rom-Coms.
Take the helmet off, and he isn’t the same guy.
As he heads into his senior day, Stepaniak is one of a group of fifth-year players who have been witness to change few have seen. They’ll have played in three bowl games by season’s end, gone through a coaching change and seen the highs and lows of a program so often experiencing the latter.
“A special group of guys that are really special to me because of what they have, the change that they have created here,” IU head coach Tom Allen said. “So many guys. I was looking through the list here before I came up here. And just catalysts for change in our leadership, catalysts for change in the way our kids have prepared in the off-season.”
Stepaniak is one of 16 seniors being honored Saturday as part of IU’s Senior Day celebration ahead of facing No. 12 Michigan. He’s part of nine fifth year players, including his roommate Hunter Littlejohn.
“I haven’t really thought about it that much,” Stepaniak said of his senior day. “I know this day was bound to come eventually, and it’s here.”
Stepaniak and Littlejohn have been roommates since they came to Bloomington. The duo have also lived with former IU offensive lineman like Wes Martin and Brandon Knight. That’s allowed them to feel more comfortable together on the field, and why the offensive line has been so productive. They watch movies together, including Stepaniak’s rom coms, and eat together, six times a day.
“If you live together and your bonding every single day, that really helps with playing next to each other,” Stepaniak said. “You know every guy’s move.”
Allen didn’t recruit any of the fifth years. He didn’t sit in the living room with their parents. He’s had to build a relationship from scratch.
And he’s done that. The upperclassman like Stepaniak chose to stay. They bought into what Allen sold them, just as the younger players who Allen recruited have too.
“It wasn’t too tough,” Stepaniak said of the transition. “Good coaches left and great coaches entered.”
“We were here long enough to embrace his motto and his mindset of what he wants this program to do. I think we’re starting to show the upward trend of this program that we’re kicking off, these young guys are embracing it. The future is bright.”
Young pieces of the team like Tiawan Mullen and Michael Penix have given a glimpse at the future of the program as they’ve already helped IU get to its best season in decades. But they’ve still defaulted to the leadership of the upperclassman. Without Stepaniak, Littlejohn and especially Coy Cronk, freshman Matt Bedford might not have slid in as well to the left tackle spot.
Even for the Big Ten’s third youngest team with record setting recruiting classes starting to have an impact, it might not be here without the seniors set to be honored Saturday.
Among the 16 players being honored include Logan Justus, who’s only misses this season have come in practice. They include Reakwon Jones, a leader for the defense overcoming his own person hardship in the wake of a hurricane. They include Nick Westbrook and Donovan Hale, two rocks of the receiving corps. They include Allen Stallings, IU’s leader in sacks. And they include Stepaniak, Littlejohn and Cronk, the anchors of an offensive line that has been among the Big Ten’s best this season, and one that churns out NFL talent year after year.
Stepaniak didn’t think he’d here for five years. After two straight trips to bowl games, he didn’t think IU would follow with two years without one.
He’s been in Bloomington for longer than Allen, but they too are still searching for a breakthrough.