Before he could watch Ty Fryfogle play a snap on the gridiron, Matt Caldwell knew he had a special player on his roster.
Caldwell was named head coach of the George County High School football team during the spring of Fryfogle’s junior year, and decided to attend a basketball game to see one of his future players. Fryfogle drove under the basket and finished with a two-handed reverse dunk.
At this moment, Caldwell saw the potential of a player who would make history on the football field the following fall.
“It looked like he jumped about four feet off the floor,” Caldwell said. “…You could just tell that his athleticism and the way he carried himself that he had the potential to be a really special player.”
Once Caldwell was able to see Fryfogle in shoulder pads, he was even more impressed. Caldwell only coached Fryfogle during his senior year, but saw this potential realized early in the season.
During one of the team’s first games of the season, Fryfogle scored a touchdown on a post route that he made look easy. Caldwell said he knew Fryfogle was talented, but didn’t realize he had the speed to take the top off a defense like that.
“He out ran everybody and I thought, ‘Wow, not only is he big, he can jump, he can catch, but he can run,’” Caldwell said. “He ran past the safety and just ran by everybody.”
Flash forward nearly five years and that potential has turned into one of the best wide receivers in college football. On Dec. 28, Fryfogle was named to the All-American third-team roster along with teammate Micah McFadden.
“It’s a really big honor,” Fryfogle said. “I’m really thankful to receive this honor, it’s a blessing. I just want to finish off the season the right way with this football team and get the win.”
Earlier this year, Fryfogle was named Big Ten Receiver of the Year, and also earned first-team All-Conference honors from the league’s media and second-team recognition from the coaches. Fryfogle first sparked attention this year against Michigan where he caught seven passes for 142 yards and a touchdown.
Fryfogle followed this up with an other-worldly streak, combining for 18 receptions 418 yards and five touchdowns against Michigan State and Ohio State. With these breakout performances, Fryfogle became the first receiver in Big Ten history to total over 200 yards in two consecutive games.
“I wouldn’t say I’m shocked,” Fryfogle said. “I feel like over these past four years I’ve worked hard to get where I’m at getting better each year. I feel like I’ve elevated my game, but I still have a long way to go.”
Caldwell said he has seen Fryfogle develop in a variety of ways since his time at George County. Fryfogle now runs very precise routes, has become a physical runner after the catch and has gotten bigger. Caldwell said Fryfogle was between 180 and 190 pounds in high school, but is now listed at 214 pounds.
Putting all of these traits together has gotten Fryfogle to the point where he is today, according to Caldwell, but his improved understanding of the game mentally is a big reason why. Throughout high school, Caldwell’s team didn’t overthink it when running plays for Fryfogle.
“We would tell Ty to run down there about 25 yards and just kind of box out and rebound, just throw it up and let him go get it,” Caldwell said. “He made a lot of plays doing that.”
This simplistic approach has led to a nickname for Fryfogle that is common in the locker room and amongst the coaching staff. Indiana wide receivers coach Grant Heard said Fryfogle’s nickname is “jump ball.”
Fryfogle and Heard were talking one day during practice when Fryfogle suggested a play. He told Heard, “Coach, I want to run a jump ball.”
“What’s a jump ball?” Heard said.
“Man, just throw it up and I’ll go get it,” Fryfogle said.
Fryfogle didn’t know the play was called a fade route.
“[Fryfogle being from] a small town in Mississippi, I knew what he was talking about and I love him to death,” Heard said.
Fryfogle learned the official name of the play that day, and the nickname stuck.
“I didn’t know that’s the college term, ‘fade,’” Fryfogle said. “We didn’t really know that ’til we got to college, so it’s real funny.”
— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) November 21, 2020
This relationship between Fryfogle and Heard is also a main reason Fryfogle won’t be standing on the opposite sideline at the Outback Bowl. In high school, Fryfogle received offers from Indiana, Ole Miss and Idaho. Fryfogle’s father Trey Fryfogle played football at Ole Miss and was teammates with Heard.
Before coming to Indiana in 2017, Heard was the wide receivers coach at Ole Miss from 2012 to 2016. Heard said he would have taken Fryfogle at Ole Miss, but their relationship allowed Fryfogle to follow Heard to Indiana.
“[Going to Ole Miss] was a really good chance because that was one of the top teams I was going to go to,” Fryfogle said. “It’s a really good possibility, but I like where I’m at now.”
For Heard, knowing where Fryfogle came from and his work ethic were big reasons he wanted Fryfogle, no matter what school he was coaching at. But Heard saw Fryfogle’s standout ability to catch jump balls in high school, as well.
“If you threw him a 50/50 ball, he had a great knack of going and attacking the ball and making those plays,” Heard said. “…As a quarterback you have always got to feel good about, if you throw it close to the guy there’s always a good chance he’ll come down and make a play for you.”
But in Caldwell’s mind, sometimes these kind of plays are more unfair that 50/50. Caldwell said Fryfogle’s size is an obvious reason why he’s successful in these scenarios, but his body positioning and hands make it a positive play call at any time in the game.
“He would say, ‘Coach, throw me a jump ball,’” Caldwell said. “And, heck, we were never shy about doing that…We would dial that up whenever because we knew whenever you give Ty Fryfogle a chance at a 50/50 ball, it’s not a 50/50 ball. It’s about a 90/10 ball when you give him a shot at it.”
So who should I do a package on next?
But ICYMI on Fryfogle’s journey at IU- pic.twitter.com/UZxEo0eBWa
— Griffin Epstein (@epstein_griffin) November 21, 2020
During Fryfogle’s senior year, he caught 89 passes for 1,432 yards and 14 touchdowns. He was a first-team All-State honoree and was named to the 2016 Mississippi-Alabama All-Star Game.
Fryfogle is the third player in George County history to be named an All-American at the collegiate level.
Defensive lineman John Nix was a seventh-round pick by the Dallas Cowboys in 2001, and wide receiver Eric Moulds was taken by the Buffalo Bills with the 24th overall pick in the 1996 NFL Draft. Nix attended Southern Miss University and Moulds went to Mississippi State, but Fryfogle did not receive similar in-state interest to his fellow All-Americans from George County.
“I found out this morning [Fryfogle] was third-team All-American and I screamed throughout the house,” Caldwell said earlier this month. “I was fired up, man.”
Caldwell said when Fryfogle was being recruited in high school, many of the in-state schools didn’t seem to pay attention to him. Ole Miss recruited Fryfogle, but once Heard left for Indiana, Caldwell said that interest tapered off. The biggest reason Caldwell thought schools didn’t want Fryfogle was because they thought he was too slow.
“Well, they can say that now because he’s All-Big Ten and All-American and he’s also Big Ten Receiver of the Year so those guys are probably looking back now going ‘We should have put more into this kid,’” Caldwell said.
While Fryfogle has never been afraid to call for the ball, he likes to let his game do the talking. Fryfogle is usually soft-spoken during interviews, and finishes most answers talking about how he needs to improve or how he just cares about winning. Caldwell said in high school he had to pull words out of him.
“He doesn’t get into that smack talk, ‘Me, me, me,’ stuff. Ty Fryfogle wants to win,” Caldwell said. “…He was never, never, ‘Me, me, me,’ he was never that way. He could have been because he is really blessed with some God-given ability that is very rare.”
Because of his breakout season, Fryfogle’s NFL Draft stock has greatly improved, meaning the Outback Bowl could be his last game as a Hoosier. Fryfogle is currently a senior, but could elect to return to Indiana due to the NCAA granting every player an extra year of eligibility so they wouldn’t lose eligibility if they opted out due COVID-19 concerns.
Caldwell said he hasn’t talked to Fryfogle about this decision, but that does not change his thoughts on Fryfogle’s potential.
“I think he’s a surefire NFL player, I do,” Caldwell said. “All he’s going to do is work harder to get better and I think he’ll go as far as he wants to go.”
As he did in high school, Fryfogle said he’s not focusing on his individual future as much as he’s focused on what’s next for the Hoosiers.
After having its past two games canceled due to COVID-19, the Indiana football team shifts its focus to the Outback Bowl versus Ole Miss. Many thought Indiana had a chance at the Fiesta Bowl or Citrus Bowl, but head coach Tom Allen said he is grateful for the chance to play one more game with this team.
Wait for it. Wait for it.
— Indiana On BTN (@IndianaOnBTN) November 15, 2020
Aside from Ole Miss being Fryfogle’s father’s alma mater, there are a few other connections on the other side of the ball for Indiana’s standout receiver. Defensive back Jakwaize Walker is Fryfogle’s cousin, and the two have been talking a lot leading up to the game. Fryfogle said he is also excited to see wide receiver Dontario Drummond and tight end Chase Rogers, who are both from Mississippi.
Last season, Indiana suffered a 23-22 loss to Tennessee in the Gator Bowl. Allen said he has chosen not to try to forget this game because it provides him and the team motivation. Leading up to the Outback Bowl on Saturday, Allen has shown clips of that game to his players and hopes to take the pain of that loss away with a win over Ole Miss.
“We’ve been reminded of that a lot this past week,” Fryfogle said. “We don’t just want to go to a bowl game, we want to win a bowl game.”