As Michael Penix Jr. gears up for a season fresh off ACL surgery, protection from the offensive line is possibly the most crucial storyline for the 2021 Hoosiers.
A year ago, Indiana led the Big Ten with the fewest sacks allowed per game at 1.25. But the Hoosiers also ranked 12th in the Big Ten in 2020 with 108 rushing yards per game.
With these up-and-down results, finding consistency has been a major focus for run game coordinator and offensive line coach Darren Hiller during fall camp.
Experience on the edge
With the 6-foot-8, 350-pound Caleb Jones at left tackle flanked by the 6-foot-6, 310-pound Matthew Bedford on the right side, Indiana has two of the most imposing and experienced figures in the Big Ten.
Entering his redshirt-senior season, Jones brings three seasons of prior starting experience to the Indiana line. Bedford has started since his freshman season in 2019 and said communication throughout fall camp has resulted in visible strides from the offensive line.
A year ago, position groups were organized into smaller cohorts to avoid COVID-19 exposure, but the Hoosiers are now able to gather as a full offensive unit during team meetings. This has allowed Bedford and his teammates to communicate and correct mistakes in a more efficient manner.
“We can form a better bond because we are all allowed to be together in one area,” Bedford said. “Being able to have a face-to-face interaction has been great for us.”
Stanford transfer guard Dylan Powell returns to Indiana for his sixth collegiate season and second as a Hoosier. Fellow guard Mike Katic enters his redshirt sophomore year with six games under his belt and will be positioned next to center Zach Carpenter who transferred this offseason from Michigan.
“This offseason was all about getting my weight under control,” Jones said. “Working as hard as I can so I can maximize the talents that I have this final season.”
When Jones missed two games in 2020 due to injury, Luke Haggard stepped in to make four starts and appeared in six games at left tackle. While Haggard is listed behind behind Jones in the depth chart, his experience adds much needed depth in the physical Big Ten.
A pair of home-grown redshirt freshman in Randy Holtz and Cameron Knight help round out the offensive line depth. Holtz was a 2019 Mr. Football finalist, and Knight was a 2019 Indiana Football Coaches Association All-State selection at Noblesville High School.
Accepting the challenge
As Hiller prepares for the 2021 season, a more aggressive mentality has been implemented in Indiana’s approach to the run game.
Hiller recognized moments in the 2020 season where Indiana closed out games by generating first downs against heavy boxes, but said the consistency wasn’t there on a week-to-week basis.
But in 2021, Hiller and the Hoosiers aren’t going to let the defense dictate their offensive schemes. When the opposing defense brings extra bodies toward the line, the offensive line has been focusing on recognizing the most important players to block and challenging the running backs to make defenders miss or run through them, Hiller said.
Hiller emphasized that just because the defense has stacked the box, that doesn’t mean Indiana is forced to throw the ball.
“We also have to be able to say, ‘You know what, we don’t care how many dudes are in there,’” Hiller said.
When Indiana hired Deland McCullough as an associate head coach and running backs coach this spring, Tom Allen said the Hoosiers will benefit from McCullough’s “NFL eyes.” Coming off three seasons as the Kansas City Chiefs’ running backs coach, McCullough brings a new perspective than can help Indiana’s run game become more versatile.
Whether it be zone, gap or man schemes, Hiller said Indiana’s coaching staff all come from different backgrounds that can benefit each situation. Having the opportunity to look at things through different lenses will aid in adjusting to what the defense throws at them.
“You can go out there and get a playbook this big and have a lot of really fancy plays in it,” Hiller said. “But if the kids can’t do it, it doesn’t matter.”
Jones said the run game has been the focus for most of fall camp, and the line is working to open gaps for the running backs. Tim Baldwin Jr. was listed at the top of Indiana’s first depth chart at running back, and with the late transfer of Sampson James, USC transfer Stephen Carr will also compete for carries.
“I truly believe we can go as far as we want to go as a unit,” Jones said. “As far as we are willing to work and prepare to go is how far we will go.”