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Running back Stephen Carr beginning to separate himself during fall training camp

The video clip is short, maybe six seconds at the most, but the duration doesn’t make it any less impressive.

It’s from Indiana’s first fall scrimmage last Saturday in Memorial Stadium. The video, which starts mid-play, centers on USC transfer running back Stephen Carr, who was approaching the 10-yard line at full speed. But Carr’s momentum slowed significantly, he lowered his helmet into a defender and his head plunged toward the turf.

Instead of going down, Carr somehow kept his balance, corkscrewing his body and redirecting the momentum in the opposite way that he was hit. He briefly used his arm to catch himself, allowing him to keep his knees from touching the ground as he jolted forward. He finished the sequence by dragging another defender into the endzone for a touchdown.

The play is just one of the reasons that Indiana head coach Tom Allen said earlier this week that Carr has separated himself in what is an intriguing starting running back competition. On Thursday, offensive coordinator Nick Sheridan didn’t indicate that Carr is a lock to start, but his perspective was similar to Allen’s.

“(Carr)’s had a good attitude, a good work ethic,” Sheridan said. “But I think, above anything, from a running back position, when he gets the ball, he makes people miss and breaks tackles.”

Indiana is trying to fill the void of three-year starter Stevie Scott, who accumulated more than 2,500 career rushing yards before turning professional this offseason. While Scott was a physical back who could be trusted to punch it in at the goal line, he lacked breakaway speed and elusiveness. Last season, the Hoosiers were third to last in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game.

There is reason to believe that could change this season. At the beginning of training camp in early August, there figured to be four legitimate options vying for playing time in the backfield: Carr, sophomore Tim Baldwin and juniors Davis Ellis and Sampson James.

But last week, there was a wrinkle thrown into the situation when James announced that he was transferring to Purdue. With the decision, James’ career in Bloomington will largely be defined by unfulfilled potential. He was once a four-star recruit in the 2019 class that Indiana won over from Ohio State, but in two seasons he was stuck behind Scott and didn't ever find consistent playing time.

Regarding the decision, Allen didn’t say much besides: “He made his decision and we wish him well.”

Running back Stephen Carr of the Indiana Hoosiers during fall camp on Aug. 9, 2021 at Memorial Stadium in Bloomington. Photo by Gracie Farrall/Indiana Athletics

That brings us back to Carr, who not only has the most experience out of anybody in the running back room, but quite possibly also the most talent. Before deciding to transfer to IU in May, Carr played four seasons at USC.

As a five-star recruit, Carr impressed early on at USC, where he was an All-Pac 12 honorable mention performer. But his career never ultimately panned out due to injuries. He suffered a sprained ankle his freshman and sophomore years, plus a back surgery. Then a hamstring injury as a junior. As a senior last season, he rushed for just 176 yards.

In the extra year of eligibility granted due to COVID-19, Indiana is hoping Carr can rekindle his former self. If he can stay healthy, the Hoosiers will be getting a complete back, one who is elusive in the open field, has the ability to catch passes and pass protect.

“He understands football,” Allen said earlier this week. “He understands how to run, some guys that knack to them. He did some good things for sure.”

At the beginning of fall camp, though, it was Baldwin’s name that was listed atop the depth chart. As a freshman last season, he was Indiana’s second leading rusher, with the highlight coming in a 106-yard performance against Maryland. Outside of that game, though, he only rushed for a total of 35 yards.

Then there’s Ellis, who is a jack-of-all-trades back. He was a key piece of Indiana’s return game as a freshman. Last season, he rushed 16 times, while catching 11 passes. Ellis, who is currently day-to-day with a lower leg injury, can provide the versatility that Indiana has been lacking from the running back position the past few seasons.

Indiana’s running game, though, will not be limited to who starts. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Carr, Baldwin and Ellis all see time on the field during varying moments of the game. Freshman Charlie Spegal and junior Davion Ervin-Poindexter have also been mentioned this fall.

Much of Indiana’s running game, however, will be reliant on the offensive line, which lost two starters from last season. Sheridan said he was pleased with the unit’s progression, but there still is room for improvement.

If all of the pieces 一 running backs and offensive line included 一 can come together in unison, it would add another dimension to Indiana’s offense. It would also take pressure off quarterback Michael Penix Jr. while also opening up more passing opportunities.

“We’ve got some very good players at that position,” Allen said earlier this summer. “Several of them are untested. That just gives us more opportunities to be able to get guys in the position to make plays.”

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