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Indiana Football 2018 Preview: Offensive Line

A season ago, for the first time in his 23-year coaching career, Indiana offensive line coach Darren Hiller was without a single senior in his group. Though the Hoosiers returned three starters, the entire unit totaled just 40 career starts, as that inexperience was reflected in the line’s inability to successfully protect against the best defenses in the Big Ten (the numbers dropped to 152 rush yards per game). With growing pains left behind, this year has the opportunity be different. The Hoosiers return four seniors in the offensive trenches.

“I think anytime your offensive line is considered the strength of your unit, that’s a great thing number one,” head coach Tom Allen said last week at Big Ten media days.

The addition of Miami grad transfer Nick Linder might just be the icing on the cake for what could turn out to be the most improved offensive line in the conference this fall. As questions loom with regard to Indiana’s run game headed into 2018, the Hoosiers will need the improvement up front. In a conference where dictating play at the line means so much, here’s a first glance at what Indiana has up front:

Who We’ve Seen
There shouldn’t be a shortage of returning talent up front for Indiana in 2018, and the Hoosiers will certainly lean on its experienced linemen to not only help create the run game, but also finish games off. If Indiana is to compete with the best in the Big Ten East this season, everything will begin (and end) with the protection this offensive line has the ability to provide.

Redshirt junior Wes Martin will first and foremost be expected to lead the group. Having made 31 career starts, including 25 consecutive starts at left guard, he’s arguably the strongest and toughest football player to come through Bloomington in the recent past. Not convinced? Martin benches 525 pounds, has a max of 425 pounds in the hang clean, and squats in the 600’s. Besides being one of the most talented and physical blockers in the Big Ten, Martin will perhaps be an even greater presence off the field and in the locker room. Now in his fifth year of collegiate ball in Bloomington, Martin had the opportunity to play with and learn from former Hoosier linemen Jason Spriggs (Green Bay Packers) and Dan Feeney (Los Angeles Chargers).

“I’ve learned a lot from them. They just played at such a high level that caught my attention from day one,” Martin said last week. “There’s a lot of small things that I was able to watch them do that I can now do myself -- really taking control of certain situations, pushing guys in certain situations, learning how to handle different scenarios and different situations the right way and to be able to propel the team forward.”

As one of the few bright spots on the line in 2017, Martin recorded the most pass blocking snaps among guards nationally (569) without allowing a sack. Though he finished the season as a Big Ten honorable mention, Martin will tell you he still wasn’t satisfied. As one of Allen’s team captains a season ago, Martin represented the Hoosiers last week in Chicago at the Big Ten’s media days, along with Jonathan Crawford, Jacob Robinson, and Luke Timian. Indiana needs a bounce back year from its offensive line. Through setting an example for his group around him, Wes Martin is the Hoosiers’ best chance of achieving just that.

“Coming off of last year, we had a lot of room to improve,” Martin said. “And that really motivated us and inspired us to put the gas pedal down this offseason. You’re going to see a lot of dominant dudes up front.”

Hunter Littlejohn is another Hoosier who started every game on the line at center for Indiana, a season ago. Though his starting status may be challenged by a new addition in Linder, his veteran leadership accompanied by Martin and senior Brandon Knight will undoubtedly be welcomed.

Named IU’s Offensive Newcomer of The Year in 2015, Knight has battled injury during his time at Indiana but should be ready to go as an every-week starter and leader upfront this fall. While appearing in ten games with eight starts at right tackle a season ago, the idea will be for the senior to contribute as often as possible in the hope of adding depth and seasoned talent to the line.

Revisiting the importance of experience this season, perhaps the line’s greatest advantage headed into 2018 is the sheer number of starts in conference games already under its belt. For proof, look no further than Coy Cronk. The junior left tackle has started 25 consecutive games since arriving in Bloomington, including 13 his freshman year -- a true freshman record for an offensive lineman at Indiana. Following the 2016 season, Cronk was named a 247Sports True Freshman All-American, in addition to being named to and’s Big Ten All-Freshman Teams. He's yet another key component of a group that will play with immense poise this fall.

“We’ve got guys who are established, guys who have played together, guys who are comfortable,” Cronk said this past spring. “I think that plays a lot into confidence and how it shows out on the field. It’s been really good for our whole O-line and the entire offense.”

The 6-foot-5, 307-pound lineman is almost certain to start headed into 2018 based on his consistency alone and the awards which have come his way aren’t expected to slow. Cronk will surely be a monster asset in terms of protecting the blindside of whoever is starting at quarterback when September rolls around.

More depth comes in the form of redshirt sophomore Mackenzie Nworah and redshirt junior Simon Stepaniak, who may end up competing for snaps at right guard. Last year, Stepaniak started in all six of the games in which he appeared, and perhaps would have seen action in the other six if it wasn’t for injury. Nworah started six times, appearing in four more, and like so many others on the line, the goal will be health and greater consistency. Most importantly, both are talented, physical, and (now) healthy bodies on the depth chart who will look to hone their skill sets and be productive blockers under the leadership of Martin, Knight, and Cronk.

If the returners on the Hoosiers’ offensive line are going to be as good as they’re expected to be in 2018, Head Strength and Conditioning Coach David Ballou is going to receive a lot of the credit. A former fullback who played in Bloomington in the late 90s, Ballou has worked hard with all position groups from the spring into the summer, working toward creating a more athletic and knowledgeable program at Indiana.

“He’s a great person to work out for, he went to IU, he played football, he’s been through the process that we’re going through right now, and that’s huge,” Martin said. “Having someone like him who’s been through the ringer, who’s grinded it out year after year, we see that and we respect that.”

The remaining holes in the line will most likely be filled at one point or another by the likes of DaVondre Love (R-Jr.), Grayson Stover (R-So.), seasoned veteran Delroy Baker (R-Sr.) and Harry Crider (So.), who backed up Littlejohn at the center position a season ago.

New Kids on The Block
He might be new in Bloomington, but his days in a college uniform are numbered. Graduate transfer Nick Linder, who comes to Indiana via the University of Miami, is one of the primary reasons to be optimistic about this group, as he’ll look to support Wes Martin and Coy Cronk at the top of the chart. Linder was always a part of the process in his time with the Hurricanes, continuously playing meaningful snaps at the center position, starting all 23 games for Miami in 2015 and 2016. During his time in South Florida, Miami ranked 27th nationally in passing offense and fifth nationally in fewest tackles for loss allowed, while sharing third for fewest sacks allowed in the ACC. If nothing less, Linder's presence will provide stability and added depth for a position group often harmed by injuries.

“Right when we got here I tried to bring the guys under my wing a little bit, and just show them the ropes,” Linder said in January. “Obviously it was new for me being in a new location but college football is college football no matter where you’re at.”

The one question still unanswered for the 6’3, 307-pound lineman is health. Linder missed all of last year’s action prior to transferring, in addition to missing the second half of the 2016 season after sustaining a shoulder injury. According to Mike Miller of the Bloomington Herald-Times, Linder underwent surgery on an unspecified injury this past spring, but has since been released and cleared for contact by medical staff -- a full “go” ahead of camp officially breaking this Friday.

“He’ll be there in full contact when we start camp,” Allen told media earlier this week. “He’s another guy that we brought here as a senior from Miami to come in and contribute right away. I fully expect him to do that, whether that’s at center or guard or wherever we need him.”

Even if Linder can’t make it onto the field on September 1st, the Hoosiers can easily throw Hunter Littlejohn or even Harry Crider into a role with confidence. Again -- depth, depth, and even more depth. It’s the name of the game for this revamped crew in 2018.

Beyond Linder, four freshmen who redshirted in 2017 will look to add valuable support and depth. Ryan Smith, walk-on Dominic Altimari, Britt Beery, and most notably Caleb Jones will all compete among one another for their share of reps.

There’s big. Then there’s Caleb Jones big.

At 6-foot-8, weighing 360 pounds, Jones is a force to be reckoned with by his physical stature alone. Locally recruited from Indianapolis (Lawrence North), Jones could get some valuable time on the field following his redshirt season in order to get even bigger. Last season perhaps was even more valuable for Jones to get mentally adjusted to the college game, and being around the guys who will lead this year. Jones played well in Indiana's Spring Game, and the Hoosiers are very high on his potential and size, rightfully so.

“The work that you put in definitely will show up on the field,” Jones said this past spring. “If you’ve been putting in the work in the weight room, if you’ve been putting in the extra reps, it’ll show up in the end.”

The program will also welcome true freshmen Aidan Rafferty (Kensington, MD/Gonzaga College HS) and Nick Marozas (Chicago, IL/Brother Rice).

As far as the offensive line goes, Indiana covers its ground. A balanced mix of talented veterans and promising youth should set up nicely for an aspect of the Indiana program which has struggled to find depth and consistency in the recent past. If all goes to plan, the unit could be a reliable strength for an offense that would certainly benefit.

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