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Indiana Football 2018 Preview: Running Backs

* With eight weeks remaining before Indiana opens its 2018 season at Florida International, The Hoosier Network will be releasing its position previews on a weekly basis every Friday until kickoff. *
 Week 1: Quarterbacks 

In 2017, Indiana finished 106th nationally in rush offense averaging 131 yards per game. There’s no shortage of competition for playing time, as running backs coach Mike Hart has a plethora of returning talent at his disposal. Indiana returns its entire lineup out of the backfield in 2018 and adds some more depth as well ahead of this fall. If things go according to plan, IU will have both Morgan Ellison and Cole Gest, who have been prone to injury, back at full strength and ready to go for Week 1 in Miami. While Ellison figures to carry the majority of work, it appears that this group will be handled by committee once again. At least five running backs will receive playing time, with varying levels of experience and skillset. Gest and Mike Majette add depth not only out of the backfield but in the passing game, and fifth-year Ricky Brookins can provide veteran leadership presence in the locker room.

“Those guys lost weight,” Hart said of his group this spring. “They got faster, bigger, and stronger, so we’re all moving better. You see it out here on the field and how it translates.”

There are now eight weeks until Indiana opens with Florida International. With both Gest and Majette missing time a year ago, a special amount of attention will be directed towards health, which has undoubtedly been an issue. That starts up front with the team’s new-look strength and conditioning program led by David Ballou and Dr. Matt Rhea. The program emphasizes speed, an obvious requisite for most running backs.

The Hoosier running back corps is the deepest it has been in some time. With at least five guys making legitimate cases for in-game reps, and a new wave of talent as well, the job now becomes how to, and who to, utilize when during the 2018 campaign. We'll start with what we know:

Morgan Ellison, So. 6-1, 225 lbs.
Tagged as the presumed favorite to be taking the majority of reps in 2018, Ellison led the team with six rushing touchdowns and 704 total yards (4.9 yards per carry) a year ago. In his freshman campaign, Ellison was twice named Big Ten Freshman of The Week, after stellar performances against Georgia Southern and Rutgers. Perhaps more notable in 2018 is the sheer number of returners on the Indiana offensive line, all of whom will bring much needed protection to the running backs corps and allow Ellison to use his athletic build to his advantage downfield. Easily IU’s largest back, at 6-foot-1, Ellison is a physical runner who, as just a freshman, proved to be productive in filling a void when presumed starter Majette went down with an injury after five games.

“None of us probably would have predicted he would have that good of a season based off when we took him out of high school,” Head Coach Tom Allen said. “I think we’ll play at a much higher level sooner than maybe anybody would expect.”

Not unlike other position groups for Indiana, the biggest question mark for Ellison has been and continues to be his health. The sophomore continues to battle injury, most recently this past spring when he was seen in a boot, sidelined for the annual Cream & Crimson Game held on April 14th (lower left leg). Indiana could use the sophomore out of the backfield to be healthy in order to stay close and remain competitive in a stacked Big Ten East this fall. Hoosier fans should hope that the program’s newly revamped strength and conditioning will help combat some of that injury risk. Indiana expects Ellison to be completely healthy and ready to go by summer’s end. It will be interesting to see how offensive coordinator Mike DeBord chooses to utilize Ellison in his second year, and that may depend in part on who starts under center for the Hoosiers.

“I just feel like we’re a lot more mature,” Ellison said this past spring. “My mind was racing last year, but now I’m slowing down and letting the game come to me. We’re smarter.”

Many consider Ellison’s first year in Bloomington to have been a success, especially given the circumstances of the program, with a first-year head coach, quarterback, and and emerging as a freshman. The Pickerington, Ohio native will now look to build off that first year when September finally rolls around.

Cole Gest, R-So. 5-8, 194 lbs.
2017 was a year of redemption for Gest, who missed all but 10 rushing opportunities his freshman year, suffering a season-ending injury and receiving a redshirt. He bounced back nicely as the primary backup to Morgan Ellison, rushing for 428 total yards and a touchdown a year ago. That touchdown put the nail in the coffin in Indiana’s 41-0 stomping of Rutgers on November 18th, while Gest rushed a career-high 23 times (104 yards) against the Scarlet Knights.

“I’ve been doing a lot more focusing on myself and just not getting distracted by anything else that in the past might have gotten in my head,” Gest said in March. “I think that’s when you can really make huge strides which I have in the offseason.”

What fans may want to pay the most attention to though would be Gest’s ten catches for 83 yards and a touchdown from 2017. While his smaller physical stature may prevent him from filling the role of a everyday guy who can block and run with the ball, Gest can provide added depth in the slot or even receiving out of the backfield, adding yet another dimension to the passing game. A sturdy back with reliable hands, Gest has already shown his ability to check down in the short game, turn, and run for more (last season, his long was 23 yards). Having Gest as a secondary back who can catch also allows Ellison to stay on the field as more of a pure rusher, while both get reps at the line. If Mike DeBord chooses to utilize Gest in this way, the possibilities are endless, especially if dual-threat transfer Brandon Dawkins starts the season under center for the Hoosiers. Recently named as the program’s most improved offensive player this spring, Gest continues to work into his second full season and may just serve a critical role on IU’s 2018 roster.

“I think that I’m going to be a huge asset to this team and honestly I think Hoosier fans are going to see a completely different player this year,” Gest said. “I feel like my potential is finally getting maxed out the way I know that it can be.”

Mike Majette, Sr. 5-11, 217 lbs.
The would-be starter a year ago had his season ended prematurely after just five games (three starts) with injury -- his second in two seasons. Much in the way Morgan Ellison surprised coaches and fans in Majette’s absence in 2017, Majette can surprise people in a few different ways in his final season with the program, by coming back and being a productive runner, or even as a slot receiver. Majette has been a role player his entire career, going back to his high school days in northern Virginia where he played as a defensive back, quarterback, and wide receiver on different occasions. Majette took more reps at the slot receiver position this past spring and with the amount of competition already evident at this point in the summer for the position in the backfield, it wouldn’t be shocking to see Majette transition to fill a more receiving-heavy role on this roster.

“Everybody’s greedy, and not only are we competing out here, we’re competing in the weight room,” Majette said. “All you gotta do is come out here one day and you can tell the difference.”

In his prior seasons at Indiana, Majette has proven to be a capable athlete who can run as well as he can catch the football, but a transition to the slot just may allow him to maximize his versatility and usefulness, while still running the ball if he’s called upon, provided that Morgan Ellison begins the year as the primary ball rusher out of the backfield. Before his season ended last fall, in five games Majette had 12 receptions good for 90 total yards, while averaging 7.5 yards per reception. Much like Gest’s potential role here in 2018, using Majette in the slot allows a guy like Ellison, or even a secondary rusher, the opportunity to stay on the field and could present some interesting lineups and looks at the line of scrimmage this fall.

Ricky Brookins, R-Sr. 5-8, 191 lbs.
The oldest guy in the room this fall will also look to contribute when called upon. Having redshirted before even seeing the field in a Hoosier uniform, Brookins is coming into his fourth straight year of playing time, looking to go out in a big way. While he doesn’t figure to be the primary back for DeBord's offense, Brookins has participated in every game of his past two seasons, and provides some much-needed depth in the backfield and relief for the primary ball carriers when his opportunities come. In 2017, as a junior, Brookins rushed 11 times for 88 yards with a touchdown while catching 19 passes for 124 more yards, setting career highs in rushing yardage, long rush, catches, and receiving yardage in Indiana’s season-ending loss at Purdue.

“I showed that I can be patient and get better run reads than I used to,” Brookins said of his spring performance. “Overall, I think the coaches know what I can do and the team does, too.”

Having graduated this May, Brookins final year in cream and crimson allows him to focus entirely on his game. More than anything else, Brookins brings the intangibles to the running back corps and really the team and program at large. Already this summer, Brookins helped raise nearly $22,000 for longtime IU equipment manager Matt Stauder, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. By doing so, the veteran is already setting an example, and an expectation, for the new wave of talent at Indiana this season.

“To be honest I’m just filling the role that they need,” Brookins said in late June. “I don’t think anything necessarily needs to change. Obviously I want the ball more and to play more but I’m doing whatever this team needs to win.”

Ronnie Walker Jr., Fr. 5-11, 201 lbs.
Already participating in practice, Walker slides in as the fifth guy who will be looking for reps with the rest of the bunch when the season comes. A two time all-state and all-region selection out of Hopewell High School in Virginia, Walker led the way en route to a state title in 2017, rushing for 1,344 yards on 216 carries with 19 touchdowns, averaging an astounding 89.6 yards per game. Walker, like Brookins, provides much appreciated balance, depth, and stability, but must prove himself at the college level.

“As soon as I came in, they all loved on me,” Walker said. “As soon as we got in the weight room we started working hard, they all motivated me and helped me compete with one another. It’s a great atmosphere.”

Receiving offers from the likes of Michigan State, North Carolina, and Purdue, Walker was as the No. 21 running back nationally (247Sports) and is widely considered to be a massive get for Tom Allen’s first complete recruiting class. Walker wasted no time, committing to Indiana last August, and enrolled this past spring, showing his motivation and willingness to get involved as soon as he possibly could. In just a semester’s time, Walker has quickly taken his place as the young guy in the group who’s ready to work. The impact of the Hoosiers’ strength and conditioning team can’t be understated; since being on campus Walker has put on 16 pounds of muscle, going from 184 to a little over 200 pounds. As muscular and physical as he is quick to evade defenders, Walker is just starting to develop at the college level and has the ability to make a lasting impact on Indiana’s offensive system. Don’t expect Walker to catch a ton of balls if he plays this fall, but it’s not to say the nimble freshman isn’t an excellent fit for the Hoosiers, who have needed a playmaker at the running back position since the days of Jordan Howard and Devine Redding.

“It means a lot to me to come in early, take this advantage, and to showcase my skills, letting coaches know that I am here for that spot and I am here to make big plays,” Walker said.

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