Monday, June 18, 2007

Big Ten Football Previews – Part IV

6/19 update: Coach Terry Hoeppner has passed away. A tremendous loss for Indiana and college football. Thoughts and prayers to his family as well as the IU family.

Head Coach Terry Hoeppner has died of complications from a brain tumor.
Coach Hoeppner was a beacon of light...

Editor's Note: This is the fourth in a series of my annual summer Big Ten football previews. Check back weekly (approximately) to see who’s next...

Team: Indiana Hoosiers

Tidbits … Indiana’s last bowl berth was the Independence Bowl in 1993. The Hoosiers’ last winning season came in 1994 and that capped seven seasons out of nine with a .500 or better final record. IU is one of only three programs not to win at least a share of the Big Ten title in the last decade.

Past Predictions/Results:
2006 Prediction/actual: 4-8, 1-7 (T-9th) / 5-7, 3-5 (T-6th)
2005 Prediction / actual: 3-8, 1-7 (11th) / 4-7, 1-7 (10th)
2004 Prediction / actual: 3-8, 1-7 (T-10th) / 3-8, 1-7 (T-10th)
2003 Prediction / actual: 3-9, 1-7 (T-10th) / 2-10, 1-7 (T-9th)
2002 Prediction / actual: 3-9, 1-7 (T-10th) / 3-9, 1-7 (T-10th)
2001 Prediction / actual: 4-7, 2-6 (T-10th) / 5-6, 4-4 (T-4th)

Returning Starters: 8 offense, 8 defense, 1 kicker

Key Returnees: QB Kellen Lewis, RB Marcus Thigpen, WR James Hardy, WR James Bailey, OG John Sandberg, OT Charlie Emerson, DT Greg Brown, LB Will Patterson, CB Tracy Porter, PK Austin Starr

Key Losses: WR Jahkeen Gilmore, OL Chris Mangiero, C Justin Frye, DE Kenny Kendal, S Will Meyers, P Tyson Beattie

Looking Back ... 2006 was another step in the right direction for Indiana football. In fact, it marked the third straight season with one more win than the previous campaign and was the first time that the Hoosiers’ were in a legitimate fight for a bowl berth since 2001. IU had five wins with three games remaining on the schedule but fell flat in three attempts to get to magic number six. The funny thing is, they would have been bowling for the first time since 1993 had they taken care of business against 1-AA Southern Illinois or Connecticut – both games they had a chance to win.

It didn’t help that Indiana had the distraction of an in-season emergency surgery for head coach Terry Hoeppner. It also didn’t make matters easy to play all of the big boys (except Penn State). Nonetheless, the five wins was the most for the program since Antwaan Randle El led a fun to watch attack in 2001 and it has the Hoosiers very much on track to get back to a bowl game and winning ways soon. Along the way last year, IU developed a great young quarterback – wide receiver tandem in Kellen Lewis and James Hardy and became generally more consistent and reliable with each game. Will that pay forward to 2007? Time will tell, but this is as good as it’s looked for Indiana heading into a season in well over a decade.

Outlook - Offense ... If you think Kellen Lewis to James Hardy when you think about the Indiana offense, you probably think yards, points, big plays. Well, you’d be partially right. That duo was excellent and will only get better. Trouble is, Indiana didn’t exactly light up the statistics columns last season. Try this on for size: 8th in scoring offense, 11th in rushing offense, 10th in total offense (saved only by the 4th in passing offense). The Hoosiers’ task for 2007 is to get consistency on offense. An upper tier passing game is great, but teams will find a way to slow down the Lewis to Hardy connection. IU needs to get better at running the ball, controlling clock and turning good drives into points on the scoreboard. Do that and the sky is literally the limit...

Heading into 2006, Indiana was in pretty good shape at quarterback. After all, the Hoosiers had fourth-year junior Blake Powers back at the helm with some decent talent budding around him. We knew that Kellen Lewis would push him, but really, who knew that Lewis would be so good so soon that Powers would not even be a quarterback heading into his final campaign? Anyone who missed his ascension to the top missed out on the beginning of what should be a special run in Bloomington. Lewis is gifted with tremendous athleticism, a great arm and a knack for knowing where to go and where to be. He’ll only get better with polish and that bodes well for the future of Indiana football – after all, he is only a sophomore. As with many teams going through a building phase, the key will be to keep Lewis healthy. There is some talent on the roster, but with Powers moving to tight end, the talent is very inexperienced. Ben Chappell, a redshirt freshman, will likely serve as the backup, and he also has some star potential in his game. Junior Dustin Haas rounds out the playing group at quarterback.

Perhaps the biggest weakness for the Indiana offense is the running attack. It ranked dead last in the conference a season ago, squeezing out a measly 113.8 yards per game. Lewis was the leading rusher, which is okay but not ideal if you want him to keep optimal health. That means returning starter Marcus Thigpen (junior) needs to step it up a notch, or two or three. For that matter, so do the other four backs who saw time a year ago. If Indiana can push the combined totals of Thigpen and sophomore Demetrius McCray from just over 700 yards and four scores to 1,000 yards plus and closer to ten touchdowns, it will mark a vast improvement. The real conundrum is that the pair is on the small side – both less than 6-feet tall and under 190 pounds. The good news is that fifth year senior fullback Josiah Sears has plenty of experience, bulk and ability to offer a change of pace. Mark my words, if Indiana is to continue on the road to improvement, the running game needs to move from worst to at least middle of the pack. If not, it will be a lot of the same old same old at Memorial Stadium and the likelihood of Kellen Lewis getting dinged up for having to carry too much of the load will increase exponentially.

If the backfield is the big question mark heading into 2007, the most comfort comes from knowing that Indiana has arguably the next great receiver in college football in James Hardy. Heck, he’s already great. It’s just time for the rest of the country to see it. With a little more success, that will come to fruition. Hardy is a 6-7 freak of nature with the hands of Jerry Rice to go along with the speed and size to match now Detroit Lion Calvin Johnson. He snagged 51 catches in ten games last season, abusing the Michigan State and Iowa secondary’s as if they were manned by middle-schoolers. What might he do with a now seasoned signal caller and perhaps a halfway decent ground game? Unthinkable…

Even better than having one phenom running routes and catching passes? Indiana has a bevy of talented, game-breaking wide outs. The only reason James Hardy might not snag upwards of 75 passes this fall is because James Bailey is bound to match at least the 40 he had last season, if not improve on that tally. Bailey will also almost certainly find the end zone, something he failed to do a season ago. At 6-2, the junior also has great size to go with speed and hands. He gives Indiana’s receiving corps a defensive coordinators nightmare. Not to be forgotten is sophomore Nick Polk. He was the third leading receiver on the team last year and will get catches galore as teams try to slow down the “James gang.” Ray Fisher and Andrew Means also combined for 44 catches a season ago and will get some quality field time. Like I said, this corps is a D.C.’s horror show. There is size, speed, athleticism … you name it. Look for the Indiana passing game to be second to none when the season is done.

Tight end is probably the area with the least total experience, although the penciled in starter is former quarterback Blake Powers. He has good size and should certainly know the routes and schemes but it will be key for him to become a reliable safety valve to keep the offense balanced. Nick Sexton returns and brings a few past starts with him and there are also some sophomores in the mix, which means depth isn’t a real concern. In Indiana’s offense, the tight end doesn’t need to do much, but if the cream and crimson are to take the next step, each and every position needs to be at the top of its game.

Indiana must replace three seniors – one a mainstay among the starters – up front this fall. The versatile Justin Frye leaves a void in the starting lineup and the departures of Scott Anderson and Chris Mangiero will also be felt as well. The good news is that the Hoosiers have stockpiled plenty of depth in the trenches. There is a nice mix of veteran experience coming back to go with a quintet of redshirt freshmen. Seniors John Sandberg and Charlie Emerson will anchor the right side of the line, with sophomores Rodger Saffold and Pete Saxon handling the left side in addition to junior Kyle Thomas who returns from injury. The vacated center position will more than likely be filled by senior Ben Wyss. The five second year freshmen that will vie for time are James Brewer, Cody Faulkner, Alex Perry, Jarrod Smith and Mike Stark. Injuries seem to have plagued the Indiana offensive line in each of the past few seasons. They good news is the depth. The not so good news is that while there is talent and skill on the depth chart, it is green – very green. The ideal situation will be for the Hoosiers to stay relatively healthy up front, ride the experience of the returning starters and veterans and start to develop the depth that the youngsters provide. If it all holds together, much like Illinois’ situation – look out. Indiana might be one of the more explosive teams in the Big Ten.

Indiana has ample talent on offense. Kellen Lewis should leave Indiana in a few years as the best to ever take snaps for the boys in crimson. James Hardy has Calvin Johnson like size and skills. If the running backs can give more consistent performances, the offensive line holds up well and some of the role players step up – look out. We could see the most improvement from one season to another that we’ve seen in quite some time…

Outlook - Defense ... Let’s cut to the chase. Indiana’s 2006 defense was nothing short of abysmal. Sure, there were some individual playmakers and even a few games where it all came together, but let me throw a few stats at you – because as we all know, the stats don’t lie! 35 points surrendered to Southern Illinois. 159 total points given up in three of the Big Ten losses. Ouch. 63 to Minnesota alone. Last in scoring defense (32.8 ppg). Eighth in pass defense, tenth in run defense, ninth in total defense and eighth in turnover margin. Had enough? I’m sure the returning players have had enough, but we’ll see if that changes anything in 2007.

I hate to beat the same old drum, but I truly believe that a defense will only be as good as its front four. Indiana returns three starters but loses a decent playmaker in Kenny Kendal. Defensive end Jammie Kirlew had a strong debut as a freshman last year and should only be better and more reliable with a year of experience behind him. Greg Brown is a junior tackle that is coming off an outstanding ’06 campaign. Nose guard Joe Kremer brings senior leadership to the trenches and has the size to help bottle up the run, but the agility to get after a bit as well. The fourth starting slot will be filled by either senior Brian Faires or sophomore Keith Burrus with Fabiene Boone also figuring into the mix. The depth is provided by a mix of fairly inexperienced players. Sophomores Emile Bass and Greg Middleton and redshirt freshman Deonte Mack make up the depth chart of what looks on paper to be the biggest weakness for the defense. Given my lead in, Indiana might have to count on winning with basketball-like scores in 2007…

The news that helps offset the predicted struggled up front on defense is that the Hoosiers’ return a wealth of talent from last year’s linebacker corps. Fifth year senior Adam McClurg is a steady force in the middle while junior Geno Johnson roams the strong side. Toss in sophomore Will Patterson and Indiana has a nice starting lineup in the middle of the defense. In total, the top five returnees here tallied 175 tackles a season ago. With a potentially weak front four, it will be imperative that the linebackers step up and make plays to keep the pressure off of the secondary. Of the trio, expect the most from Patterson who really did a bang up job as a true freshman last fall. Outside of the top three, there is some drop off. Mandela Roberts and Matt Mayberry are a pair of sophomores who saw some time last season and will need to be ready to step in and make a difference this year if anyone in the starting group gets hurt. Really it all comes down to how much of a steadying influence this seasoned group can bring to the defense as a whole. The line is a bit of a question mark so this unit needs to step up if Indiana wants to improve on the ghastly numbers from a season ago.

The secondary takes a hit with the departures of last year’s two leading tacklers – Will Myers and Troy Grosfield – but returns one very good corner in second team All Big Ten performer Tracy Porter and a pair of corners who saw some productive time in ’06 as well in Chris Phillips and Leslie Majors. But back to the safety positions. There are some large shoes to fill. Given the fact that Indiana didn’t exactly get after the quarterback that much last year and lost a decent pass rusher in Kenny Kendal, that means undue pressure on the defensive backfield. Whomever steps up at safety better be ready. At this point, that looks to be J.T. Owens and Austin Thomas. The pair have a little of experience but are young and must step up fast to avoid a 2006 like season for the defense. Joe Kleinsmith is versatile enough to play corner or safety and will be a part of the main playing group as well. Others of note include Jerry Williams and Rayshun Calhoun.

The defense was awful in 2006 and the top two playmakers are gone. That means the linebackers are going to really have to step it up a notch to catch what the line misses and to save the butts of a young and rather untested secondary (as a whole). If the Hoosiers can at least manage an average pass rush, limit the big plays and keep the safeties off of islands, the unit could be serviceable. If not, look for more 40, 50 or 60 point games this fall and another year of home for the holidays…

Outlook - Special Teams ... Indiana must replace its punter but returns Austin Starr, who was a steady 12 for 15 last season. Going into 2006, all-world kick returner Lance Bennett was the man to watch. He was left off the team though and Tracy Porter made us all forget the freakishly good returns that Bennett provided. Porter brings speed to the punt return game and was in fact the leading punt return man a season ago. Tailback Marcus Thigpen was even more electrifying with the kickoffs, taking three to the house. Special teams can be a huge weapon for the Hoosiers this fall, but only if Michael Hines or someone else is able to step in and keep things honest in terms of the field position game.

9/8 – at Western Michigan
9/15 – AKRON
9/29 – at Iowa
10/13 – at Michigan State
10/20 – PENN STATE
10/27 – at Wisconsin
11/10 – at Northwestern
11/17 – PURDUE

Key Games: 9/8 – at Western Michigan, 9/22 – Illinois, 10/13 – at Michigan State, 10/27 – at Wisconsin, 11/17 Purdue

Prediction ... Indiana is due to go bowling. The offense is some role players that step up from being fantastic. The defense needs help but the special teams provide a dangerous weapon. Get used to Lewis to Hardy or Lewis to Bailey as those tandems will rack up some points. The trip to Kalamazoo is a big early season battle. WMU is good and has bitten Big Ten teams before. Indiana has by far and away the easiest total slate in the Big Ten, and plays no BCS conference foes. In fact, if Indiana isn't at least 5-1 to start the season, something may be terribly amiss. Michigan and Ohio State rotate off the slate as well. This team could easily go .500 in conference and should get to a bowl for the first time since the Indiana freshmen were 4 and 5 years old. Then again, with the recent revelation that Coach Hoeppner is undergoing chemo and radiation therapy and is not being counted on to coach this season – maybe ever again – the distractions could be too much. I’ll stick with the former and the hope…

OOC: 3-1 (loss to Western Michigan)
B10: 3-5 (wins over Illinois, Minnesota and Purdue)
Overall: 6-6, T-7th in the conference, Motor City Bowl berth

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