Breaking news, rankings, predictions and analysis all in one place.

College Football Preview 2021: 19. Indiana Hoosiers

Michael Penix Jr., Indiana

19. Indiana Hoosiers

The 2020 season was no fluke; the Hoosiers have talent, and are coached well enough to be a Big Ten Title threat

2020 Review
Indiana opened up their 2020 campaign with a controversial, last-second win over Penn State and then reeled off four straight victories. They went toe-to-toe with Ohio State for the entire sixty minutes but came up just short of the Buckeyes, 42-35. The Hoosiers still recovered, winning their next two Big Ten games, but quarterback Michael Penix Jr. was lost for the year with an ACL tear. Backup Jack Tuttle came on in relief and found a way to lead them past Wisconsin, but underwhelmed in the Outback Bowl loss to Ole Miss. With a final record of 6-2 overall and 6-1 in the league, Indiana put together one of their best seasons in program history, even in a weird, pandemic-shortened season.

2021 Outlook
Offense: When healthy, Penix has proven to be one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten. He finished the 2020 season with 1,645 yards and 14 touchdowns in just five full games and showed he wasn't afraid of the moment, playing his best football in some of the season's biggest games. The issue for Penix is that he just hasn't been able to stay healthy. Prior to the ACL tear late last year, he was lost for the season in 2019 due to a shoulder injury. There isn't any denying how skilled of a quarterback he is, but he has to stay healthy if Indiana has any legitimate chance at Big Ten East contention. 

Former Utah transfer Jack Tuttle was solid in relief, tossing for 362 yards in about three games. He showed a good understanding of the offense and didn't make many mistakes, but he's not the type of dynamic playmaker Penix is. Tuttle is a pure pocket passer through and through, while Penix and his ability to create with his legs adds a whole different dimension to this offense.

No matter what happens with Penix and the QB situation, Indiana has to get better production from the ground game. Stevie Scott III put up good numbers during his time in Bloomington, but the Hoosiers have been near the bottom of the conference in rush offense the last few years. Scott is now gone, leaving feature back duties to either sophomores Samspson James or James Baldwin Jr., or newcomer Stephen Carr. Baldwin's the more explosive of the two, but James should still see plenty of opportunities. Carr is a really interesting name to watch, as he was a huge recruit for USC in the day and had some moments with the Trojans, but never lived up to his billing coming out of high school. He's probably more naturally talented than either James or Baldwin, but can he adjust to the new offense?

If you're looking for a dark horse Biletnikoff Award contender, look no further than Ty Fryfogle. Even though the now-departed Whop Philyor finished with more receptions, it was Fryfogle who was the real weapon in the passing attack, finishing with 721 yards and seven touchdowns. You can only imagine what this guy could do in a full season as the true No. 1 option, particularly if Penix is actually able to stay 100 percent healthy. Fryfogle's another guy that doesn't shy away from the moment, as he tallied over 200 yards against an Ohio State secondary full of future NFL defenders.

The Hoosiers do still need another wide out or two to step up to take some attention away from Fryfogle. Sophomore Miles Marshall is the leading candidate, a talented youngster who totaled 290 yards last fall, despite being the team's fourth option. Fellow sophomore Jacolby Hewitt is another name to watch, even though he's less proven than Marshall. Add in Florida State transfer D.J. Matthews, who played three seasons in Tallahassee and had his moments, but was never able to fulfill his vast potential. Finally, tight end Peyton Hendershot is also back in town after finishing third on the team in receptions last year. Hendershot is a reliable weapon and plays more like a receiver than a true tight end, but you'd like to see him make more of an impact downfield, as he averaged just 6.6 yards per reception.

Without question, the X-factor for the offense and really the whole team, is Michael Penix. If he's able to stay healthy for an entire year this is a group that has Top 25 potential offensively and a team overall that can seriously compete for a Big Ten Title. If not, Tuttle is serviceable enough to keep them afloat, but the difference between the two signal-callers is significant.

Defense: Tom Allen has long been known as a defense-first guy and his Hoosier teams have generally reflected that. Last year's group was Top 20 nationally in scoring defense and about middle-of-the-pack in the Big Ten in terms of yardage. There may be a slight rebuild on this side of the ball, only because coordinator Kane Wommack took the South Alabama head coaching job.

Expect new coordinator, Charlton Warren, to still utilize the complex, 4-2-5 look that Allen prefers. It's a defense that might not be the most talented, but causes loads of mistakes with unique looks and constant motion. Indiana ranked first in the league in sacks a year ago and were third in turnover margin, tenth nationally.

The pass rush should again be strong, with a solid amount of experience back on the defensive line. Veterans James Head Jr. and Michael Ziemba are likely the starting ends. Both won't put up crazy sack numbers, but they've played a bunch of Big Ten football and know how to play in this league. Don't be surprised if one of them is either pushed or sees their starting job taken by Ole Miss transfer Ryder Anderson. The grad transfer is immediately eligible after starting eight of the Rebels' 10 games a season ago, totaling 2.5 sacks and 43 tackles. He's more athletic than either Head Jr. or Ziemba, adding a different element to this pass rush. Up the middle, defensive tackle Demarcus Elliott is a crucial returnee, playing a big role in this IU rush defense.

Both linebackers are back in Bloomington for 2021, with the name to watch being junior Micah McFadden. McFadden does it all for this Hoosier defense; he's a physical, hard-hitting rush defense specialist, but he also gets after opposing quarterbacks. Wommack used McFadden in a bunch of creative ways last fall and I suspect Warren will do much the same. Junior Cam Jones is often overshadowed by what McFadden can do, but he played a key role for this team in 2020 as well. He's a skilled pass rusher, with three sacks last fall, who is also asked to do a lot in pass coverage. Fellow junior James Miller offers depth, coming off a campaign in which he posted 24 total tackles. He'll likely backup McFadden to begin the year, but don't be surprised if his snaps increase by the conclusion of the fall.

The pass defense leaned too often on forcing turnovers in 2020 and while it generally worked out, they know they can't do that again in '21. This unit should still be a strength, with loads of experience back in the fold, but losing safety Jamar Johnson early to the NFL really hurts. The Hoosiers have an excellent trio of corners that may be among the best in the entire nation: Tiawan Mullen, Reese Taylor, and Jaylin Williams. Mullen is the top option as a versatile, shutdown defender but Williams is the real playmaker, tying for the team lead with four interceptions a year ago. All three can play man-to-man coverage and free up the rest of the defense to get after opposing quarterbacks. That type of proven experience and leadership is quite a luxury for Warren as he steps into the new role.

Strong safety Devon Matthews is a quality defender who loves to play downhill. He can be an asset in pass defense as well, totaling five pass deflections in 2020. The question is at free safety, the position that Johnson played so tremendously during his time in Indiana. Senior Raheem Layne didn't play a snap in 2020 due to injury, but he moved from his old cornerback spot to safety during the spring and should be a favorite to start. Layne was the former Indiana Defensive Newcomer of the Year all the way back in 2017 and has put together a superb IU career, but we will see how quickly he acclimates to his new position. 

Losing Wommack and Johnson stings, but don't expect much of a drop-off on this side of the ball. The front seven is still good enough to keep the Hoosiers near the top of the conference in sack numbers and the secondary may actually be better, depending on if Layne can stay healthy. No matter what happens with the offense, this defense is a group that will keep this team in every game.

Special Teams: Sophomore Charles Campbell was a revelation for Indiana at kicker last year, missing only one field goal in 11 attempts. Punter is a little bit more of a concern, with the Hoosiers likely turning to a newcomer at the position. The return game has plenty of pieces to make things happen and the additions of Matthews from FSU and a healthy Layne, the 2019 Special Teams Player of the Year, will be huge.

Bottom Line: "Culture" is a word thrown around constantly in college football without a clear definition but one only has to look at what Allen has done to appreciate Indiana's program culture. They play with an energy and cohesiveness that is really difficult to teach, and play as hard as anybody in the country for the entire sixty minutes. That makes them a tough out for anyone, but it's not often the Hoosiers have a team with this much talent to add onto that. They're loaded with future NFL guys on both sides of the ball, including some of the Big Ten's premier players in Penix, Fryfogle and McFadden. They have legitimate division title aspirations, particularly with Ohio State searching for a new quarterback and Michigan and Penn State recovering from down 2020 campaigns. The two things that could stand in their way? For one, injuries. Not only does Penix absolutely have to stay healthy, but so do complementary pieces, such as Layne. Additionally, the schedule is really tough, as they open on the road with Iowa and get Cincinnati in the non-conference. They can still challenge for double-digit victories, but with so many difficult road trips in store, they would need a truly magical season to play for a Big Ten Championship.

Further Breakdown
Team Projections
Projected Record: 8-4 (6-3 Big Ten)
Offensive MVP: WR Ty Fryfogle
Defensive MVP: LB Micah McFadden
Breakout Player of the Year: WR Miles Marshall
Impact Freshman: DE Cooper Jones

Recruiting Breakdown
Even with their recent renaissance on the gridiron, Indiana has never been a program that is going to recruit at a particularly elite level. They recruit to their system and culture, and in turn once again wind up with a recruiting rank near the bottom of the Big Ten. They did add several wide receivers that could make an immediate impact, namely Jaquez Smith. It's not often a program like Indiana is able to go into the Atlanta area and snag a highly coveted receiver like Smith, so that says a lot about Allen and this staff. Quarterback Donaven McCulley was the second-ranked prospect in the state and could be the future at the position, although some believe he could move positions. Keep an eye on Cooper Jones, another local Indiana kid, who could see some early playing time. At 245 pounds, he will need to bulk up just to play his natural defensive end spot, but could eventually see snaps at tackle.

Five-Year Trend

No comments:

Theme images by LUGO. Powered by Blogger.