Given the events of the last several months, there is a heightened level of positivity surrounding Indiana football. Tom Allen, himself, was grinning from ear to ear as he reintroduced Deland McCullough as the Hoosiers’ running backs coach after three years with the Kansas City Chiefs.
There came a point in Tuesday’s press conference, though, where even Allen had to pull back on the optimism. Sure, the Hoosiers just hired an assistant from the Chiefs, right after hiring a defensive coordinator, Charlton Warren, from a top-notch SEC program, Georgia. Yes, the Hoosiers return a ton of talent in 2021.
But that doesn’t guarantee anything.
“We got a lot of work to do,” Allen said. “I think one thing people misunderstand from one season to the next, you just assume because we came close there in the fourth quarter against Ohio State, all of a sudden it’s like ‘OK, everybody’s a year older, we have a lot of kids coming back … ’ — you can’t fall into that trap. You have to recreate everything.”
Allen went on to balance the scale.
IU hasn’t won the Big Ten East. IU hasn’t held a share of the overall Big Ten title since 1967. IU still hasn’t won a bowl game since 1991, dropping heartbreakers to Tennessee and Ole Miss to end consecutive seasons.
So as Allen and the Hoosiers move into this offseason with two new assistants in the fold — assistants he says have “SEC eyes” and “NFL eyes,” respectively — the focus is on how to get over those bothersome humps. The Hoosiers don’t take those next steps by being complacent.
There are areas where IU could stand to improve. The run game, for one, wasn’t consistent in 2020. IU finished 12th in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game, producing just 108.6 per contest. Stevie Scott, IU’s workhorse, produced just 3.6 yards per rush.
McCullough may be able to help there, to a degree, though improvement on the offensive line may be just as important. Along with the run game, IU’s quarterbacks also found themselves under significant pressure in the pocket in some games.
Even the defense, which hit another level in 2020, could stand to create more of a pass rush with its front line. IU seemed overly reliant on the blitz, at times, even if it produced a league-best 25 sacks.
There are steps to be taken toward greatness, which is why Allen chose the word “Chase” as IU’s mantra for 2021.
“You have to recreate your culture, you have to recreate the fire you have within you to do the little things it takes. We have to work harder,” Allen said. “That’s why I’m meeting with all these guys now. We have certain things, goals we have set up for them, chasing greatness.
“I want this football team to be great. Obviously, when you play in the Big Ten, greatness is defined by one thing, and that’s to win a Big Ten championship.”
The fact Allen can utter those words and not be completely laughed off a Zoom call does underscore how far IU’s program has come. The additions of Warren and McCullough, Allen believes, push the Hoosiers closer to being able to achieve those lofty expectations.
The places where IU was able to pull those coaches from does saying something.
“It does speak to our program, it speaks to what we’re building, it speaks to what we’ve done the last few years, and it speaks to what we’re about to do, in my opinion,” Allen said. “Because I do believe the best is yet to come for Indiana football. I don’t just say that flippantly. That doesn’t mean we are going to be better next year just because we’re a year older.
“I’m having player meetings right now with a lot of our guys and we’re talking about that every single day. We gotta work now. We ain’t done anything.”
Allen on Holt-Bennett
In the days since Allen last spoke to the media, IU’s 2021 recruiting class did add one more piece, wide receiver Malachi Holt-Bennett.
The 6-foot-2, 190-pound receiver from Alabama is considered one of the top 50 players at his position by the recruiting site 247Sports, but Allen liked another aspect of Holt-Bennett’s game.
“Can play on both sides of the football, I love that,” Allen said. “I love finding guys that play both ways, because, to me, if you’re a Division I football player, you should be on the field most of the time. He shows physicality on defense.”
Holt-Bennett posted 29 tackles and two interceptions as a senior at Fairfield High.
It makes sense that Holt-Bennett’s secondary work would stand out to Allen, a former defensive coordinator. In a broader sense, Allen just loves versatility.
Following the first signing day, Allen spoke at length about his love for multi-sport athletes. This class has a few, including Bloomington North tight end Aaron Steinfeldt (basketball/baseball), Lawrence North quarterback Donaven McCulley (basketball), and Valparaiso defensive lineman Cooper Jones (basketball).
Holt-Bennett is also a basketball player, helping his school win a state title on the hardwood in 2020. That athleticism translates to the receiver position, too.
“Really good ball skills, great range, length,” Allen said. “He’s athletic. He was a wildcat quarterback at times, making people miss in space. Just his toughness. You see it on film, it comes out, the way he plays. But, to me, it’s all about getting open, when you sink your hips, getting in and out of your breaks. That’s what he does well.
“I just feel like he’s a guy that can and will be a part of our offense in the future.”
IU had another reserve depart via the transfer portal recently, defensive end Jalen Mayala.
The 6-5, 230-pounder from Dacula, Ga., was one of two players the Hoosiers added to the 2020 class during the second signing day. But he did not see any game action during his true freshman season.
IU has now lost four down-the-depth-chart players to the portal, including receivers Jordan Jakes and Rashawn Williams, and defensive end Tramar Reece. Allen was asked Tuesday if the departure of Mayala left open the possibility of the Hoosiers adding another player.
“It will be a wait-and-see right now. We’ll use (the scholarship) in the most efficient way possible,” Allen said. “It could be a chance to get a transfer later in the process. Once we get through spring football, we’ll know more things there, and we’ll make a decision if we want it for a spot in the fall or save it for the next signing class.”