AS A HANDFUL OF HOOSIERS LEAVE, YOUNGER PLAYERS MUST STEP UP
The deadline for underclassmen to declare for the NFL Draft arrived Monday. For the Hoosiers, it’s juniors Stevie Scott and Jamar Johnson that are out the door, along with a handful of seniors in pursuit of NFL opportunities.
Now, there are holes to fill.
“This gives a chance for our roster to grow and develop,” Indiana coach Tom Allen said last week. “If a guy at a position decides to move on, that’s a great opportunity for those current freshmen and sophomores and juniors to rise up and be that next guy.”
In these departures, there is a chance for Allen’s next wave of recruits to prove their merit. And just at first glance, it does appear the Hoosiers have talented replacements at the ready.
Who are those “next guys” on the Hoosiers’ roster? Let’s take a look at what players could be in the spotlight.
Departing: RB Stevie Scott, Jr.
Next up: Sampson James, So.; David Ellis, So.; Tim Baldwin Jr., Fr.
This an area where there is great potential but still some mystery.
While running backs coach Mike Hart built a deep and talented room, he leaned heavily on Scott for three years. Of the 226 carries by IU running backs last year, Scott had 156 of them, or 69%. That was up from nearly 57% during Scott’s 2019 season.
Part of that uneven distribution, as Hart explained, was the number of carries available. IU just didn’t run the ball consistently enough, or well enough, to get more than one back meaningfully involved.
That made it hard to get a read on Scott’s backups, even a former four-star recruit like Sampson James. He exploded for 118 yards in a win at Purdue in 2019. Then he gained just 96 yards on 32 touches as a sophomore. James hasn’t quite taken that next step.
Now Scott is jumping to the NFL. Plus, Hart just accepted a job at Michigan, his alma mater. So there will be a new face, or faces, handling the load in 2021, picked by another new face at running backs coach.
The simplest solution would be for James to reach the potential in his 6-foot-1, 220-pound frame, taking the reins of IU’s running game, as he did versus Purdue, hitting holes with burst and moving piles.
But the developments of the last year do cloud the picture. James’ classmate, David Ellis, became a full-time running back in 2020. He brings versatility and some wiggle with his background as a receiver and returner.
And then there’s another 100-yard performance from a true freshman to consider. In 2020, it was Tim Baldwin Jr. running for 106 yards versus Maryland, patiently waiting on his cutback lanes and taking advantage.
Add in two incoming freshmen, David Holloman and Trent Howland, and Hart left plenty behind. It’s just a question of who impresses IU’s next running backs coach the most. The leg up, regardless, should go to whoever does the best job in pass protection. That was an area where Scott excelled, which kept him on the field even more.
Departing: DT Jerome Johnson, R-Sr.
Next up: C.J. Person, R-Fr.; Damarjhe Lewis, Fr.; Shamar Jones, R-So.
IU not only lost Johnson, a first-team All-Big Ten performer, but also his backup at the three-technique position, grad transfer Jovan Swann. That’s a lot of experience vacating an important spot on the interior.
Demarcus Elliott and Sio Nofoagatoto’a both return at defensive tackle, which helps. But they man the nose position in IU’s 4-2-5. It would probably be ideal to keep that rotation going. So it’s going to be up to some younger players to step up alongside them.
The most logical replacement for Johnson would be redshirt freshman C.J. Person, who made plays in 2020. He just made a lot of them as a defensive end against opponents’ “heavy” personnel sets, holding an edge in the run game. But at 6-foot-3, 291 pounds, Person has ideal size, strength, and athleticism to play three-technique.
Damarjhe Lewis, a true freshman in 2020, impressed in spring practice before it was shut down, but he did not see the field much in the fall. That’s not entirely surprising given the stop-and-start offseason the Hoosiers experienced. But if Lewis can have a strong offseason and mature, he can play quick off the snap and with leverage.
Beyond the duo of Person and Lewis, a player like Shamar Jones, who was slowed by injuries in 2020, could get a shot at more snaps. The 6-1, 270-pounder appeared in 12 games as a redshirt freshman in 2019.
IU does need someone to take a big step forward here.
Departing: DB Jamar Johnson, Jr.
Next up: Juwan Burgess, R-Jr.; Bryson Bonds, Fr.; Raheem Layne, Sr.; Josh Sanguinetti, R-Fr.
This one, like the previous two, could go in multiple directions.
There is an experienced safety still in the room, Juwan Burgess. The redshirt junior made plays in 2019, including 29 tackles and a pair of forced fumbles. But he very much took a backseat to Johnson in 2020, producing just eight tackles in six games. Burgess could reemerge, but there are also younger players in the wings.
A leading candidate would probably be freshman Bryson Bonds, who made a name for himself in fall camp. He appeared in every game in 2020, mostly on special teams, but he could be a nice complement to junior Devon “Monster” Matthews at the other safety spot. Bonds has a nose for the ball and has been lauded for his work ethic and smarts. He’s heading into his first full offseason.
Another option could be redshirt freshman Josh Sanguinetti, who has bounced between the corner and safety positions early in his career. He was highly regarded out of high school, garnering offers from prestigious programs like Auburn, LSU, and Florida State. But he has dealt with injuries, and at 173 pounds, it’s questionable if that frame can hold up versus the run in the Big Ten.
IU could also turn to another cornerback. Raheem Layne, who missed the entire 2020 season to injury, was a starter for the Hoosiers in ’19 until a youth movement — featuring corners Tiawan Mullen, Reese Taylor and Jaylin Williams — swept the secondary. Layne was repping at safety in the spring before everything was shut down.
Departing: C Harry Crider, Sr.
Next up: Dylan Powell, R-Jr.; Mike Katic, R-Fr.; Charlie O’Connor, R-So.; Cam Knight, Fr.; Zach Carpenter, R-Fr.
IU has been in this position before. In 2019, Crider broke into the starting five at left guard, gaining experience before he moved back to center for the 2020 season.
Now that Crider has left, there are two guards, redshirt junior Dylan Powell and redshirt freshman Mike Katic, who have the potential to slide over to center. They both rotated at the guard position opposite Mackenzie Nworah in 2020. Katic, one of the strongest players in the o-line room, may have the higher ceiling of the two, but Powell, a grad transfer from Stanford, has more experience.
Regardless of where the Hoosiers turn, they should feel better about the line’s depth in 2021. Powell, Katic, and Nworah provide a base inside, along with Michigan transfer Zach Carpenter. At tackle, the Hoosiers have three players, Caleb Jones, Matt Bedford, and Luke Haggard, with starting experience. There should be increased competition for spots, hopefully increasing the Hoosiers’ talent level in the trenches.
Crider’s backup in 2020 was a former walk-on, Charlie O’Connor. There have also been high hopes for Cam Knight, the brother of former IU tackle Brandon Knight. The freshman center just needed to get stronger. Knight is one of several in his class to keep an eye on, along with big-bodied guards like Randy Holtz, Kahlil Benson, and Brady Feeney. This offseason is huge for them.
Departing: WR Whop Philyor, Sr.
Next up: D.J. Matthews, Sr.; Javon Swinton, Fr.; Jacolby Hewitt, R-So.; Da’Shaun Brown, R-Fr.
The return of Ty Fryfogle, along with a now-experienced target like Miles Marshall, eases the blow of Whop Philyor’s exit. And with a grad transfer in D.J. Matthews — a former U.S. Army All-American from Florida State — the Hoosiers have a chance to just plug and play in the slot.
But some younger players have a chance to crack into the top three. Javon Swinton was a playmaker in fall camp, and he had key catches in a win over Penn State. But Swinton ended up taking a backseat to Fryfogle, Philyor, and Marshall, much like redshirt sophomore Jacolby Hewitt. With Philyor gone, snaps are available.
It’s also important not to forget redshirt freshman Da’Shaun Brown. He was on the Hoosiers’ inactive list for the second half of the 2020 season, but he’s a former prep quarterback with playmaking ability who should have another chance to emerge in 2021.