HOOSIERS HEAD INTO 2021 SEASON WITH INCREASED EXPECTATIONS — AND, HOPEFULLY, NORMALCY
In the specifics of how the Hoosier run game functioned in 2020, Indiana coach Tom Allen could point to something much broader than blocking angles and heavy-personnel formations.
Sure, the run game will be a point of emphasis this offseason, given the Hoosiers finished 12th in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game. If anything held IU back from making a good offense great, it was probably the 3.1 yards per carry the Hoosiers averaged.
But other things were holding them back, which goes to a larger point.
“You also knew you could show up on Wednesday and lose a guy or two at a certain position and you wouldn’t be able to have a younger guy ready to do those things if he had to do it on game day,” Allen said. “I told our staff, we have to have the mindset to keep this as simple as we can, to where we got three-deep of guys that can execute.”
The realities of playing football during a pandemic — amid daily testing protocols that could strip IU’s lineup of important players on the day of a game — forced Allen and his staff into a unique predicament. Scheme all they want, but if they schemed at a level that would clutter the brain of a third-string player, it could all be useless.
So the Hoosiers went “vanilla” in 2020 with the run game, Allen admits now. That is not to say IU’s opponents weren’t faced with similar choices, trading complexity for consistency, preparing for worst-case scenarios. But as IU moves into the 2021 season, the aforementioned quandary offers a sliver of hope.
The hope is that the 2021 season will be more “normal,” less “vanilla,” and just plain easier to manage. Hopefully, the Hoosiers will get a full offseason with their relatively new strength coach, Aaron Wellman, an offseason that was stolen back in March when the pandemic arrived. Hopefully, IU’s coaches can scheme to their liking, knowing they can plan to the level of their strongest links, not their weakest, with enough practice time to install everything.
Regardless, IU survived a pandemic-altered campaign, finishing 6-2 and knocking off giants of the Big Ten East each week. But the Hoosiers were, like their counterparts, playing with one hand tied behind their back.
“I think that was a reality of what we had to deal with. Everyone else was in the same boat, it was relative,” Allen said, “but I hope it’s something we never have to go through ever again.”
Now the proposition is where the Hoosiers go from here, and there are many questions to be answered. Allen is still searching for a defensive coordinator to replace Kane Wommack, who is now the head coach at South Alabama. This is the second offseason in a row where IU has lost a coordinator. It was also announced Tuesday that running backs coach Mike Hart is heading to Michigan, his alma mater.
Once Allen finds replacements for Wommack and Hart, he will have hired six new assistants over the last year-plus, including Wellman, who replaced performance coaches David Ballou and Matt Rhea. They became national champs at Alabama.
That’s just the price of success. The result of IU’s 14 wins over two years has been staff members earning higher-paying and more prestigious jobs, players earning all-conference and All-America honors, and a program earning heightened expectations. Finishing the year ranked at No. 12 in the Associated Press poll, it’s likely the Hoosiers will be a top-15 team heading into the 2021 season.
But with most of their players returning, and a fuller offseason coming, and more scheming to be done by IU’s coaches, there is hope that the Hoosiers will be more prepared to be the hunted in 2021.
“Sometimes it’s harder to stay there and keep growing than it is to get there. That’s, to me, where you have to have a hungry football team, a hungry set of coaches,” Allen said. “That’s why it excites me to bring in a new defensive coordinator, to put his personality and his identity and his leadership on that side of the football.”
Allen then thought about an incoming group of transfers and freshmen who will arrive midyear. “That excites me, to bring in a new infusion of guys that have that passion,” he continued, “who want to come out here and help us to continue to build this program and do what we believe is the next step, which is to win the Big Ten.”
While that sounds like a lofty goal, the Hoosiers weren’t all that far away in 2020. If they somehow come back on the Buckeyes, making up the final seven-point deficit in a November loss, they are in a position to play Northwestern for the Big Ten title. Then again, the Hoosiers would also need to have avoided the COVID-related pause that came in the final two weeks of the season, which knocked them out for the week of the conference title game.
Again, 2020 was just a weird year. But aside from COVID-19 positives, and a loss to Ole Miss in the Outback Bowl, it was a beneficial season for the Hoosiers.
“We did not finish the season the way we wanted to. It’s a big disappointment for myself and an emptiness there that we can’t go back and change,” Allen said. “But I don’t want that one game to take away from all … the huge wins we experienced and the growth in our program, just to show this country what we can become as a football program and show recruits and show their families and our fanbase what I believe Indiana football can be and what we’re becoming in front of your eyes.
“That process, it’s not always a straight incline. There’s detours, there’s bumps, there’s setbacks, there’s things you have to learn from.”
This past season was full of hardships. IU lost players on the day of games due to COVID tests, Allen said. There were multiple times where a player tested positive via an antigen test during the week, missed a practice, and a confirmatory PCR test came back negative. That player ended up suiting up on a Saturday, but they were down in practice time.
The pandemic continues, so everything isn’t quite back to normal. But the challenges Allen now confronts — like hiring the right people for defensive coordinator and running backs coach — almost seem quaint. Allen has options, because that coordinator need not coach linebackers, as Wommack did. Allen believes he has enough versatility on his staff to hire a defensive coordinator with another position specialty, if need be.
Then, once his staff is complete again, including that new running backs coach, Allen can sit down and start planning for the 2021 season, especially how to diversify the Hoosiers’ running attack, whether it be formations, blocking angles, what have you. There will be a use for such scheming again.
“We’re going to have an extensive study of that this offseason,” Allen said, “and that’s going to be a huge objective for our offensive staff and our program, to run the football better.”