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Monday, May 23, 2005

Before you start, read the lowdown on this rundown. Yo.

The Story

When Terry Hoeppner was introduced as Indiana's new head coach, he did something no man had ever done before. He said this: "There is really only one job that I would ever leave Miami for, and that is Indiana University," and proved once and for all that mgoblog could never be a real journalist, as there was no mention of the assembled press corps breaking out into wild, uncontrollable laughter. No offense, Hoosier fans, but I think Hoeppner may have considered an offer from Michigan or Ohio State.

No coach since Lou Holtz has regarded the moribund Hoosier program with such respect. Bill Mallory experienced a modicum of success in the late 80s and early 90s in Bloomington but Indiana hasn't made a bowl game since 1993. In that time it has killed the coaching careers of Mallory, Cam Cameron, and Gerry DiNardo. Hoeppner appears to be next. The Big Ten will be unforgiving over the next few years with Kirk Ferentz edging the Hawkeyes towards national power status, Barry Alvarez settled in at Wisconsin, Ron Zook bringing his recruiting acumen to Illinois, and Glen Mason making the Gophers into a reliable bowl team. There is no room at all for the Hoosiers to move up. Mallory built his teams in a Big Two-Little Eight era. Hoeppner does not have that luxury.

Is there hope? Well, Hoeppner's Miami of Ohio teams were MAC powers behind Ben Roethlisberger and a spread offense--before the spread was cool. But Hoeppner finds himself in a strange position having left a school that is clearly more talented than the one he inherits. Miami would probably be at least a touchdown favorite over Indiana on a neutral field. And how would Miami fare in the Big Ten? Hoeppner has proven he's a good coach, but if he turns Indiana into a winner he'll be doing the coaching equivalent of walking on water. The Hoosiers don't need a coach, they need a savior.

Unit By Unit
Rating: 1. Redshirt sophomore Blake Powers and junior Graeme McFarland are battling for the job. Powers comes in with the better credentials. And by "better credentials" I mean "any credentials at all." I would expect Powers to earn the job unless McFarland blows the doors off in fall practices. If the two are at all close, Hoeppner will build for the future and go with the younger quarterback. Redshirt freshman Mike Vlahogeorge has an outside shot of taking the reins if Powers falters. He enrolled last January and has the benefit of two spring practices at IU. Vlahogeorge finished his high school career with with the third-most passing yards in Indiana history.

Whoever wins the job is likely to be completely overwhelmed. The running game lacks the ability to take the heat off the passing game and after middling senior Jahkeen Gilmore there is a grand total of three catches between the rest of the wideout corps. Expect Indiana's interceptions to skyrocket. Fifth-year senior Matt LoVecchio took care of the ball extremely well last year, throwing only seven interceptions in 271 attempts--there's no way a first year starter with little in the way of supporting talent can match that.

Running Backs

Rating: 2. BenJarvus Green-Ellis--surprisingly just one person--continued a disturbing trend of players treating IU like a junior college by transferring despite getting plenty of playing time. Green-Ellis, the projected starter at tailback, fled for the (slightly) greener pastures of Ole Miss. Green-Ellis was a thudding power back who managed 882 yards last year but only got 3.4 per carry.

Seniors Chris Taylor and Yamar Washington will probably end up splitting carries to start the year as they battle to be Green-Ellis' replacement. One or the other could end up as an improvement over Green-Ellis; Taylor followed up his 327 yards last year (he just managed to hit the four yards-per-carry Mendoza line) with a good spring, and Washington had a very good freshman year before tearing his ACL as a sophomore. He saw a little action last year and averaged 5.3 yards a carry. However, mgoblog has a motto: "If you back up a guy who averaged 3.4 yards a carry you probably aren't all that good." Indiana has been praising their tailbacks since the spring but there's a good chance this is a classic case of underwood (noun, means "unwarranted hype given a player because there appears to be no alternative to him"). It's unrealistic to expect much improvement from the ground game save that which a potentially improved line provides.

A couple of freshmen will press Taylor and Washington for time. Demetrius McCray seems to be the most accomplished coming out of high school after rushing for almost 1,700 yards and 22 touchdowns as a senior. McCray was a top fifty prospect in talent-rich Florida and one of the better recruits in Hoeppner's first class.

Wide Recievers & Tight Ends

Rating: 1. The graduation of Courtney Roby, David Lewis, and Travis Haney leaves the field wide open for redshirt freshmen Marcus Thigpen, James Bailey and Isaac Price. All three played their high school ball in the decrepit Public School League in Detroit. The PSL is a place where high quality coaching and decent weight rooms are few and far between. Diamonds in the rough can be found there. It's a good place for the downtrodden of the world to recruit, but essentially every recruit that comes out of it is a project. Hoeppner must hope that one or two of his three PSL projects develop into a Big Ten-quality wideout. The potential is certainly there; Bailey and Price have excellent size while Thigpen is a 5'9" burner.

The wild card is 6'7" James Hardy, a small forward on Mike Davis' basketball team. It's unclear at this point whether or not he'll play in the fall and if he does how effective he'll be, but 6'7" is 6'7".

Senior Jahkeen Gilmore will start the year as the #1 wide receiver, but don't be surprised if one of the three Detroit wideouts claims the job by the end of the year.

Offensive Line
Rating: 3. The line will receive a huge lift with the return of fifth-year senior left tackle Isaac Sowells and junior center Chris Mangiero from injuries that ended their 2004 seasons. Between those two and seniors Adam Hines and Brandon Hatcher and junior Justin Frye, Indiana will field a line with 94 total starts. So the experience is there. Judging the line's talent is difficult with all the injures. Indiana ceded 27 sacks last year, not good, and averaged 3.1 yards a rush, also not good, but they were missing their best two linemen. If the line remains healthy, expect it to play well.

That's a big if. Depth is a massive issue, and the reason this unit didn't get a four. Past the starting five is a vast wilderness of unblooded redshirt freshmen. One injury to a starter will be damaging. Two will be devastating.

Defensive Line
Rating: 2. Indiana got absolutely crushed on the ground last year, yielding five yards a carry (worst in the conference by almost a half yard) and finishing 99th in the country in rush defense. Three of four starters return, but it's doubtful a single offseason has worked wonders--all three returners were juniors last year, not pups fresh out of high school. They're not likely to instantly turn into stout run stoppers. The new face on the defensive line is a redshirt freshman converted offensive lineman. There is no depth whatsoever behind the starters. This unit will be a major hindrance to the team unless Hoeppner works a near-miraculous turnaround.

The good news? The defensive ends can get some penetration. Last year Kenny Kendal and Victor Adeyanju combined for 10 sacks and 18 tackles for loss between them. If they can bump that up to 15 and 25 Indiana will see significant improvement in their pass defense. There's little hope for the run.

Rating: 3. All-Big Ten second teamer Kyle Killion was the lone bright spot on an overmatched Hoosier defense last year. Linebackers on awful teams often get overrated simply because they have the opportunity to rack up dozens of tackles because their offense can't stay on the field and their defense can't stay off it, but Killion wasn't just cleaning up everyone else's messes. He was a playmaker, amassing 16.5 tackles for loss, five sacks, and two interceptions last year. In almost any other year he would be a legitimate All-Big Ten candidate, but Abdul Hodge, Chad Greenway, and AJ Hawk are all definite NFL first-rounders who play like it. There's no room at the inn for linebackers from Indiana this year.

So Killion is legit. The problem for Indiana is the rest of the linebacking corps. Projected starter Paul Szczesny transfered to Arizona State. Senior John Pannozzo is the projected starter at MLB; until January he was a fullback. Even if he takes to the new position immediately he will have a very hard time reading play action and counters and will probably miss his fair share of tackles. IU's own media guide inadvertently damns the other projected starter, junior Jake Powers: "he played over 350 snaps [last year] and compiled 22 tackles." That number is six percent of the snaps he played, awful for a linebacker, especially when none of those 22 was a tackle for loss or a sack.

Depth? This is yet another unit as deep as Cameron Diaz. If Killion is lost or even hampered, look out.

Defensive Backs
Rating: 3. The Hoosiers finished 102nd in pass defense and 89th in pass efficiency defense for a reason, and it wasn't because they were any good at stopping the run. There are some mitigating factors, however. Indiana gave up an amazing 590 passing yards in the season-ending 63-point demolition at the hands of Purdue. Remove that game and Indiana gave up 223 yards per game in the air. That's good for 71st nationally, which is almost mediocre. (Hey, you have to look hard for the bright spots in a 3-8 season.) Indiana also started one of two true freshmen at the second corner spot all year.

Given that, Indiana's cornerback situation looks relatively pleasant. Senior Buster Larkins had 9 pass breakups last year and those freshmen, Leslie Majors and Tracy Porter, gained a ton of experience splitting the starts at the other spot between them. Both will probably improve a great deal over their first offseason in a collegiate program. Returning strong safety Will Lumpkin had two defensive touchdowns last year. If Killion and the defensive line can get a decent pass rush, it's reasonable to expect the IU pass defense to vault into the middle of the Big Ten.

Return Game

Rating: 5. Junior Lance Bennett had a touchdown returing both a punt and a kickoff last year and finished fourth in the country in kickoff return average. Indiana actually led the nation in kick return average, although they finished in the middle of the pack when it came to punts.

Rating: 3. Indiana is looking to replace departed kicker Bryan Robinson. Who knows how his replacements will perform? No one, including Hoeppner. So why ask me?

Punter Tyson Beattie averaged 41.3 yards a kick and dropped 20 inside the opponent's 20. Indiana finished 18th in net punting largely because of his proficiency.

The Schedule
Indiana opens up with a trio of cupcackes. Expect the icing to fly against Central Michigan, I-AA Nichols State, and perennial foe Kentucky. Indiana demolished Central 41-10 last year, and Nichols State should pose no problem.

The Big Ten schedule is brutal. Indiana misses Northwestern and Penn State, two beatable teams with severe flaws. A home game against Illinois is definitely winnable, but the rest of the Big Ten schedule will be a mighty uphill climb. Indiana's other home games are against Ohio State (no chance), Purdue (little chance), and Minnesota (little chance at first glance, but Indiana has owned Minnesota at home recently). Hoeppner could make strides with the team and not see it reflected in the Hoosier's record.

Keys to the Season

Find Skill Position Starters
Indiana's defense will probably be mediocre at best but mediocre would be a massive achievement for an offense breaking in unhyped starters at every offensive skill position and trying to learn an entirely new offense. If Hoeppner can find a quarterback, running back, and wide reciever or two who don't look completely lost, Indiana will be heading in the right direction.

Pull Out All The Stops
There will probably be a conference game or two that Indiana has a fighting chance in. Hoeppner has proven himself to be a good coach and there's enough on the defense that a few teams with blah offenses might find themselves in a tight game with the Hoosiers. A win, any win, would be huge, and one big play off of some trickeration may be the best bet for what figures to be an inept offense.

Just Keep It Close
In 2004 Indiana alternated decent performances against Illinois, Penn State, and Michigan State with hugely demoralizing blowouts against Kentucky, Ohio State, and Purdue. There will be a number of games this season that Indiana won't have a joint's chance on the Ohio State team bus of winning, but sticking around until the third or forth quarter against a Michigan or Ohio State will have a positive effect on morale.

Worst Case: Indiana manages to beat Nichols State but blows its other gimme against Central Michigan and finishes the season 1-10 after a series of ignominious defeats.

Best Case: Indiana sweeps its nonconference schedule and beats Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin to finish 6-5. Hoosiers flood the Motor City Bowl in a spasm of uncontrolled joy and in their attempt to "riot" accidentally make the city considerably cleaner and nicer.

mgoblog says... this is a bad year to be breaking in a new head coach with a new quarterback, running back, and top wide receiver. Every team in the Big Ten has a major advantage against the Hoosiers in at least one key area. Indiana should start off 2-0, will probably only win a single additional game the rest of the season, likely against UK, Wisconsin, or Illinois. The offense will be memorably bad and Kyle Killion may end up with 1,000 tackles. 3-8, 11th in Big Ten.

Update 5/25: Added in information about RB Yamar Washington, WR James Hardy, and FS Will Lumpkin. Removed erroneous sentence about Indiana returning both safeties. Noted that the Hooisers have dominated Minnesota at home in recent years. Found where LB Paul Szczensy ended up thanks to commenter (Arizona State). Bumped RB rating to 2.