Thursday, April 14, 2011

Football Preview: Indiana

I’ll start with the disclaimers, so that this doesn’t come off the wrong way: Bill Lynch strikes me (from afar, of course) as an honest, decent gentleman. He is not, so far as I know, a tax cheat or a fraud, and I would be very, very surprised to learn otherwise. He ran a clean ship during his years at Indiana, free from any hint of tarnish or scandal—in marked contrast to the basketball program, which was caught up in the Kelvin Sampson affair while Bill Lynch was taking Indiana to a bowl game. If I were an athletic director at an FCS or DII school, I wouldn’t hesitate to hire Lynch, and I’d know I’d be getting someone who would, at the very least, not bring disrepute upon the program.

With that throat-clearing out of the way: Kevin Wilson finds himself in the position of a hedge fund manager taking over a corporation that has been cooking the books. The manager knows the fundamentals are bad, which is why he is taking over the company, and he thinks that he can improve them. Yet he may not understand just how far the rot has spread, or that even the shoddy fundamentals are inflated by a series of accounting tricks that, while not exactly fraud, are on the outer bounds of propriety.

For example, look at the most fundamental of fundamentals: win-loss record. Indiana went 5-7 last year. That sounds almost decent; certainly not extraordinarily bad by Indiana standards, and only one game off from Indiana’s 6-7 Insight Bowl breakthrough in 2007. Yet those five wins were the most hollow wins imaginable, coming over an awful FCS school (not just awful because they are in FCS, but awful by every possible metric), two Sun Belt schools, a one win Akron team that was perhaps the worst team in FBS, and Purdue. According to Sagarin’s ratings, all four out of conference wins came over teams ranked lower than 115th in college football, and there are 120 teams in FBS; so Indiana won the equivalent of four FCS games to get to five wins. One of those wins, against Arkansas State, was by only two points. And the win over Purdue, while certainly meaningful because of the intrastate rivalry and the recapture of the Old Oaken Bucket, came over a team almost literally limping to the finish with gimpy ACLs and no quarterback.

The losses were less uniformly awful—Indiana was a dropped pass away from beating Iowa while hanging tough against Northwestern and Michigan. But the Penn State, Ohio State, Illinois, and Wisconsin losses all came by 17 points or more, including the infamous 63 point loss to Wisconsin (and despite the hand-wringing, Wisconsin wasn't running up the score. Indiana was just that bad). Unfortunately for Indiana, those are the four teams that will follow them into the Leaders Division (along with Purdue) this fall. Indiana could get two touchdowns better as compared to each of the teams in their division and still only win one game.

That improvement is unlikely, especially considering that the two most useful components of the offense (the Hoosier’s strongest unit last season) have moved on. The schedule gets a little tougher, with Virginia coming to Bloomington and a trickier-than-it-looks road game at North Texas. Nor does Indiana get a particularly easy draw in their cross-division games, going to both Iowa and Michigan State.

Indiana fans have plenty of patience, borne from decades of futility. Almost all new coaches get a honeymoon, but Wilson’s will be longer than most, simply because little is expected from him early. A Brewsteresque beginning would be a bad sign, but fielding a competitive team that happens to lose a lot of games—even a couple more games than Lynch’s final team—should be acceptable. Don’t think of it as a decline, Indiana fans; think of it as a necessary correction while Indiana converts back to normal accounting. What little profits you thought you had were probably illusory anyway.

Offense--Offensive Coordinator Brent Pease Rod Smith/Kevin Johns (1st seasons each): Indiana ran a traditional offense out of the pistol the past few seasons, which sounds about as peculiar as it looked at times. Unlike the pistol at Nevada, where the formation was born, Indiana quarterback Ben Chappell was not a threat to run the ball, and so the option capabilities were limited. You don't have to run the option out of the pistol--Alabama ran the formation quite a bit last year, for example--but never did there seem to be much of a philosophy behind the adoption of the system either. Perhaps it was as simple as Chappell preferring to work from a few yards behind center? Whatever the rationale, it was at least reasonably successful: Indiana had the 14th most yards in the country last year, and while Football Outsider's advanced metrics have Indiana's offense as coming in at a far less impressive 55th in the country, that's still at least above average (and better than Illinois, Penn State, Northwestern, and Purdue). In any event, while the offense was a level or two better than serviceable last year, the pistol is likely gone, at least as a primary set.

Coach Wilson's first choice to head his offense at Indiana, Boise State WRs coach Brent Pease, decided that even if the grass is greener in Bloomington, he'd rather coordinate the prolific Boise State offense and departed Indiana after only a few days on the job. Wilson then raided Northwestern for Kevin Johns and hired Rod Smith after his departure from the Michigan staff following Rich Rodriguez's firing. Neither has served as a coordinator before.

The lack of experience probably won't matter though, since the offense will be head coach Wilson's focus anyway, and Wilson has a pedigree as one of the top offensive coordinators following his Broyles-award winning stint in Norman. Wilson was present at the birth of the modern spread, working at Northwestern under Randy Walker during the early part of the (ugh) millennium. He has also proven his versatility, harnessing superstars Adrian Peterson and Sam Bradford about as effectively as feasible. Wilson will never have that kind of talent at Indiana, but he is as good a person as any to get everything he can from the materials on hand. The only certainty is that the offense will be fast; Wilson's Oklahoma teams regularly ran more plays per game than the rest of the nation.

Quarterback—Players like Ben Chappell will never get the credit they deserve, if only because they play at schools like Indiana and don’t project well as NFL quarterbacks. Wisconsin has been churning out Ben Chappell types for over a decade now, from Bollinger to Sorgi to Tolzien, and Big Ten fans remember those names because those Badger squads were usually successful.

Unlike the Wisconsin triumvirate, people will struggle to remember Ben Chappell five years from now, and that’s a tremendous shame. Thrown into the mix earlier than anticipated after Kellen Lewis’s dismissal in 2008, Chappell was one of the few consistent positives on an erratic Indiana squad. Along with Indiana’s impressive wide receiver corps (more on that below), Chappell led an offense that could be genuinely explosive at times, without even adding the qualifier “explosive for Indiana.” Indiana was 14th in passing yardage in the NCAA last season, no doubt inflated by a weak schedule early and a tendency to fall behind late, but nevertheless strong. Chappell was also quite efficient, with a 62.5% completion, 24/9 TD to INT ratio.

Three things held back Chappell (and Indiana’s offense generally) over his career, especially last season. Only one running back earned more than 100 carries (and that was Trea Burgess’s 104 for only 3.4 yards per carry). Darius Willis’s injury in the season certainly hurt, though even Willis failed to duplicate his 4.9 yards per carry average he earned as a freshman while he was on the field for the first four (soft) games of his sophomore season.

Which suggests a second problem: the offensive line, which was an unmitigated disaster. Only wide receivers had any success on the ground, more through deception than Indiana’s ability to control their opponents at the line of scrimmage. The pass blocking may have been even worse, and by the end of the season Chappell was often gun shy, failing to step into throws and becoming less accurate even when completing passes. Some of this is a reflection of Chappell’s limitations—a quarterback must be prepared to make the next throw even when getting punished—but the primary fault lies elsewhere.

Finally, Indiana showed a peculiar reluctance at times to rely on the passing game. I am thoroughly anti-balance, or at least I subscribe to the Smart Football school of thought that balance is maximizing your total yardage, not equalizing the run and the pass. Indiana threw the ball a little more than 500 times; add in sacks and you probably have about 550 pass plays called. They rushed the ball 350 or so times; take away sacks and that number is around 325. The balance fetishist says “why so skewed?” I ask, why not more skewed? Chappell threw for 480 yards(!) against Michigan with only one interception; despite throwing the ball 64 times, he averaged 7.5 yards a pass. Michigan’s secondary had no answer for Chappell, Tandon Doss (221 receiving yards), and the rest of the Indiana passing attack.

So why in the world were 27 rushes called that game (there was also some sacks) for under 3.5 yards a carry? As Brian Cook noted (somewhat gleefully) after the game, every rushing call was a wasted play for Indiana, a misguided attempt to add some balance where balance wasn’t necessary. Indiana was having a historically-great game through the air against an awful Michigan defense. Instead of pressing the advantage, the Hoosiers dawdled.

This figures not to be a problem under Wilson, the choreographer of the explosive Oklahoma offenses led by Sam Bradford. He will not have the same advantage to press, however, with Chappell graduating and two untested alternatives waiting for him behind center. Dusty Kiel and Edward Wright-Baker went a combined 9/29 last season with one TD and three interceptions. Wright-Baker was the more impressive of the two (his passer rating, to whatever extent you trust that, was at least over 100) but Kiel was once assumed to be the heir apparent given his recruiting pedigree. Smart money seems to be on Wright-Baker so far into the spring. Incoming freshman Tre Robinson offers another potential alternative, although relying on a true freshman is always risky.

In any event, Indiana has three options with three or more years of eligibility remaining. If one shakes out of the competition, the Hoosiers will be set through the 2013 season. And it’s hardly impossible that one becomes a competent quarterback. But this is a weakness headed into the fall, and the potential for disaster is fairly high. Even if an option emerges, expect growing pains early in the season.

Running Back—The running game woes are highlighted above, so only a few extra words will suffice. Junior Darius Willis is the presumed starter, assuming the knee injury that ended his season last year does not hold him back. Willis was a solid runner his freshman year, earning Freshman all-Big Ten honors, but struggled against very weak competition in the first four games last year. He was playing through injury, however, so the numbers may not tell the whole story. He got into a spot of legal trouble this offseason, which is something to watch.

Backing up Willis, or competing with him for the starting spot, will be sophomore Nick Turner. Turner is a smaller back and probably not capable of handling the ball 20 times a game, but he was the most successful Hoosier running back last season, averaging 5.6 yards per carry in limited action (including over 100 yards against Wisconsin, though most of that came on one 67 yard carry). There isn’t much depth here, but if Willis can stay healthy and if Turner progresses as normal from freshman to sophomore year, this could be a competent pairing.

Wide Receiver--Last year was one of those extremely rare occasions when Indiana football could claim to have the best of something in the Big Ten. Demarlo Belcher, Terrance Turner, and Tandon Doss each had over 60 receptions, something only two other Big Ten wide receivers accomplished (Roy Roundtree of Michigan and Jeremy Ebert of Northwestern). Duwyce Wilson, the fourth option at wide receiver, had one fewer reception than Purdue's leading receiver last season. Some of those numbers are a bit inflated because Indiana was forced to pass the ball so much, but regardless, this was a skilled troika.

Doss elected to forgo his senior season to enter the NFL draft (he's anywhere from a late-2nd to 5th round selection) and Turner graduated, but Indiana will return Belcher for his senior campaign this year. The soon-to-be senior led the Big Ten in receptions last season with 78 (though his season will be remembered for the one catch he didn't make, in the endzone on fourth down against Iowa to potentially win the game). Belcher's numbers will probably go down from a combination of new quarterback and defenses focusing on him more, but he is a potential All-Big Ten candidate. Wilson, only a sophomore this season, will presumably start across from Belcher. Indiana will need some more production from him this year, but 32 receptions as a freshman fourth WR is quite a start to his collegiate career, and his recruiting pedigree suggests that he could be the next in a line of solid wideouts.

Things are a bit dicey after that, though the Hoosiers at least have youth on their side. Kofi Hughes and Jamonne Chester both saw the field a bit as freshmen last year, and figure to see it a bit more as sophomores. Three true freshman will also join the squad, but none is the sort of recruit expected to make an impact immediately.

Tight End--People knew what to expect from Chappell and Tandon Doss. Demarlo Belcher's success was a little bit of a surprise (though he had 61 receptions in 2009), but with Doss drawing coverage on the other side of the field it made sense that the other wide receiver would put up some stats.

Ted Bolger's arrival on the scene, however, was completely unanticipated. The freshman tight end had his first four touchdowns before conference season started, and while he would earn only one more, he played well enough as a sophomore to earn All-Big Ten honorable mention and Freshman All-Big Ten awards. He also maximized his 27 receptions, gaining over 15 yards per reception. With Doss and Terrance Turner moving on, Bolger will see more looks this year, and a big target over the middle will help acclimate whichever quarterback wins the spring contest. Max Dedmond will play in two tight end sets as a blocker and can also move to fullback as necessary, though how much Kevin Wilson and the co-coordinators use heavy packages is yet to be seen.

Offensive Line--The best thing that can be said about Indiana's offensive line is that they will return four starters next season, with Justin Pagan and Will Matte providing both leadership and the most consistent play from the inside. The line didn't give up that many sacks last season (Chappell was sacked only 11 times), but that is very deceptive, as Ben Chappell showed the effects of constant pressure as the season wore on. The ineffectual run game is at least partly the fault of the line as well, especially since Willis was so successful behind the 2009 unit led by NFL draftee Roger Saffold. Previously overmatched units have been known to take major steps forward with experience, and improvement is likely, but the ceiling on this unit is probably "average Big Ten offensive line."

Defense--Doug Mallory/Doug Ekeler Offensive Coordinators (1st seasons each): Indiana's defense was an unmitigated disaster last season. There is no redeeming statistic. Towson scored more points against Indiana than against six of their FCS opponents. Wisconsin put up 83 points. Purdue scored fewer points against Ball State than against Indiana. The Hoosiers were 102nd in points given up last season, and Football Outsiders advanced metrics have Indiana as the 111th best defense in FBS (and the worst BCS-conference defense in the nation). The co-coordinators from last season, Brian George and Joe Palcic are currently a position coach at a MAC school and (so far as I can tell) unemployed, respectively. That is a vote of no confidence by the collective football world. When running a defense at all, Indiana played from a 3-4 at times, especially early, but largely reverted to a base 4-3 by the end of the season.

Incoming coordinators Doug Mallory and Doug Ekeler are getting their first chances as defensive coordinators this season; given their secondary assignments and previous coaching histories, Mallory will likely be responsible for the passing game while Ekeler will handle the run defense. I've never understood how these co-coordinator positions are supposed to work, and history suggests they don't (see paragraph immediately above), but we will see. Indiana's new coordinators also helps the Big Ten meet its annual Mallory quota (Michigan is also doing its part).

Defensive Line--Unquestionably the strength of Indiana's defense coming into 2011; if the defense is going to improve unexpectedly anywhere, look for better pressure up front. All four projected starers played in 10 or more games last season. Darius Johnson and Fred Jones play on the outside. Johnson is a bit undersized but still managed to lead the Hoosiers with 4.5 sacks last season; you might see him drop into coverage from time to time as well. Jones is a bigger player and not nearly as good of a rusher; if anyone is in danger of losing his starting position, it's him. Javon Cornley will see time in the rotation and could compete for a starting spot, and Adam Replogle is capable of moving to the defensive end spot as well.

Larry Black, Jr. is a space-eating tackle in the center of the line; he'll never fill a stat sheet but he held up reasonably well at the point of attack as a redshirt sophomore last season. Sometimes it takes big guys a little while longer to learn how to use their mass, so continued improvement from Black would not be shocking. Alongside Black is Adam Replogle, the middle of the three Hoosier Replogles and the cornerstone of the 2011 defense. Despite playing on the inside quite often, the Indiana coaching staff will probably be disappointed if Replogle cannot improve on his two sacks from last year, though in fairness he did draw quite a bit of attention on the inside. He would be the first to benefit if Black can draw more double teams with his massive frame. Neither defensive end if probably in much danger of losing his spot, but junior Mick Mentzer is closer to unseating Black at the "wall of man" tackle position than Nick Sliger is to replacing Replogle at the three-technique. All four will get lots of playing time.

Linebacker--Indiana loses only one starter from the linebacker corps, but he was a good one. Tyler Replogle, older brother of Adam Replogle, earning honorable All-Big Ten recognition and leading Indiana in tackles despite missing two games with injury (he was not on the field for the Wisconsin massacre, which could not have helped the Hoosiers).

Four returning players had starts last season at linebacker last year, so even with the loss of Replogle there is some experience on the roster. Jeff Thomas started most of the season last year at middle linebacker. A junior college transfer, Thomas seemed to settle in as the season went on, playing one of his best games against Purdue in the final week; Thomas had an interception in overtime of that game, leading to Indiana's subsequent field goal and victory. Leon Beckum will probably start on the weak side; an undersized linebacker even for the outside, Beckum was used as a speed rusher last season with some success (three sacks).

Those two players are likely set (though there's a chance Beckum could be moved to the strong side). Competing for the final outside spot is Chad Sherer, who started three early-season games last year and saw some time as a second-stringer; Damon Sims, a redshirt sophomore, started one game at weak side linebacker and is at minimum a shoo-in for the two deep; and Dimitrius Carr-Watson, also a redshirt sophomore who has thus far seen sparse playing time. If none steps up, highly touted redshirt freshman Ishmael Thomas could see significant playing time, as could sophomore Jeff Thomas (no relation). True freshman Zack Shaw might also see the field.

Secondary--Frankly, there is very little reason for optimism concerning Indiana's secondary. What little hope Hoosier fans have should be focused on the safety position, where one probable starter missed most of last season with an ankle injury. Chris Adkins has played reasonably well when he's been able to stay on the field; with 15 missed games in two years, however, he has been somewhat star-crossed during his collegiate career. Fortunately, both injuries were unrelated and so the second in no way aggravated the first. Donnell Jones, the other likely starter, was moved from cornerback to safety prior to the season. Those growing pains the first year after the switch sometimes really pay off in year two (of course, given Indiana's weakness at cornerback, Jones may also be moved back). Jarell Drane also started one game at safety and is in line to become a starter almost by default should there be an injury or position switch.

Cornerback is an even bigger question mark. Jones could be moved back, as could Lenyatta Kiles, who like Jones was transitioned to safety last year. The spring game should give some clues as to the new coaching staff's plans with these players. Junior college transfer Andre Kates say some time last season, but may see significantly more if only because he is one of the few experienced players that has not been moved to safety already. Two more redshirt juniors, Alexander Webb and Peter St. Fort, have barely seen the field during their three years at Indiana; it's either now or never with them. Everything is very fluid in the back four right now, and perhaps nothing will be absolutely settled there until the opening game against Ball State.

Specialists--The Hoosiers likely won't know who the kicker will be until after the spring, but unlike most specialist battles Indiana is in a position of strength here. Nick Freeland was the opening game starter last year but played in only one game after suffering a hip injury. Mitch Ewald filled in admirably, going 16/19 for field goals, with one of those misses from beyond 50 yards. Ewald was perfect on his extra point attempts as well. I won't hazard a guess on the outcome of this contest.

There will be a battle for the punting position as well, though the end result is somewhat more doubtful. Chris Hagerup had been starter for two and a half seasons, but he saw his chances dwindle as the season progressed. To read his Twitter feed is to stare into the existential void that is being a punter for Indiana. Taking his place was sophomore (now junior) Adam Pines. A good punting game would be worth more to Indiana than most teams, so here's hoping that one player steps forward.


9/3/11 Ball State (in Indianapolis)
9/10/11 Virginia
9/17/11 South Carolina State
9/24/11 at North Texas
10/01/11 Penn State
10/08/11 Illinois
10/15/11 at Wisconsin
10/22/11 at Iowa
10/29/11 Northwestern
11/05/11 at Ohio State
11/12/11 OPEN
11/19/11 at Michigan State
11/26/11 Purdue

The Ball State game is technically a road game for Indiana, in the same way the Michigan State game in Detroit last season against Florida Atlantic was a "road" game; teams need to maintain a reasonable home attendance to remain in FBS and this is a good way to game the system.

The North Texas road game is harder to explain, especially because Indiana has never played UNT and will not be playing them again in the near future. Big Ten teams probably shouldn't be playing road games against Sun Belt squads, but when they do, they definitely shouldn't be one-off road games. The optics are just bad. Even worse would be a loss, which is definitely possible against what will be an improved Mean Green squad.

Indiana misses Nebraska, Michigan, and Minnesota next season, the Minnesota miss being especially painful for a team that needs as many chances as it can get to reach bowl eligibility. All four conference road games fall into the "stranger things have happened, but not many" category. The schedule does set up well in one sense: the road games were probably losses anyway. Like a poker player folding his bad hands and playing the good ones, Indiana has a chance to take advantage of the home field advantage to potentially steal a few games.

Fearless Prediction

This hasn't been the most chipper of previews, but at least Hoosier fans enter the season 1.) with almost no expectations and 2.) in possession of the Old Oaken Bucket. The upper boundary on this team is probably bottom-feeder bowl loss to an underseeded Big Twelve team, but then again, that's been the upper boundary on Indiana football since 1994. If Kevin Wilson can pull that off in 2011, they might give him a ten year contract.

But this team has less talent than last years, especially on offense, and the defense would have to improve quite a bit just to reach mediocrity. Last year's team only wins four games against this schedule, so expecting this team to win more than that is overly optimistic. No one ever said that market corrections are painless.