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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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)
9/17/11 South Carolina State
9/24/11 at North Texas
10/01/11 Penn State
10/15/11 at Wisconsin
10/22/11 at Iowa
11/05/11 at Ohio State
11/19/11 at Michigan State
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.
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.