by Chuck Sippl, Senior Editor

Patience is not a long suit of Kevin Wilson. Which is most likely a good thing. The former long-time Northwestern and Oklahoma offensive assistant was one of the first head coaches in the nation last season to turn almost completely to a youth development program.

And why not? Indiana was so weak that it embarrassingly lost its season opener 27-20 vs. MAC also-ran Ball State in Indianapolis. While that loss to the Cardinals of Muncie might have delighted Ball State alum David Letterman, it was a harbinger of horrible things to come for the Hoosier program, which finished 2011 with a 1-11 record, with the only victory over FBS foe South Carolina State of the MEAC. Against FBS teams, Indiana was 0-11, with five losses by 21 points or more.

It didn’t take too long last season for Wilson to realize that Indiana’s veteran players weren’t going to improve much in 2011. Or improve further in 2012, for that matter. So the frustrated coach--who had become used to the annual flood of quick-twitch raw talent at Oklahoma for the previous nine seasons--turned heavily to youth in Bloomington, with a view toward future development. Thus, Wilson played more freshmen last season than any other team. Thirty-two all told. Sixteen redshirt frosh and 16 true frosh. With predictable results. The baby-faced, still-learning, still-growing Hoosiers lined up wrong, blew assignments, committed a boat-load of penalties, and missed a container-ship full of blocks and tackles. The 2011 bottom line was a team that was 101st in scoring offense (21.4 ppg), 114th in scoring defense (37.3 ppg), 109th in total defense (458.7 ypg), and 118th (of 120 teams) in rushing defense (243.7 ypg). With a stop unit unable to impede the run, the Hoosiers collected only 18 sacks and grabbed just five interceptions while yielding 26 TD passes and a lofty 8.54 yards per pass attempt.

The youth movement also produced other negative consequences. QB Ed Wright-Baker, who had five starts last season, transferred in January. Well-regarded soph Dusty Kiel, who had two starts, also transferred. Worse yet, five-star recruit Gunner Kiel, among last season’s top prep QBs, who was looking to play with his brother at IU, de-committed from the Hoosiers in October and ended up signing instead with Notre Dame. That’s three young QBs with a bright upside gone from Bloomington in a matter of months.

That leaves the 2012 job initially in the hands of 6-0, 183 true soph Tre Roberson (left), who started the last five games of 2011. Roberson is no slouch, having been named Mr. Football in Indiana in 2010 and being the grandson of former Hoosier DB and track star Larry Highbaugh, a member of the CFL Hall of Fame. However, the smallish, dual-threat (426 YR last season) Roberson is not a pass-first QB in the style of Sooners Sam Bradford and Landry Jones, who Wilson helped groom while in Norman. While it’s true that Roberson (57%, 3 TDs, 6 ints. in 2011) has an upside, coaches are fearful that his slight frame might not be to best handle the augmented aerial game being installed this season by new offensive coordinator Seth Littrell, a former member of the 2000 Oklahoma national title team who spent four years learning the Mike Leach passing attack at Texas Tech and then the last three years helping teach it at Arizona.

HC Wilson says improving the aerial component at Bloomington is a priority, so Roberson will get competition in August from 6-2 juco Cam Coffman (son of former Packer TE Paul Coffman), who reported early and went through spring practice, and 6-5 true frosh Nate Sudfeld, who was headed to Arizona until Mike Stoops was ousted in favor of spread specialist Rich Rodriguez, with the strong-armed Sudfeld then following former U of A assistant Littrell to the home of the “Little 500.”

Whoever starts will be supported by a soph-laden OL (led by respected sr. C Will Matte in his fourth year as a starter), a cast of talented RBs, and a group of youthful receivers who offer good potential. Jr. RB Stephen Houston (right; 802 YR, 5.3 ypc last year) showed in 2011 he is a quality Big Ten RB. Houston will be backed this season by quick soph Isaiah Roundtree, a transfer from Morehead State who was a teammate of QB Roberson in high school.

Junior Kofi Hughes (35 recs. LY), soph Shayne Wynn (19), and jr. Jamonne Chester (19) all return at wideout, and coaches are hoping for a complete recovery by 6-3 WR Duwyce Wilson (17 recs. and 3 TDs before a knee injury last October). There’s also 6-6 jr. TE Ted Bolser, who is often split out in the new pass offense and is hoping to catch 50+ balls in 2012 under o.c. Littrell, who helped develop future Patriot TE Ron Gronkowski while in Tuscon. Says the hopeful Bolser about the lost season in 2011, “We didn’t have much leadership last year. Everybody was just kind of wandering in their own heads. The leadership’s really changed this year.”

As for the overwhelmed defense, Wilson spent much of his time on the recruiting trail seeking out JC players who could provide an immediate upgrade. The head coach thus signed five junior college defenders in this year’s recruiting class, all of whom enrolled early for spring practice. The most promising of that group turned out to be high-energy MLB David Cooper, potential pass rusher OLB Jacarri Alexander, DE Justin Rayside, and DB Tregg Waters. As for returning defenders, soph DE Bobby Richardson (3 sacks) showed promise last season, while sr. DTs Adam Replogle (shown at left vs. Illinois last fall; 4 sacks) and 310-pound Larry Black (2 sacks; 3-year starter) usually can hold down the middle if they get enough help. 6-2, 246 soph OLB Chase Hoobler (all-conference frosh team) has useful Big Ten LB size.

The secondary is still quite young, but--thanks to last year’s forced playing time--has good experience going into 2012. Jr. CB Greg Heban had two ints., jr. CB Lawrence Barnett had nine starts, soph S Mark Murphy proved his worth with 76 Ts, while soph Kenny Mullen had two sacks from his nickel-back spot. However, with the Hoosiers desperate to at least slow the run last season, IU defensive coaches say opponents easily picked up poorly-disguised Indiana blitzes and burned the young DBs for big plays. Coach Wilson is hoping that his juco-enhanced, more-experienced defenders will play with more stealth and greater effectiveness this season. But the Hoosiers must develop more impact defenders if they are going to pull any upsets in the rugged Big Ten (or, “B1G,” as spelled in the semi-new, semi-corny, and perhaps ill-advised league logo).

One returning Indiana plus is jr. PK Mitch Ewald, who hit 13 of 16 FG attempts last season and is 29 for 35 in his career.

Summary...Given the returning offensive cast, plus an improvement in the aerial game likely to manifest itself with the addition of o.c. Littrell, it seems reasonable to presume a boost in scoring by the Hoosiers this season. But history has shown that anticipating an improvement in defense in Bloomington can be a dubious exercise. And defensive shortcomings can make it difficult to move up in the very competitive “B1G.” Even HC Kevin Wilson admits as much, saying, “This is a fight year. We’ve got to fight. We’ve got to establish some credibility. If we lay an egg, then it’s just a vicious cycle that can go right down the toilet.” Wilson goes on to say, “It’s a critical year. And the bottom line is that, at least at some point, we’ve got to win games.” He concludes, “No aspect is satisfactory when you’re 1-11.” It might be that Wilson’s blunt, in-your-face, approach is not the best for a youth-laden team that starts the season with only eight seniors (seven 5th-year seniors, one true senior). Going the “juco route” is generally not a good idea in a major conference. Especially for a coach not long on patience, as we mentioned at the start of this analysis. Indiana goes into the season with nine straight losses. Therefore, one must anticipate an extremely focused effort from the Hoosiers in their first three 2012 contests--versus FCS member Indiana State (6-5 last season), at FBS newbie Massachusetts (5-6 last year), and in the revenge game vs. 2011 Indiana conqueror Ball State (6-6 last season). If the Hoosiers miss their opportunities for victory in those winnable games, Bloomington gridiron fans (who saw their team go 0-8 in the Big Ten last season) might very well go into serious “wait for hoops” mode.

Note: A combination of some competent offense and doily defense has led to a 29-14-2 over/under mark for the Hoosiers the last four years (9-3 in 2011). Also note that visiting fans from neighboring Ohio love to flood Bloomington’s Memorial Stadium when the Buckeyes travel to Indiana (Oct. 13 this season), usually flipping the “home-field” crowd in favor of OSU.


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