The football season looms, with the opener against Eastern Kentucky scheduled for a week from Thursday. Now that I have reviewed the competition, it's time to dig in to the 2009 Hoosiers, and take a position-by-position look at the IU. Today, we start with the quarterbacks and a discussion of the Pistol offense/formation. At this time, I am relying upon the Rivals depth chart for IU.
The starter: Ben Chappell, 6-3 junior. Chappell, a Bloomington South product, is in his first season as the undisputed starter, but last season he played in 9 of 12 games and started 3 games, including IU's lone Big Ten victory against Northwestern. Chappell's season was a mixed bag. He completed only 52 percent of his passes, averaged only 6.5 yards per attempt, and threw 4 TDs to 3 INTs. His first start was a very rough game against Illinois, but the next week, he completed 21 of 34 passes for 219 yards and led IU to the upset of Northwestern. He was sacked 11 times. Clearly, the staff is high on Chappell, or they wouldn't have been willing to place the team in his hands even before Lewis was thrown off the team. Still, he will have to be much more efficient in 2009 for IU to have a chance at success. Finally, while Chappell isn't a great runner, he did have 50 rushing attempts for 72 yards and 3 TDs.
The backups: Adam Follett, 6-4 RS freshman. Follett currently is listed as the #2 quarterback by Rivals, although as far as I know there has been no official decision. While he has never seen game action, Follett reputedly is more of a dual threat than any of the other returning quarterbacks. Teddy Schell, 6-5 sophomore. Schell is the only quarterback other than Chappell who saw game action last season, but he seems to be moving down the depth chart.
The newcomers: Edward Wright-Baker, 6-1 freshman. My understanding was that the staff hopes to redshirt both of the true freshman quarterbacks, but the Hoosier Scoop's reporting from yesterday suggests that Wright-Baker may be climbing the depth chart. Wright-Baker is regarded as a strong-armed QB and a great runner who needs to work on the precision of his passing. Sound at all familiar? I've made clear before that I think a dual-threat quarterback is a great way for a program like IU to level the playing field, so it will be interesting to see how the staff handles Wright-Baker and whether the staff is willing to burn a year of eligibility. Kellen Lewis and Antwaan Randle El both redshirted and were ready to play from the beginning of their second years on campus. On the other hand, this coaching staff must realize that absent a strong 2009, there might not be a "next year." Dusty Kiel, 6-2 freshman. Kiel seems nearly certain to redshirt. He's from Columbus, Indiana and is the nephew of Blair Kiel, a four-year starter at quarterback for Notre Dame in the early 1980s.
The departed: Kellen Lewis, of course. It's a crying shame that IU's all-time leader in touchdown passes will finish his career at Valdosta State. I have nothing more to say about it.
It's been well-publicized that the IU staff traveled to Reno, Nevada in the offseason to get a first-hand look at the Nevada Wolfpack's potent "Pistol" offense. In some ways, it's a curious choice, given that Nevada employs a mobile quarterback in the offense, and it was clear some time before spring practice that IU would be starting Ben Chappell, not Kellen Lewis. Still, it's worth a look at how Nevada runs this offense. As those of you who have been around for a while, my mediocre (at best) flag football career and time in the Marching Hundred somehow did not endow me with a wealth of x's and o's football knowledge. I am relying heavily on an excellent post from Blue Gray Sky, a Notre Dame blog (ND hosts Nevada in week 1). As BGS notes, the basic characteristic of the Pistol is an atypical shotgun formation. In the typical shotgun formation, the quarterback shares the backfield with a running back, and the running back is slightly ahead of and to the side of the quarterback. In the pistol formation, the quarterback lines up at shotgun depth, but the running back is directly behind the QB. This means that as would be the case in an "I" formation, the running back is shielded from the defense's view. This creates some opportunities for misdirection.
As noted above, Nevada uses this offense with a mobile quarterback (Colin Kaepernick ran for 1130 yards and 17 touchdowns last season. He also threw 22 TD passes despite completing only 54 percent of his passes). Here is BGS's description of how nearly every Nevada play begins:
How does it work? Most Nevada plays start the same way: the quarterback (third-year starter Colin Kaepernick) takes the snap, does a half-pivot, and either: a) hands off to the halfback; b) fakes the handoff (either a full sell, or just a quick pivot) and runs; or c) fakes the handoff and passes. Like the spread option, the guessing game can cause havoc with defensive timing.
Obviously, with Ben Chappell running the offense, only a) and c) will be in heavy use. BGS also notes that Nevada uses the offense in this way:
Nevada's run-game bread and butter are zone runs, primarily an inside zone "slice" play and the outside zone, or stretch. They run the stretch to both the weak and strong sides, and typically run the slice -- aided by the strongside receiver, who "slices" in behind the weakside guard and tackle to pick up a linebacker or safety. Both are designed to play to the strengths (and/or minimize the weaknesses) of smaller, quicker offensive linemen, although Nevada's line is not tiny: their guards and tackles are lighter than ND's, but not significantly so.
Really, the more I read about Nevada's offense, the less I can conceive of what IU is going to do. Lynch has talked, since spring practice, of creating a "downhill running game." That doesn't sound like what Nevada is doing. And I don't think of the remaining "seven blocks of limestone" as undersized or particularly quick. I think the important thing to remember is that the Pistol, at its heart, is a formation, not an "offense," so to speak. Lynch seems to like the idea of having the running back set way back, presumably so that he can hit the holes with some wind behind his back, metaphorically. I didn't see the spring game and haven't seen any of the scrimmages, so this will be an issue to discuss after the Eastern Kentucky game. It will be interesting to watch that game on Thursday and then compare and contrast what Nevada does against Notre Dame on Saturday.
More on the rest of the offense later today or tomorrow.