The 2017-18 Indiana Football season is roughly two months away, and this Hoosier squad has the potential to be one of the best in recent memory. Plenty of returning talent and a favorable schedule could bring a level of success to Bloomington that has only been seen once or twice in the program’s history. With that said, let’s take a look at some possible strengths and weaknesses as we come ever closer to the season opener against Ohio State.
Just as it was last year, expect the defense to keep the Hoosiers in plenty of games this fall. A strong secondary with Rashard Fant, A’Shon Riggins, Jonathan Crawford, and Marcelino Ball all returning should cause quarterbacks problems all year. The linebacking corps, led by the best linebacker in the Big 10, Tegray Scales, should also be solid, even with the departure of Marcus Oliver. Hopefully Scales will finally receive recognition for his excellent play, but I’m not sure about his chances unless he can manage to rush for 74 yards against Rutger. The defensive line is probably the biggest question mark as they enter the season after the graduation of Ralph Green III, but Robert McCray, Jacob Robinson, and Greg Gooch will bring a ton of experience and should be able to hold steady.
Quarterback Richard Lagow will have plenty of help this season, even after the loss of Mitchell Paige and Ricky Jones. Simmie Cobbs returns after suffering a season-ending injury last season against Ball State, and should be the number one target among the receiving corps. Nick Westbrook returns after a solid sophomore campaign, and his combination of size and speed should make him a dangerous deep threat. Luke Timian and Donavan Hale will provide some depth as third options and J-Shun Harris is somewhat of a wild card as he tries to return from his second ACL tear in as many season. Harris showed flashes during his 2014 freshman campaign, but hasn’t been able to see the field during the last two seasons. If he stays healthy for a whole season, he could add some depth and become a solid option when he does see the field.
Even without two-time All-American Dan Feeney, the offensive line should still be a pretty strong unit for the 2017 season. Coy Cronk returns after a freshman season in which he started every game and was named a freshman All-American. Joining Cronk will be tackle Brandon Knight, guards Wes Martin and Simon Stepaniak, and center Hunter Littlejohn. I’m not sure if the line will have a standout performer like Dan Feeney was for the last two years, but that’s not really necessary for a successful offensive line. The most important thing is that these five, along with their backups, work as one cohesive unit and I trust them to do exactly that. Every player on the line has been with the team for at least one full season, and that familiarity with one another should be a key factor in their success this season.
It’s really difficult for me to label the running backs as a “weakness” but the truth is, none of them have a full season under their belts and have only shown flashes of ability in games. Tom Allen is hoping that Camion Patrick will be able to be 100% healthy for a full season and become a solid contributor at running back, but it remains to be seen how close he’ll be when it comes time for fall camp. Besides Patrick, Mike Majette, Ricky Brookins, Alex Rodriguez, and Cole Gest could all get their shot at the starting job. Majette, Brookins, and Rodriguez all showed potential last season in relief of Devine Redding, and it’ll be interesting to see what happens now that they’ll be getting a greater amount of carries. However inexperienced the running backs may be, running behind an offensive line that has cranked out three straight 1000 yard rushers is certainly an advantage, and we could still see solid production from the running backs.
Special teams was probably the most frustrating part of last year’s team, and they’ll certainly need to step things up, because the Hoosiers will need every point they can get in games against tough opponents like Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State. Griffin Oakes had an up-and-down junior season in which he went 16-26 on field goals and 33-35 on extra points. That 61% success rate on field goals was a 20% drop off from his previous two seasons, and he’ll need to get back into the 80% range in order to become a real scoring threat this season. Joseph Gedeon had a solid season as the punter, where he average 40.1 yard on 61 punts. He dropped a total of 15 punts inside the 10 yard line, with six coming inside the 5. He’s entering his second season as the starting punter, and hopefully can become even more of a weapon in the field position battle. The real questions come in the punt and kick return game, where someone needs to step up and replace Mitchell Paige. Paige became a dangerous punt returner during his time at IU, and it’s likely that Rashard Fant will be asked to fill his spot after fielding the occasional punt last season. Devonte Williams will handle the kick return duties for a second straight season.
We all know the story with Richard Lagow. He’s an extremely talented player with an arm that is possibly the best one to come through Bloomington, but he really struggled with turnovers and decision-making last season. With a full season of Big Ten football under his belt, I think it’s pretty likely that Lagow becomes a much more solid player in his final year of college. Lagow spent time this offseason working with renowned quarterback trainer George Whitfield Jr. in San Diego. Lagow showcased his big play ability in flashes last season, but there were too many occasions in which that ability was coupled with turnovers. Specifically, the Wake Forest game comes to mind, where Lagow set an Indiana single game record with 496 passing yards, but threw five interceptions in a 33-28 loss. Eliminating big mistakes would be an incredibly valuable improvement for Lagow, and he could become one of the better quarterbacks in the Big Ten if he does.
This Hoosier team certainly has the potential to be special, and we’ll certainly learn a lot on August 31st against Ohio State. That game can be an announcement that Indiana is here to compete with the big boys, or it could be a reminder of how far behind the Hoosiers really are. In my opinion, there isn’t a better time to play the Buckeyes, who could be caught a little off guard by the intensity from IU and (hopefully) a raucous crowd in Memorial Stadium. The only reservation I have is that the last time we saw Ohio State on a football field, they were getting skunked 31-0 by a Clemson team on their way to a national title. The Buckeyes will be looking to prove that they aren’t the team that was ran off the field last December, but instead a serious national championship contender. The Hoosiers will need to throw the first punch, and try to keep Ohio State on the mat for most of the game.
No matter how nervous (or excited) you may be for the season opener, there are plenty of reasons for optimism coming into this season. The Hoosiers could put together a season that could really put Indiana Football on the map, and have a shot at a few memorable victories. I’m feeling pretty optimistic about this year and have a good feeling we could be talking about August 31, 2017 for a looooong time in Bloomington.