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2020 Heisman Trophy Ballot (aka IU’s quarterbacks preview)

Remember that time an IU beat writer’s phone autocorrected Penix at 4:20 p.m.? Everything’s been downhill since

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Northwestern v Indiana Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

(Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing series previewing each position of Indiana’s football team.)

Let’s take a look at the future of IU’s quarterback position.

With redshirt sophomore Michael Penix Jr. under center, IU football and its fan base is in a position that the Hoosiers have almost never been in, regarding their relationship with a potentially generational talent – short of the best of the Anthony Thompson, Antwaan Randle El and Tevin Coleman years. Despite IU fans being as ready as ever to quench their Big Ten East thirst with an elusive win over Ohio State or Michigan, to have their team win a bowl game, and to check off other historic achievements that would remove IU football from as many Aflac trivia questions as possible, it might be impossible for them to overrate Penix, even after throwing on their favorite Homefield shirt and drinking five or six Busch Lights and a pull of Skrewball in the middle of a muddy field.

That’s because the smart football minds over at Pro Football Focus ranked Penix as their No. 12 quarterback entering the 2020 season, just one spot behind Miami (FL)’s D’Eriq King, who had an episode of the ESPN Daily podcast dedicated to him last week about whether or not a win over Clemson could be his Heisman moment.

Here’s part of what PFF had to say about Penix:

“He has every trait you want in a quarterback: accuracy, decision-making, arm strength, mobility, pocket presence — Penix is well above average in all of these critical facets of play.” – PFF

The 2019 season saw Penix play in just six games, but he showed notable growth in that time as his completion percentage climbed by seven percent to 68.8 percent, his yards/attempt improved by 35 percent from 2018 to 8.7 yards per attempt, and had he played in all 13 games, he could’ve cracked 3,000 passing yards.

That’s why durability, which isn’t always in a player’s control, obviously, might be Penix’s most important trait this season. We know what he can do on the field, it’s just a matter of him staying healthy and upright to be able to sling those sweet lefty passes and move the pocket with his feet.

At his best – on Sept. 28, 2019 in East Lansing – Penix was completing passes at a nearly 80-percent clip, racking up four total touchdowns, and otherwise carrying an IU offense that had some trouble moving the chains on the ground against a stout Spartans defense.

After rewatching the super cut of that game, there were a lot of reminders about what there is to get excited about with the 2020 version of Penix. The arm strength he showed on a rope of a throw to Whop Philyor for IU’s first touchdown. His willingness to stand in the pocket and throw an on-target ball in the face of pressure. His awareness to look deep on free plays after opposing defensive linemen jumped offside. The elusiveness on a naked bootleg on the goal line. The 20 completions in a row, a streak that ended with a near-touchdown that was caught – just barely out of bounds.

And if Penix had put 2 percent less umph on this pass to put IU up by 10 on the road in the fourth quarter, there wouldn’t have been a day that would’ve gone by since Sept. 28, 2019 that we wouldn’t have talked about his career day in East Lansing.

Remember, Penix decommitted from Tennessee, and Florida State made a run at him during his recruitment, too. He chose Indiana.

Chances are you’ll hear those nuggets sprinkled in on BTN broadcasts throughout this season if he takes another 2019-level jump in 2020.

“People forget, this guy was committed to Tennessee, which is 3-5 this season and just fell out of the AP Top 25. Think they could use him right about now?”

I’d make a joke about Florida State but the normal state of affairs in Tallahassee in recent years does that job, too.

Behind Penix on the depth chart, Utah transfer Jack Tuttle is settling into his role as backup QB. After Peyton Ramsey’s decision to transfer to Northwestern – a choice that, as Medill grads, we at CQ respect – Tuttle, a former four-star, top-200 recruit in the 2018 recruiting class, is finally getting real snaps in practice in Bloomington.

“He’s gotten more reps and gotten better,” new offensive coordinator Nick Sheridan said recently. “Traditionally, the third team quarterback toward the end of training camp and the season, they just don’t get many reps. So that’s where Jack kind of fell last year. He had just gotten here and he was learning what we were doing.”

As the boss around here noted in his recent story about Tuttle, IU’s two-deep at quarterback presents the Hoosiers with as much talent at the position – at least from a recruiting rankings perspective – as they’ve had since ... ever?

While there’s no reason to believe, nor do IU fans want, an “Is the backup better than the starter situation?” this season, that’s what high school football talent evaluators thought, when it came to the aggregate of their analysis of Penix and Tuttle.

So IU’s offense will be led by a top-15 quarterback in the country this season and the Hoosiers’s break-glass-in-case-of-emergency backup option is the one who was rated as the better player entering college.

That’s a good problem to have.