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Position preview: Depth a question for IU O-line

The CQ position preview series rolls on with the fellas up front

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: AUG 31 Indiana v Ball State Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The talent is there.

But is the depth?

For Indiana’s offensive line this season, that seems to be the question. And make no mistake, it’s a fairly important question to ponder. That’s because, in a season such as this — a season that could push the limits of a team’s roster — depth will be crucial. This month, it’s been one of IU’s biggest areas of wonder.

“The entire offensive line is definitely an area that I would say is a concern,” Allen said early in fall camp, “but I feel better than I did a month ago.”

Indeed, there are good reasons to feel excited about this group. Indiana’s first-team O-line could be pretty darn good.

At the tackle spots, IU has two potential NFL Draft prospects in Caleb Jones (left) and Matthew Bedford (right). Jones, a redshirt junior, is a gigantic human being, a 6-foot-8, 362-pound mountain of a man who started all 13 games last season (Side note: I once sat next to Jones on a commuter jet, and I can 100 percent confirm that he is a big, big, big guy. Like, the biggest person I’ve ever met. Worst flight ever.). Since arriving on campus in 2017, Jones has received steady work at both tackle spots, including 12 starts on the right side last year. But with the left-handed Michael Penix entrenched as the starter this season, Jones and Bedford are switching sides so that the latter can protect Penix’s blind side.

When discussing Indiana’s talent up front, the conversation begins with Bedford, the 6-foot-6, 314-pound sophomore from Tennessee. Bedford authored an encouraging start to his college career last season on the left side, earning IU’s Newcomer of the Year award after starting eight of the nine games he played. Indiana coaches are extremely high on Bedford, and they’ve whispered since his arrival about his next-level upside.

On the inside, Harry Crider is locked in as the center now that Hunter Littlejohn has graduated. Crider has been a steady and consistent player across his first three seasons, while bouncing between center and guard. His full-time return to center could even represent an upgrade for the O-line. Bedford, at least, seems to think so.

“One thing I can say about Harry is that he picks up on the blitzes a little bit better,” Bedford said. “Sometimes he will be able to give me a gut call, which is when the linebackers are on different levels, and he is able to see that a little quicker. He is a huge help in that aspect.”

To Crider’s left, Stanford graduate transfer Dylan Powell appears to be one of IU’s answers to the guard positions. Powell, who missed all of last season due to a shoulder injury, brings 19 games worth of Pac-12 experience to Bloomington. To Crider’s right, redshirt senior Mackenzie Nworah and redshirt freshman Mike Katic are battling it out for first-team duties. Across the past few weeks, that’s been among the top position battles to monitor.

So, to recap the first team, it’s shaping up as:

LT: Jones
LG: Powell
C: Crider
RG: Nworah/Katic
RT: Bedford

The second group is where things begin to get interesting. Again, Indiana doesn’t want for talent, and all told, this collection of linemen seems to have a high ceiling. But after the first five or six guys, I’m not sure how comfortable Indiana’s staff is with the options at this point in the developmental timeline.

But given all the virus risks and things at play this season, we may find out exactly what the Hoosiers have waiting in the wings.

Should there be a need at one of the tackle spots, redshirt sophomore Aidan Rafferty could be the next man up. After that, IU has JUCO transfers Chris Bradberry and Luke Haggard fighting to get into the mix.

“Both of those guys are playing tackle right now and are both doing a really good job,” offensive line coach Darren Hiller said earlier this month. “Haggard has been here longer and is definitely ahead in that realm. I do not know if he is 275 or if he is somewhere in the 280-pound range now, but he gets bigger and bigger every day. He is doing a really nice job and will be on the football field for us this year. Bradberry is a guy that got here a little bit later, but he is doing a nice job. The good thing is that he was a redshirt at San Jose State and then was two years in junior college, so he is a little bit older. He still has a long way to go in terms of a knowledge base and a physicality standpoint.”

Elsewhere, either Katic or Nworah will assist in a reserve role. Britt Beery, too, seems to be at the top of IU’s list of secondary options. Walk-on center Charlie O’Connor has also forced his way into the conversation during his first two years in the program. He might help, as well.