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Position preview: On a deep team, is tight end IU’s deepest spot?

The Hoosiers have a bunch of interesting players at tight end this year — more so than usual

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IU tight ends TJ Ivy (left) and Matt Bjorson complete a drill during fall camp in 2019.
Bobby Goddin/For IndyStar via Imagn Content Services, LLC

We know this is going to be a deep Indiana football team. In fact, we’ve known it for months.

But which position group leads that conversation? Is it one of the defensive units? Receiver, perhaps? There are several places to look.

Like tight end.

For one, IU didn’t lose a single player from last year’s position room. At the same time, it added contributors such as graduate transfer Khameron Taylor and freshman AJ Barner. It returns one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the Big Ten in Peyton Hendershot, and the presence of understudies Matt Bjorson, Gary Cooper and Turon Ivy means the Hoosiers could lean toward a few more two-tight end sets this fall.

“I believe that the tight end position has the most depth on the team,” Bjorson said. “We have four or five guys that can make plays no matter when they get on the field. Having two big bodies in there is better than one.”

Let’s take a closer look at new position coach Kevin Wright’s options this fall:

Peyton Hendershot

R-Jr. 6-4, 250

Hendershot had a bad offseason. Like, really, really bad. He was arrested in February and charged with four misdemeanors stemming from a domestic incident. In June, Hendershot pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor criminal trespass charge and was sentenced to one year of probation as part of a plea agreement, according to the Bloomington Herald-Times. Speaking publicly earlier this month for the first time since his arrest, Hendershot apologized for the incident.

“I made a huge mistake,” he said. “I am sorry to all of the people that were involved, everyone that I let down. I feel horrible and so remorseful about it. There are so many people that have helped me get to where I am in my life and I feel like that was a letdown to all of them. They all believed in me. I am taking classes every week and I have learned a lot from that. I am responsible for everything in my life.”

After serving a suspension this spring, Hendershot was fully reinstated to the team in July. That said, it’s not known whether Hendershot will sit for any portion of Saturday’s season opener against Penn State. Usually, these types of things aren’t clear until kickoff.

When he’s on the field, Hendershot has demonstrated that he’s one of the top tight end targets in the conference. He earned All-Big Ten Third Team honors last season after setting IU’s single-season position records with 52 catches for 622 yards and four scores. His catches tied for fourth nationally among those at his position, and his yardage ranked 10th in the country for tight ends.

Hendershot has aspirations to reach the next level, and a big fall could help get him there.

“I think he has got to get a little bit better in every aspect from run blocking to pass pro,” Wright said. “He catches the ball and he has really good ball skills. That is something that I think has always stood out with him. But I have seen the gradual increase in his ability to block, to pass pro, to block inline and to block on the perimeter. Just be a complete player. We watch a lot of NFL tape as we are breaking things down, so I think he has a goal and he sees what it takes. He is working awful hard toward that.”

Matt Bjorson

Jr., 6-3, 240

No, Bjorson’s numbers in the passing don’t jump out. But I’ll give you a number on his career stat line that does:

25.

Bjorson has appeared in all 25 games IU has played over his first two seasons with the program. Operating in a reserve role, Bjorson has given Indiana a tough and trusted option behind Hendershot.

“He’s a blue-collar guy,” Wright said. “You can plug and play with Matt. He’s a guy I probably have as much faith in as anybody in the room, because he knows everything he needs to know. He can tell people what to do. He can move around. He’s interchangeable. He’s a tough kid, so we’ve used him in in-line blocking.”

That said, Bjorson would like to add more to the passing game. He shed 10 pounds from his frame after last season in an effort to move better and quicker this fall.

AJ Barner

Fr., 6-6, 240

Here’s a new name.

Known more for his work on the other side of the ball as a high school player, Barner was the 2019 Northeast Ohio Division III Defensive Player of the Year last fall. But with his size and high-upside frame, Indiana liked Barner at tight end.

And if fall camp is any indication, the position fits him well. Barner is listed third on this week’s depth chart.

“AJ is an offensive guy with a defensive mentality,” Wright said. “His physical skill set — he is 6-6, 240 pounds and he is nowhere close to where he will be from a strength and bulk standpoint. He is very aggressive in the run game, very coachable, very smart kid. He did not play a lot of tight end in high school, so we really wondered about his ball skills. But he has shown tremendous ball skills, especially in the red zone. He is a big target in the red zone. He has good body control and he has been coachable.”

Khameron Taylor

R-Sr., 6-4, 265

Taylor was used almost exclusively as a blocker at South Alabama — for good reason. He’s a large man. When he committed to IU this spring, Taylor talked about expanding his skill set to assist with the passing game. Maybe he will. At the very least, though, Taylor should help with IU’s approach to the run game.

Unfortunately for Taylor, he’s been banged up this fall. So his rollout into the IU offense may be delayed.

“We are just trying to get him to the point where he can contribute,” Wright said. “He is a big body. When he lines up out there it almost looks like an extra offensive lineman in an 80s jersey. I know what he brings to the table, so it is just a matter of getting everyone healthy and rolling through to get to game week. It is going to be a nine-week season and everyone is going to have to contribute in some way.”

Others

For this blog’s money, the most intriguing player of the bunch is redshirt freshman Gary Cooper. The 6-foot-2, 235-pound Florida native committed to IU in 2018, choosing the Hoosiers over offers from Michigan, Florida and Oklahoma, among others. He moves well and could be a matchup problem as he gains footing on the depth chart. At 6-5 and 260 pounds, Turon Ivy also adds some good size to the mix. Ivy will be vying for more snaps this fall after appearing in 11 games as a redshirt freshman last year.