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IU football position review: Running backs

Stevie Scott III was named Second Team All-Big Ten, which is arguably a generous representation of the Hoosiers’ ground game

NCAA Football: Indiana at Rutgers Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of post-mortems on Indiana’s position groups. We’ll spread them out over the next few weeks, looking at how each unit fared during the 2020 season, and how each group projects to look in 2021. Next up, the running backs.

Among the Indiana football team’s position groups, there may not have been a bigger gap between expectations and output, or output and honors, than the running backs during the 2020 season.

In the preseason, we wrote that rising junior Stevie Scott III had the chance to finish his Indiana career with rushing yard and touchdown totals that put him in an elite class of players that includes Tevin Coleman and Anthony Thompson, and ultimately, Scott was named a Second Team All-Big Ten selection by both the conference’s coaches and media members after a season in which he averaged just 3.6 yards per attempt.

If anything, it was arguably the rare bump based upon reputation for an Indiana football player that someone like Ohio State’s Shaun Wade, for example, received during the awards season. Scott’s past accomplishments and his preseason hype preceeded him, but potentially to no fault of his own.

I saw a tweet – one that for the life of me I can’t find – a month or two ago about how Indiana coach Tom Allen or another one of the team’s coaches said the team’s rushing attack was a little less nuanced than it otherwise would’ve been in a season in which the team could’ve had a full set of spring practices and summer training camp.

The team’s offensive line was banged up at times, too.

So it’s not as if Scott, who rushed for 1,137 yards and five yards per carry as a true freshman, suddenly forgot how to run the ball. And despite the unimpressive nature of many of his individual game logs from 2020 – seven carries for six yards against Ohio State, 57 yards on 20 attempts against Penn State, 18 carries for 57 yards at Wisconsin – he still rushed for 10 touchdowns for the third consecutive season.

Scott is arguably at his best in short-yardage situations, when he’s asked to run through anyone and everyone in the one-, two- or three-yard path between him and the end zone, or a first down. He scored twice against Penn State, Michigan and Ole Miss, and three times against Maryland, the latter of which earned him Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week honors.

But even then, he rushed for just 80 yards on 24 carries – 3.3 yards per attempt.

Scott has since declared for the 2021 NFL Draft and given the position he plays, which is known for its limited shelf life, it’s hard to argue with his decision, especially based on how physical of a runner he is. If you’re a running back and the NCAA doesn’t allow you to get compensated in any meaningful way, chase the dollar as soon as you can.

For any athlete, especially those in high school or college who have limited careers at those levels, it’s a shame the pandemic took the year away, or otherwise altered them, often beyond recognition.

But in a very specific way to this blog and the type of people who read it, it’s a shame that – team success aside – Stevie Scott III’s last fall in Bloomington wasn’t more productive, no matter the Second Team All-Big Ten recognition, or six wins in an eight-game season, or the weeks spent in the top 10 of various polls and ranking systems.

Whatever his lasting impression is among Indiana football fans, it feels almost destined to feel under-appreciated, or at least incomplete.

Indiana’s running back room as a whole – despite the level of talent, as determined by a combination of recruiting rankings and actual college production – also felt incomplete, as backup running back Sampson James rushed for just 96 yards on the season on 32 carries in six games. His best game on the seven was against Rutgers, when he had seven carries for a forgettable 33 yards. James had previously entered his name in the NCAA transfer portal last offseason, before returning to Indaina.

If anything, redshirt freshman Tim Baldwin Jr. was a potential breakout star, albeit one whose breakout consisted of a 100-yard game against Maryland that was sandwiched by a pair of games in which he had three carries in each. He didn’t play in any other games all season, finishing the year with 22 carries for 141 yards, which was good for 6.4 yards per carry and an offseason full of promise about the speedster’s future.

As we wrote several times last fall, Indiana’s success on offense was largely based on the gunslinging of a healthy Michael Penix Jr. and his connection with the Big Ten’s top wide receiver, Ty Fryfogle, and favorite slot receiver Whop Philyor. There’s a reason the Hoosiers had the ball with the chance to tie the game or potentially take the lead in the final minute at Ohio State, despite Scott’s six rushing yards on seven attempts, so while Indiana’s coaches shouldn’t have been satisfied with the team’s rushing attack in 2020, the Hoosiers arguably didn’t need a top-flight ground game to be at their best.

What they needed was Scott picking up three yards at a time, and that’s roughly what he gave them, on average, and often not much more than that. Indiana’s backfield entered the season with high expectations and the production to support it, and it left the season with one of the conference’s highest individual honors, but in between were a lot of Saturdays where the team won in spite of its rushing ability, not because of it.

Final Grade: C