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IU football position review: Offensive line

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Hoosiers need improvement up front in 2021

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 02 Northwestern at Indiana Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

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

How they fared

Here’s a notion with which we all could agree: Indiana’s offensive line needs to get better.

Look, it’s not a terrible bunch of blockers up front. In fact, at times during the 2020 season, IU’s play in the trenches was quite good. But overall? Mehhh — and I think that’s probably being kind.

Using Pro Football Focus’ blocking grades, the Hoosiers had a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten run-blocking unit and ... the absolute worst pass-blocking group in the league. Actually, if you zoom out, IU graded as the second-worst pass-blocking unit among the 65 Power Five schools and ranked No. 122 in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Yeeesh.

Here’s how this year’s blocking compares to IU teams in the recent past, per PFF:

Pass Blocking (overall grade | Big Ten rank| Power Five rank out of 65)

  • 2020: 36.0 | No. 14. Big Ten | No. 63 Power Five
  • 2019: 66.6 | No. 8 Big Ten | No. 36 Power Five
  • 2018: 70.1 | No. 10 Big Ten | No. 46 Power Five
  • 2017: 67.0 | No. 10 Big Ten | No. 54 Power Five
  • 2016: 75.3 | No. 2 Big Ten | No. 28 Power Five
  • 2015: 88.3 | No. 1 Big Ten | No. 4 Power Five
  • 2014: 79.7 | No. 5 Big Ten | No. 32 Power Five

Run blocking

  • 2020: 66.5 | No. 8 Big Ten | No. 34 Power Five
  • 2019: 53.8 | No. 12 Big Ten | No. 57 Power Five
  • 2018: 65.6 | No. 8 Big Ten | No. 28 Power Five
  • 2017: 58.4 | No. 13 Big Ten | No. 61 Power Five
  • 2016: 77.9 | No. 8 Big Ten | No. 30 Power Five
  • 2015: 90.3 | No. 3 Big Ten | No. 8 Power Five
  • 2014: 73.1 | No. 11 Big Ten | No. 49 Power Five

When you break it down to an individual level, the grading gets interesting. Before we look at how members of IU’s line scored in PFF’s system, here’s how the snap totals break down:

Snap counts

  • Harry Crider, center: 600
  • Matthew Bedford, tackle: 531
  • Dylan Powell, guard: 464
  • Mackenzie Nworah, guard: 436
  • Luke Haggard, tackle: 331
  • Caleb Jones, tackle: 326
  • Mike Katic, guard: 294
  • Aidan Rafferty, tackle: 12
  • Tim Weaver, tackle: 6

Crider earned All-Big Ten honorable mention recognition from the coaches and media, turning in a steady senior season. Across those 600 snaps, he allowed 11 pressures, eight hurries, three hits on the quarterback and zero sacks. Compared with other Big Ten centers, Crider ranked sixth in the league in pass-blocking efficiency.

Bedford, meanwhile, has the most fascinating report card of any Hoosier, the result of a hit-and-miss sophomore season. He finished as IU’s highest-rated starting lineman, though that’s entirely thanks to his work in the ground game. As a run blocker, Bedford was the highest-graded tackle in the entire Big Ten. As a pass blocker? You might want to look away from this next paragraph.

Of the 32 tackles to receive regular playing time in the Big Ten, Bedford received the lowest grade of the group. Bedford allowed the most pressures (35), hurries (26) and quarterback hits (eight) of any tackle in the conference. But protection struggles weren’t unique to Bedford. Jones received PFF’s second-lowest pass-blocking grade among regular Big Ten tackles, and Haggard was tagged with the third-lowest mark.

It wasn’t all bleak. Indiana did receive some blocking help from the tight end position — err, maybe more specifically, from Matt Bjorson. The junior graded as the Big Ten’s best pass-blocking tight end and the league’s seventh-best run-blocking tight end. Across 138 snaps, Bjorson did not allow a single sack, quarterback hit, or pressure.

What’s on deck?

Recruiting and developing quality offensive line production is a challenge for darn near every Power Five program, so this isn’t just an IU issue. And while the PFF grades are far from the be-all, end-all of offensive line evaluation, they are useful for gauging and understanding production and impact. For IU, the grades show that there’s a lot of work that needs to be done up front over the next several months. Just look at the difference in Penix’s production when he had a clean pocket vs. when he operated under pressure. It’s probably obvious, but still.

At this point, everyone but Crider is expected to return to IU in 2021. Indiana is bringing in Michigan transfer Zach Carpenter to compete for snaps along the interior, and signees Joshua Sales, a tackle, and Vinny Fiacable, an interior lineman, will also join the program. One can hope that those who played the bulk of the available snaps this past fall learned from the experience and can now apply those lessons over the weeks to come.

Overall grade: D

Previously:

Specialists

Running backs

Quarterbacks