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Contested catches an emphasis early in camp

IU’s receiving corps had a very good day against the secondary on Wednesday

Indiana v Ohio State
Jacolby Hewitt runs upfield after making a catch at Ohio State on Nov. 21, 2020.
Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

As he stalked the sidelines of IU’s auxiliary fields and directed his team through a practice on Wednesday, Tom Allen’s emotions oscillated between frustration and delight.

On one hand, the Indiana head coach fumed at his defensive backs’ struggles in one-on-one perimeter battles. For a defense that covets takeaways and strives to create havoc and confuse opponents — particularly on the back end — the lack of picks and deflections left Allen feeling unfulfilled. And yet, on the other hand, the aggressive, sure-handed play of his receivers lifted his spirit.

As IU prepares to welcome back its top quarterback to game action next month, the receiving corps seems to be doing its part to make sure that transition will be a smooth one. Contested catches have been an emphasis in camp, and IU receivers enjoyed an especially productive day of winning those one-on-one battles on Wednesday.

“That was something I would’ve said was probably the highlight of yesterday’s practice, the number of contested catches that our receivers came up with,” Allen said. “That obviously goes both ways. You’re frustrated on the defensive side of the ball that you’re not coming up with those breakups, but (there were) a lot of really impressive plays by our perimeter guys and even our slots.”

IU knows what it has in reigning Richter-Howard Receiver of the Year Ty Fryfogle, and through nearly a week’s worth of practices, the Hoosiers are learning that they should, indeed, have trustworthy depth beyond the Big Ten’s best pass catcher.

Redshirt junior Jacolby Hewitt and sophomore Javon Swinton each recorded contested catches against IU’s secondary on Wednesday, a good sign for IU’s options beyond Fryfogle and Miles Marshall. The freshmen, too, are keeping up with the fast pace of fall camp, demonstrating that they could also earn snaps with the top offense as the fall unfolds. During his Thursday chat with reporters, Allen offered kudos to each of his three first-year scholarship pass catchers.

“Jordyn Williams made some good plays,” Allen said. “Malachi Holt-Bennett is another young guy (who is flashing). Jaquez (Smith), as well. All three freshmen have had moments where I’m like, ‘Hey, that looks the way it’s supposed to look,’ and you’re impressed by what they’re able to do.”

Last fall, Fryfogle and Marshall received plenty of practice in one-on-one battles while serving as the top outside targets for quarterbacks Michael Penix and Jack Tuttle. According to data compiled by Pro Football Focus, Fryfogle was able to reel in 11 balls in 23 contested opportunities. Marshall, meanwhile, ranked ninth among Big Ten regulars with a contested catch rate of 54.5%, making six grabs in 11 contested tries.

Now, the hope is that others will be able to raise their game as more opportunities present in the coming months. The initial returns are encouraging, though Allen expects to learn more about his receivers during Saturday’s first scrimmage of the preseason.

“The scrimmages will tell us a lot,” Allen said. “... I’m really anxious to see that group.”