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Indiana football position preview: Offensive line

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Darren Hiller’s group could determine whether IU’s offense is either OK, good or great

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 31 Indiana at Rutgers
 Indiana Hoosiers offensive lineman Matthew Bedford (76) and Indiana Hoosiers offensive lineman Mackenzie Nworah (51) during the second quarter of the College Football Game between the Rutgers Scarlet Knights and the Indiana Hoosiers on October 31, 2020 at SHI Stadium in Piscataway, NJ.
Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon College Football

Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of previews Crimson Quarry will publish in the coming weeks looking at each of IU’s position groups entering the 2021 season.

Darren Hiller doesn’t want to talk about 2020.

“Last year is last year,” Indiana’s fifth-year offensive line coach said Friday, answering a question about IU’s potential to improve as a run blocking front.

It’s an understandable sentiment from Hiller, particularly after the Hoosiers saw growth in several areas of their team, and yet still left the season wondering what could have been offensively with better, more consistent — and more advanced — line play. In fairness to the Hoosier big boys, they weren’t completely terrible in the trenches. But good? Not really. Part of the problem may have been the disjointed state of the 2020 offseason, with its stops and starts and squirrelly training protocols necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. For a group that was trying to better jell together, the conditions weren’t exactly conducive to transformative growth.

This summer, with training resembling something much closer to normal, IU believes it is set up to take steps toward more positive results up front. For one, the increased time on task this spring and summer allowed the Hoosiers’ coaching staff to introduce more involved blocking schemes after going with a more basic approach last fall. Indiana also feels that, with an experienced group of returning starters, it has the veteran players to execute those schemes and fortify its offensive front.

Time will tell, of course, whether those anticipated results actually materialize. Right now, there is one thing that is certain: This is, without question, a group that needs to perform better.

The depth chart

LT

77 Caleb Jones, 6-8, 362, Sr.

70 Luke Haggard, 6-7, 305, Sr.

LG

56 Mike Katic, 6-4, 312, So.

73 Tim Weaver, 6-6, 315, So.

C

50 Zach Carpenter, 6-5, 320, So.

79 Charlie O’Connor, 6-2, 303, Jr.

62 Cameron Knight, 6-3, 281, Fr.

RG

72 Dylan Powell, 6-3, 310, Gr.

71 Randy Holtz, 6-7, 340, Fr.

RT

76 Matthew Bedford, 6-6, 310, Jr.

66 Aidan Rafferty, 6-6, 298, Jr.

The potential starters

The Hoosiers return four starters from last year’s group, subbing the Michigan transfer Carpenter for the recently-graduated Harry Crider in the middle. Across the line, IU has a veteran, experienced unit. Even a relative youngster like Katic has been around for a few seasons, as he prepares to enter his third year — and second as a starter — with the program. The question is whether all of the experience accumulated by the top group will finally yield consistent, positive production in both the running and passing facets of the offense. And make no mistake, outside of Michael Penix’s health status, it is the biggest question facing Indiana entering the season.

Start with Bedford, who will once again be tasked with protecting Penix’s blind side at right tackle. After earning IU’s Offensive Newcomer of the Year Award in 2019, Bedford’s sophomore season told two very different stories. According to the individual grades stitched together by the good folks at Pro Football Focus, Bedford was IU’s highest-graded O-lineman in 2020, thanks entirely to his work with the ground game. Among Power 5 tackles, Bedford’s run blocking grade (90.3) tied for fifth nationally with Ohio State’s Thayer Munford. That’s good! Great, even!

The problem was that his pass-blocking grade (27.0) was the fourth-worst in the country among qualifying Power 5 tackles. According to PFF, Bedford yielded 26 hurries and 35 pressures across the seven games he played. That’s ... decidedly not good. Pass blocking wasn’t just a weak spot for Bedford. It was a problem for a bunch of the folks that took a snap for Hiller, whose group especially struggled against speed rushers and ranked dead last in the conference and No. 64 out of 65 Power 5 teams as a pass protecting unit, per PFF. Thank goodness Penix is a poised and collected passer in the pocket.

In the same database, Jones ranked as the second-worst pass-blocking tackle in the league (among qualified blockers) last season, allowing two sacks, five hits, four hurries and 11 pressures. Though, to be fair, it was an especially small sample size for the hulking veteran, who played just five games and gave up five of those pressures — and both of those sacks — in the season opener against Penn State. Jones’ run blocking score (64.4), meanwhile, ranked 20th among Big Ten tackles.

According to Hiller, Jones has taken a noticeable step forward in his development this offseason. Not only is he older and more seasoned, Jones has spent a lot of time working on his body in the weight room.

“He’s moving a lot better, and I can tell you he looks a lot better,” Hiller said. “I’m watching the film and you know how it is; when you’re around the guys every single day and you see him on a consistent basis you kind of forget what they used to look like. We were throwing on some film of 2019 and 2020, going back and looking at some things, and it was drastic when you looked out there and you see No. 77 in those two years compared to right now. I look forward to him having a great football season.”

Katic, honored as IU’s Offensive Newcomer of the Year, stood out as the team’s top pass blocker in 2020. In six games, including four starts at left guard, he was responsible for four hurries and eight pressures. His overall grade in passing situations (70.5) ranked 11th among Big Ten guards who saw regular action.

Powell, a former graduate transfer from Stanford, played both left and right guard for the Hoosiers last season, logging 306 snaps at the former and 158 snaps at the latter, according to PFF. Carpenter, meanwhile, appeared in three games on Michigan’s line, logging each of his 154 offensive snaps at center. Had he been an original member of IU’s 2019 signing class, he would’ve been the top O-lineman in the group and the Hoosiers’ sixth-highest ranked signee overall that winter.

The backups

When he first arrived in Bloomington in early 2020, the 6-foot-7 Haggard weighed approximately 257 pounds. By last fall, when he started four of the six games he played at left tackle, he was up to 275 pounds. Now, he’s a couple ticks above 300 pounds and positioned to provide depth behind Jones. Across IU’s final five games last season, the undersized Haggard was deemed responsible for 19 pressures, 15 hurries and one sack. But he had some nice moments, too, and the hope is that his added weight will make him an even better depth option, if needed this fall. At the other tackle spot, Rafferty will back up Bedford. Rafferty is entering his fourth season with the program and appeared in seven games last season, though the bulk of that work came on special teams.

Along the interior, IU is still trying to figure out what it has. There’s a long list of blockers competing for spots on the second- and third-team offenses in camp, so the depth chart that IU releases prior to the season opener could look a lot different than the one put out last month.

“I actually shook up the depth chart (on Thursday),” Hiller said. “There were, as you can expect, some long faces of guys who went the wrong way on that depth chart. At the same time, what they have to understand is competition breeds success.”

One of the most interesting reserves to follow, not just this fall but over the coming seasons, will be Kahlil Benson. The former Ole Miss commit was a highly-touted guard coming out of high school last year. Unfortunately, he lost last season due to an offseason ACL injury.

Holtz is another intriguing player in the mix — and he could certainly challenge Powell for work. Or, just for kicks, imagine the 6-foot-7, 340-pound Holtz on the left side next to Jones. That’d be some tandem, huh?

In recognizing interior players jostling for spots on the depth chart, Hiller also name-dropped O’Connor, Weaver, Knight, Brady Feeney, Vinny Fiacable and Ricky Tamis.

The final word

The pandemic and the lack of development time in 2020 probably hurt IU’s linemen more than any other position group on the roster. It’s not an excuse for the breakdowns seen last fall. It’s a legitimate reason. And yet, we’re still waiting on IU’s approaches to recruitment and development to yield better, more consistent play in the trenches. Maybe this is the year.

Across the four seasons that Hiller has served as IU’s offensive line coach, the group has yet to break into the top half of the Big Ten in PFF’s yearly run blocking and passing grades. A quick summary:

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

  • 2020: 36.0 | No. 14. Big Ten | No. 64 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

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

The hope is that, with so many returning starters — along with several depth options who’ve been in the system for at least a couple of years — IU’s line can take a jump this fall. Perhaps, too, the ballyhooed return of running backs coach Deland McCullough will provide a new perspective that aids the ground attack.

Creating a foundation of solid, reliable offensive line play is arguably the most difficult part of building a winning program — particularly in the Big Ten. And while so much of IU’s offense looks ready to roll this fall, it’ll be the play of the fellas up front that will dictate not only the Hoosiers’ offensive ceiling, but their floor.