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Indiana football position preview: Wide receiver

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The Hoosiers return reigning Richter-Howard Receiver of the Year Ty Fryfogle and the position room offers additional depth

NCAA Football: Indiana at Ohio State Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Editor’s note: This is the first 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.

Ohio State might be able to lay claim to having the best wide receiver duo in the entire country in 2021, with Chris Olave (50 receptions for 729 yards and seven touchdowns in 2020) and Garrett Wilson (43/723/6) – prepare yourself for all the oxygen that will be devoted to the Buckeyes’ receiving corps on FOX this year – but Indiana wide receiver Ty Fryfogle is the reigning Richter-Howard Receiver of the Year, which is awarded to the best receiver in the Big Ten.

It was the first time an Indiana player had won the award in its 10-year history and Fryfogle’s return to Bloomington is a major reason why the Hoosiers project to be a preseason top-25 team that can contend for another top-two finish in the Big Ten East.

Fryfogle’s breakout senior year – 37 catches for 721 yards and seven touchdowns in eight games – reached its crescendo when he posted 25 receptions, 560 yards and six touchdowns over a three-game stretch against No. 23 Michigan, Michigan State and No. 3 Ohio State. As we detailed last season, Fryfogle’s best was as good as any Indiana wide receiver in the last decade, even if he reached his peak later in his career than the wideouts that came before him.

He’s a cornerstone for Indiana to build its offense around at the position.

The depth chart

When Indiana released its initial depth chart for the season, Fryfogle’s name appeared on one of the three starting wide receiver positions, alongside Miles Marshall and Florida State transfer D.J. Matthews.

WR

13 Miles Marshall, 6-4, 212, Jr.

18 Javon Swinton, 6-2, 187, So.

WR

7 D.J. Matthews Jr., 5-11, 160, Gr.

12 Da’Shaun Brown, 6-2, 180, So.

WR

3 Ty Fryfogle, 6-2, 205, Sr.

2 Jacolby Hewitt, 6-1, 198, Jr.

The projected starters

There’s no question Fryfogle is a proven, No. 1 wide receiver but the sneaky truth – much like Indiana’s offense as a whole, last season – is that his production was inconsistent, even when quarterback Michael Penix Jr. was healthy. Fryfogle had two catches for 27 yards against Penn State, followed by four receptions for 55 yards and a touchdown against Rutgers.

Before leaving the game with a season-ending injury, Penix played more than half the game against Maryland, an opponent whom Fryfogle managed just two catches for 10 yards.

While Fryfogle’s “good” is as good as any wide receiver in the country – see: seven catches for 218 yards and three touchdowns against Ohio State – but a more consistent version of Fryfogle, with a higher floor, should be the goal for him in 2021. His ability to be a big-play threat is proven. Now, can he turn those 30-yard games into 60-yard games as opposing defenses hone in on the reigning Big Ten receiver of the year?

Luckily, Indiana has depth at the position beyond Fryfogle. Miles Marshall, a 6-4 junior, has the opportunity to become the team’s No. 2 wide receiver, across from Fryfogle. As a sophomore, Marshall posted career-highs in receptions (19) and receiving yards (290), including a four-catch, 89-yard game against Ohio State.

Speaking of Fryfogle’s career trajectory, Marshall’s is pretty promising, too.

While Indiana lost Whop Philyor (54 receptions for 495 yards and three touchdowns) in the offseason, Matthews has the opportunity to replace Philyor’s production in the slot. In three seasons with Florida State (he didn’t play last season), he compiled 84 catches for 809 yards and five touchdowns, but also showed he could be a game-changing force on special teams after averaging 13.5 yards per punt return in 2018.

Similar to USC transfer Stephen Carr, who’s a running back, Matthews was a blue-chip recruit (No. 51 in the 2017 recruiting class, per the 247Sports Composite rankings) who struggled with game-to-game consistency at his previous school and whose career production might appear underwhelming when compared to their respective recruiting rankings. Still, Matthews is a former high-four-star recruit who committed to Florida State six months after FSU won the national championship, and players who are assigned that level of recruiting ranking based upon their talent are a rarity for Indiana, regardless their path to Bloomington.

The backups

While Marshall is the wide receiver whose development will be most closely followed when the 2021 season kicks off, he won’t be alone in that regard. Junior Jacolby Hewitt (five catches for 68 yards in 2020) and sophomore Javon Swinton (four catches for 52 yards) will have the opportunity to earn a larger share of Indiana’s targets after the departure of Philyor, who claimed 32 percent of the team’s receptions last season.

In last season’s opener against Penn State, the duo stepped in as Marshall left the game to undergo concussion protocol and David Ellis was ruled out prior to kickoff. Hewitt and Swinton combined for three catches for 37 yards, including an incredible grab by Hewitt through traffic that set up a game-tying touchdown.

With Marshall getting the opportunity to move into a larger role as the team’s No. 2 wide receiver, Hewitt and Swinton, individually or collectively, can fight for the role Marshall is vacating – call it something like 20 catches and 300 yards.

Speaking of Ellis, who can line up in the slot, out wide or in the backfield as a rushing and receiving threat, he had 198 yards from scrimmage last season on an average of 7.3 yards per touch.

The final word

The biggest question about Indiana’s wide receivers in 2021 might not even exist within their position room, but rather the health of the person throwing them the ball: Penix.

As long as Penix can stay healthy – each of the last three seasons ended early for him with season-ending injuries – he has the weapons, at least on paper, to perform up to the standard of an All-Big Ten-caliber quarterback.

Fryfogle has the potential to post some monstrous numbers over a full season, Marshall has the frame to develop into another reliable deep threat and the senior-year-of-high-school version of Matthews was potentially more talented than almost any freshman who has ever donned the cream and crimson. As long as one or both of the latter two receivers can capitalize upon, or counterbalance, the defensive gravity that Fryfogle will surely warrant, Indiana’s passing attack could enough to keep the Hoosiers in every game this season, contingent upon a healthy Penix under center.