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Indiana football position preview: Running backs

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The most intriguing battle in fall camp is playing out in the backfield as the Hoosiers welcome back position coach Deland McCullough for stint No. 2

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 14 Indiana at Michigan State
IU running back Tim Baldwin cuts upfield during a game at Michigan State on Nov. 14, 2020.
Photo by Steven King/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Editor’s note: This is the third 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.

The room is full.

There’s power and finesse, speed and grit. There’s a former five-star recruit, a former four-star prospect and a bunch of three-stars with reasonably high ceilings. There are also a few walk-ons who very well could work into the rotation before long. There is a lot to like about the talent pool in IU’s running backs room.

There’s just not a No. 1. Yet.

The top position battle in fall camp is playing out in the backfield, where a handful of runners will be looking to impress position coach Deland McCullough over the next couple weeks.

Let’s take a closer look at who’s in the mix:

The depth chart

20 Tim Baldwin Jr., 6-0, 211, So.

6 Sampson James, 6-1, 220, Jr.

5 Stephen Carr, 6-1, 215, Gr.

10 David Ellis, 6-0, 214, Jr.

The potential starters

Don’t get too caught up in the depth chart order just yet. The one IU released at Big Ten media day last month didn’t mean a whole lot, particularly with an all-out competition for carries currently unfolding during fall camp. So it might be another week or so before we have a sense of which guy (guys?) is asserting himself with the first-team offense. The first scrimmage of the month isn’t until this coming weekend.

Of the returning players, James’ 371 career yards leads the group. And yet, only 96 of those yards came last season for the Avon product, who was limited this spring due to a nagging lower leg injury. The hope is that after two years of serving as Stevie Scott’s understudy, James will be poised for a breakout season in Year 3 with the program. We’ve already seen flashes of James’ upside. For a reminder, go back and watch the 2019 Bucket Game to see him rack up 118 yards on 22 carries (5.4 average) with one score in his first career start. Fun stuff. There’s clearly a talented tailback in that 6-foot-1, 220-pound frame, but that talent has yet to be fully unlocked. Should James be able to stay relatively healthy, he’ll be a factor in the running game in some form or another.

Similar to James, Baldwin also has one game he can point to as an example of his potential. Against Maryland last November, Baldwin went off for 106 yards on 16 carries (6.6 avg) in the win over the Terrapins. Even with his limited action behind Scott and James in 2020, it was a pretty encouraging introduction to college football for the 6-foot, 211-pound Virginia native. He quickly earned the trust of IU’s coaching staff through his preparation and consistency during the practice week, and those qualities earned him some touches by the middle of the season. When he got onto the field, the shifty Baldwin seemed to make the most of his opportunities, picking up chunk gains of 10, 23, 24 and 26 yards across his first two games.

The most intriguing member of the backfield is Carr, a Southern California transfer who comes to Bloomington with four years of know-how from his time in the Pac-12. For the Trojans, the 6-foot-1, 215-pound graduate rushed for 1,329 yards on 264 carries (5.0 avg) with 12 touchdowns in 35 games, including six starts. He and McCullough worked together during the former’s freshman season, which also happened to be Carr’s most productive campaign at his old school. IU hopes a reunion with McCullough will allow Carr to squeeze out more of the talent that made him the No. 3 running back prospect in the 2017 recruiting class. At USC, a series of injuries complicated Carr’s path toward fully realizing his potential. At times, he also struggled with getting stuck going sideways. For the Hoosiers, Carr wants to be more direct and intentional with the ball in his hands, and with his natural skill, he very well may be RB1 when the IU offense takes the field at Iowa on Sept. 4. Short term, he’ll raise the level of competition for carries this month. Long term, at the very least, the one-time blue chip prospect gives IU some valuable depth in a backfield that, while full of skill, doesn’t have a ton of game experience.

The backups

It will once again be interesting to see how IU decides to use Ellis, who is officially listed as a running back for the second straight season but has demonstrated the ability to occupy a few different roles. Last season, according to data compiled by Pro Football Focus, Ellis lined up for 30 snaps in the backfield, 29 snaps out wide and 11 snaps in the slot. As a back, Ellis has the kind of dynamic athleticism that IU could use at the position, but McCullough still wants to see a well-rounded approach from him in camp this month. “I want him to be able to show some of that grit and toughness as far as hitting up inside, moving the pile, getting behind his pads, and being a complete player who can play with velocity and power,” McCullough said last week. “I want him to be able to put his foot in the ground and run through somebody’s face, be strong in pass protection and be a complete guy.”

Speaking of running through somebody’s face, it appears on paper that freshman Trent Howland is equipped to do exactly that. Listed at 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, Howland, who also played linebacker in high school, appears to be built in the same mold as Scott. However, after suffering an ACL injury last fall, he’s still on the mend and may not be much of a factor this season. “He’s got nice size,” McCullough said. “He’s continuing to develop in the weight room and learning the system. He’s still coming back, nursing an injury that he had coming off his senior year. When he’s fully available, it’ll be something we’ll be able to evaluate.”

Classmate David Holloman is a burner who ran a 4.29 40-yard dash at a national combine while in high school. If he demonstrates an ability to pick up blocks, he could challenge for a role. It seems more probable that, like Howland, his impact will be felt more in a year or two. We’ll see.

Charlie Spegal came to IU as a walk-on last year after a decorated high school career at New Palestine. There, Spegal earned Indiana Mr. Football honors, as well as Indiana’s nod as the state’s Gatorade Player of the Year after setting a state record with 10,867 career rushing yards. Meanwhile, fellow walk-on Davion Ervin-Poindexter impressed during spring practice earlier this year. With IU in need of fresh bodies in the backfield, Ervin-Poindexter turned heads with his quickness and earned IU’s first-ever Chris Beaty Outstanding Walk-On Player of the Year award at the team’s postseason banquet.

One thing we learned from McCullough’s first stint as position coach is that he’s totally willing to give opportunities to non-scholarship players who work hard and earn his trust. Alex Rodriguez, Andrew Wilson and Ricky Brookins, among others, are each examples of walk-ons who developed into valuable contributors on Saturdays.

The final word

One of the things IU will miss most about Scott, beyond his battering ram abilities between the tackles, was his proficiency in pass protection. Not only did his size give IU an extra layer of reinforcement in picking up blitzes, Scott seemed eager to take on the added responsibilities of a blocker and help cover for the other big boys up front. He was, generally, very good in that department and IU will need to see a similar level of want-to from his replacement.

Obviously, a major factor in the group’s success this fall will be its partnership with the offensive line, IU’s most disappointing position group a year ago. We’ll dive deeper into the O-line soon enough, and strong blockers are no doubt important to what IU will want to accomplish on the ground. At the same time, you need to have ball carriers who are capable of making things happen in tight spaces. With this group, there appears to be the potential for more wiggle and explosiveness among the candidates vying for touches.

All offseason, IU coach Tom Allen has been adamant about the Hoosiers’ need to feature a more productive running game. Which ... yes. Yes, please. Indiana graded out as the No. 8 rushing offense in the Big Ten last year, per Pro Football Focus, and there were stretches of the season where it just felt like IU couldn’t get much going on the ground. With the stop-and-start nature of the pandemic-affected 2020 offseason, Allen said the offensive staff was forced to go with a more vanilla approach to installation, limiting the number of things they could do schematically. Over the past few months, Allen and his staff have talked about getting more creative and multiple with the looks they can present on the ground.

The results of those efforts will be seen soon enough.

“I’m not going to give you too many specifics,” Allen said, “but you’ll see Week One in Iowa City what the differences might be. Without question we got to get better in that area.”

The good news is that IU seems to have the backfield depth and skill needed to help that desired improvement take hold.