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Indiana football Q&A: Patrick Mayhorn on the Hoosiers’ offense

Meet at Midfield and The Aggship’s Patrick Mayhorn joined us to talk Indiana football and Walt Bell.

Syndication: The Herald-Times Rich Janzaruk/Herald-Times / USA TODAY NETWORK

With Indiana football on a bye week after a road loss to Rutgers, we wanted to take a look at the team with a focus on what’s new. Namely, offensive coordinator Walt Bell.

For this, we sought out the knowledge of Patrick Mayhorn of Meet at Midfield, Flipping The Field and The Aggship, a Utah State outlet, to talk about Indiana’s offense and Bell both this season and as part of the big picture.

Patrick knows ball, and provided key insight below:

Q: Gonna get this out of the way first. The main talking point from fans and media alike has been that Bell’s offense has been hampered by poor performances from the offensive line. How true would you say that is aside from what’s readily apparent?

PM: Offensive line play is, next to quarterback competence, the No. 1 determining factor for how an offensive operates. An offense that doesn’t trust its line, generally speaking, is going to restrict itself in play design and game planning. It’s immutable, you can’t really talk about the design or approach of an offense without first looking at its line and quarterback play.

With this Indiana team, it’s immediately apparent that Bell doesn’t trust either – and he’s correct not to. This offensive line is poorly developed, both athletically and technically. Connor Bazelak doesn’t do much of anything above the replacement level. A lot of what Indiana does is a direct response to those concerns. The rushing attack is lacking in creativity, but it’s hard to imagine that this line would handle anything beyond the basics very well because it can barely manage the basics.

That’s an indictment of talent development, but it’s also a reflection of poor talent acquisition. You can only work with what you have, and Indiana has loaded up this roster with linemen who just don’t have the capacity for significant development. There’s a reason that three-star offensive linemen with prototypical size are where they are. If Indiana is in the position to sign a 6-6, 305-pound offensive tackle, he probably doesn’t move very well and doesn’t have a whole lot of room for improvement. You aren’t going to find diamonds in the rough when you’re limiting yourself to players who “look the part,” so to speak.

Indiana has limited its own capacity for creativity on the back-end by restricting its creativity on the front-end in recruiting – an athletic, undersized tackle in the three-star ranks can add weight. An unathletic three-star tackle who cuts a collegiate profile physically can’t add athleticism. There’s been a refusal here to accept that you can’t just build Ohio State’s offensive line without recruiting like Ohio State, you have to recruit like an underdog when you are one.

This extends to the passing game, both in protecting your quarterback and in who you have throwing and catching the ball. Again, players like Bazelak and a lot of his receivers who “look the part” are available to Indiana for a reason. Bell is limited in what he’s able to build because his line can’t block, his quarterback can’t throw the ball down the field and his big-bodied receivers aren’t fast enough to win one-on-one matchups, but it’s not like Indiana was doomed to have these players. It could have been much more inventive in talent acquisition, and decided instead that it wanted to look like the big boys without having the big boy recruiting to support that kind of lifestyle: “Two-thousand-dollar bag with no cash in your purse.”

Q: Bell’s use of tempo has been… interesting. A double edged sword that results in the defense occasionally losing a man/Indiana being able to capitalize on a mismatch but also wearing out the defense by the time the fourth quarter comes around. What have you seen both about Bell’s use of tempo and tempo in general?

PM: It’s not the most satisfying answer, but it’s a getting what you paid for situation. Bell’s offense is tempo, it’s a core tenet that can’t be altered. The system is designed around the idea controlling what you can control, and one of the biggest things a team can control is conditioning.

The conditioning requirements wouldn’t be so high if the offense was more successful, obviously, but there is a level of stamina and depth needed of defenses operating opposite this offense. It’s not the tempo causing Indiana’s problems, it’s the lack of success within the offense and issues in conditioning the defense for the amount of time it needs to spend on the field. Removing the tempo wouldn’t solve any of these problems, the only way out is through unless you just move on from Bell and toward an offense that isn’t predicated on pace.

Q: Big picture, what are the main issues with Bell’s offense? And what (if anything) has worked?

PM: I think that he’s largely just a poor fit for what Indiana currently has, and honestly, could ever really hope to have. Bell is running an system that needs either a talent advantage or a roster packed with fast, well-conditioned players at basically every position on both sides of the ball. Indiana could achieve the latter a lot easier than it could achieve the former, but to go back to that point about accepting your position on the recruiting hierarchy, the Hoosiers seem entirely unwilling to embrace doing things differently.

I think that what Bell is doing could work if Indiana committed fully to tempo, but that would mean abandoning a lot of its ideas about how to build a roster capable of competing in the Big Ten. Tom Allen does not seem willing to do that.

Q: Let’s say, in theory, that Indiana was able to actually run the ball effectively. What would that do for this offense?

PM: There’s a common misconception about the desired approach of up-tempo offenses like the one Bell deploys. Because they are so synonymous with successful passing attacks (see: Alabama, Ohio State, Tennessee, etc…) there’s an assumption that these are pass-first offenses. There are strains of the system that do believe that, largely on the Mike Leach side of the tree, but Bell is an Andy McCollum guy. Allow me, if you will, to talk briefly about McCollum’s tree – it’s one I have a decent amount of experience with:

For those uninitiated, McCollum was the head coach at Middle Tennessee State from 1999-2005. He was and is a defensive coach, but he was consistently very good at hiring offensive coaches. His first OC at MTSU was a young Larry Fedora – the two worked together as assistants under Baylor head coach Chuck Reedy, a product of the Danny Ford offensive coaching tree (this isn’t especially germaine, but provides some helpful context). Fedora is one of the chief architects of what we describe now as the Josh Heupel offense, which used to be the Art Briles offense.

When Fedora left for Florida, McCollum hired now-Utah State head coach Blake Anderson, another forefather of this new offensive wave. Bell spent almost all of his career with products of this base offensive tree: He was a wideout under Anderson; he started his coaching career as a graduate assistant under Tommy West (Ford disciple) at Memphis; he spent a year under Mike Gundy (Reedy); four under Fedora and two under Anderson. By the time he got to Maryland (and later Florida State), his ideology was pretty well established and mirrored that of his mentors. It remains his ideology today.

All of this is to say: Anderson, Fedora, Ford, Reedy and anyone else in or around this tree would tell you that they operate a run-first offense. The volume stats may not reflect it, but these systems are designed around drawing the defense into the box with efficient power running and horizontal passes to create space down the field for a vertical passing attack.

When you can’t run effectively out of these schemes, you can’t do anything. The defense won’t respect the box, they’ll drop seven or eight into coverage and you’ll spend every game throwing into double coverage down the field and operating at pace while the defense just sits back and waits for you to tire yourself out. Running the ball successfully in this offense isn’t a luxury, it’s a baseline necessity and one that would fundamentally alter what Indiana is able to do.

Q: Any thoughts on QB Connor Bazelak, who’s seen more bad moments than triumphs as the season has gone on?

PM: I don’t have anything particularly insightful on Bazelak. He was an average to below average quarterback in basically the same offense at Missouri, and expecting him to be anything more than that with less talent around him at Indiana was always unfair. He would be a replacement level quarterback on a good team, but he’s nowhere near talented enough to transcend a bad one.

Q: Indiana’s probably looking at keeping this offensive style around for the foreseeable future one way or another. What, if anything, could be done to fix it in the short and long terms?

PM: I really don’t want this to sound condescending, or like I’m punching down at Indiana because that isn’t at all my intention. I like Indiana. I like Indiana fans. They deserve a good product, and I don’t think it’s at all unfair to expect the program to produce that.

But that absolutely cannot happen if Allen is going to continue to pretend that his program is something that it isn’t. The recruiting has to change. Indiana’s approach to development has to change. The 2019 and 2020 teams weren’t just flashes in the pan, they were products of meticulous tracking in the weight room designed to cultivate athletes who specifically suited the systems of Kalen DeBoer and Kane Wommack, respectively. Indiana would benefit from finding new coordinators with that same quality, which it currently lacks, but it could still find success with guys who aren’t as good as their predecessors.

There needs to be cohesion for that to work, though. This program feels disconnected from itself right now, the recruiting and development don’t match the schemes. If you’re going to run this kind of offense, you can’t be taking big-ass offensive linemen. You can’t be relying on 6-4 receivers. You can’t sign an incredibly athletic and gifted quarterback and move him to wide receiver.

Since 2019, Indiana has signed 20 offensive linemen (including transfers). On average, those linemen are 6-5, 290 pounds. In the 2019 and 2020 classes, the Hoosiers took two linemen above 300 pounds across 13 signees. In 2021 and 2022, five of seven signees tipped the scales above 300 pounds.

They used to understand this and I don’t know why it changed. It’s just not tenable for this system, and it’s not at all something being forced upon Indiana. There are hundreds of players in the portal who can run this kind of system and even more in the traditional recruiting ranks.

Look at other denizens of tempo on Indiana’s level of recruiting. Their lines are built for speed and their receivers are built to separate, not win in the air. There’s not a short-term scheme fix. Indiana can run this offense if it wants to, but it’s not a band-aid. It requires complete institutional buy-in. The schools having success with tempo without elite recruiting – Kansas, Maryland, North Carolina, Oklahoma State, Ole Miss, Purdue, TCU, UCF, Wake Forest, Washington, etc.. – aren’t just running an offense, they’re fully committed to recruiting and developing players for the sake of the offense. Does Bell have the juice to organize that sort of effort? I doubt it. But it can be done.

Q: Knowing the Big Ten, what kind of offense should Indiana look to to find a modicum of success knowing it’ll always be at a talent disadvantage across the board?

PM: Any system can work with complete buy-in underneath a coordinator with a complete understanding of what he wants to do and a clear plan for how he’ll get there. There are schemes that make it easier to win with a talent disadvantage, namely the extremes like the triple option and air raid, but there’s not one right answer.

Tempo is a great equalizer if you commit to it. Wide zone with motion and play action shots can work brilliantly, as IU saw with DeBoer. Kentucky went 6-2 with a wide receiver at quarterback in 2019. Kansas is running the modern I-formation triple option with the least talented P5 roster and has a top 20 offense.

It’s less about the scheme and more about your institutional commitment to the scheme. IU had, for several years, a distinct and strong defensive identity because Allen is a brilliant defensive coach and he provided a great path for guys like Wommack to follow. The same thing can happen on offense with a strong enough coordinator. Is Bell that guy? I don’t think so, but I can’t say that definitively. Maybe he is. If he’s not, the key to building a capable offense is just in finding a coach who actually believes in his shit and has the ability to get everyone else to believe in it too.

Patrick Mayhorn is the national correspondent for Meet at Midfield, the co-host of Flipping The Field and the owner of The Aggship, a credentialed Utah State outlet.