Indiana fans are a unique bunch.
They’ve seen a lot. If Indiana is even making a bowl game, there’ll be a kick (which was good), interesting clock management or some other trouble that gets between the Hoosiers and a win. Naturally, this involves a lot of raised voices about what’s going wrong, which doesn’t tend to yield a ton of agreement.
Recently, Indiana fans have been largely united in a singular, consistent issue that’s plagued the team over the past few seasons: the offensive line.
Four games into the 2022 season, quarterback Connor Bazelak has faced pressure on 34.7% of his dropbacks. He’s has been sacked nine times off of 74 pressures.
Through the 2021 season, Indiana allowed 18 sacks and 152 pressures. Four games into the 2022 season, they’re nearly halfway there in pressures and already halfway there in sacks.
Bazelak was panting as he glanced toward the sideline for playcalls during the fourth quarter against Cincinnati. He’d faced pressure on 46.5% of his dropbacks against the Bearcats and been sacked five times.
He attempted a program record 66 passes as Indiana tried desperately to claw its way into a game it never really seemed to be in.
Meanwhile, in the run game, Indiana’s 459 rushing yards rank 13th in the Big Ten, just above the offensively-maligned Iowa Hawkeyes with 406 yards. The Hoosiers’ 3.4 yards per carry similarly ranks 13th.
The offensive line, especially in the Big Ten, is essential for productive passing and rushing attacks. Tom Allen addressed this in his weekly press conference Monday.
“The bottom line is they have to perform, be able to execute our run and throw game,” Allen said. “That wasn’t done consistently on Saturday. High priority for us.”
We’ve taken a look at the stats over the years, before and after the hiring of Tom Allen as head coach and subsequent hiring of Darren Hiller as offensive line coach, to see what the numbers say. We’ll be combining that with, well, what’s pretty obvious to see on the field to draw a conclusion.
Everything starts with recruiting, so we’ll start there as well.
For this, we’ve taken a look at each Indiana offensive line recruit’s 247Sports player rating and averaged it out per year.
The results were... interesting to say the least.
You’ll notice the red dot in 2017, that’s the first year of offensive Hiller’s time in Bloomington. He was one of Allen’s first hires to the team after the two worked together at Arkansas State.
He’s the only offensive assistant from Allen’s first season as the full-time head coach to remain on Indiana’s staff, all of the others left for other positions with the exception of Nick Sheridan.
Since Hiller’s hiring, Indiana’s offensive line recruiting has either been on par with previous classes or has been superior.
The average rating is obviously affected by how many recruits Indiana brought in during a given year. For example, two offensive linemen joined the Hoosiers in 2018 following Hiller’s first season and seven joined the team in 2020.
The most recent class, 2022, has the highest average 247Sports rating of any recent class with D.J. Moore, Carter Smith and Bray Lynch having a rounded average of 0.8727. The problem there, of course, is that those recruits aren’t quite ready to help the team right now. All Indiana can do is work to develop them.
Which brings us to our next point.
We mentioned earlier that Hiller’s first class as offensive line coach contained two players. Neither saw a good amount of game action or started a game at Indiana.
Hiller’s second class, 2019, featured future starters on the offensive line in Mike Katic and Matthew Bedford.
It’s worth noting that Indiana faced the same recruiting issues as literally every other program in the years following 2019 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It became a different ballgame for the 2020 and 2021 recruiting classes, though the Hoosiers were able to pull in similarly-rated recruits as they previously had.
Hiller’s third class, 2020, contained a whopping seven offensive linemen, with two coming from the junior college level. Of those that came from the high school ranks, none have gotten starting snaps.
Indiana’s current ideal starting unit, with health in mind, relies on two transfers: Luke Haggard at left tackle and Zach Carpenter at center.
Haggard transferred to Indiana from Santa Rosa Junior College in California, where he played from 2018-2019, before the 2020 season and has started in 18 of his 20 career appearances as a Hoosier. He’s currently Indiana’s highest-graded blocker in the pass and run game among starting offensive linemen.
Haggard has allowed just five pressures on the season and zero sacks.
To Haggard’s right is 2019 recruit Katic at left guard. Like Haggard, Katic has also allowed just five pressures in four games and a single sack.
Carpenter joined Indiana from Michigan, where he played from 2019-2020, ahead of the 2021 season. He played sparingly in 2021 before earning the starting center spot for the first two games of the 2022 season and is currently out with a short-term hand injury.
Carpenter’s true backup, 2020 recruit Cameron Knight, is also injured, per Dustin Dopirak of the Herald-Times. Third-string center Caleb Murphy initially came to Indiana in 2020 as a defensive end, switched to tight end that season and is now on the offensive line.
The right side of Indiana’s offensive line is where things get complicated. Kahlil Benson, a 2020 recruit whose development was delayed by an ACL injury in fall camp that year, has split roughly equal time at right guard with 2019 recruit Tim Weaver.
Benson’s share of snaps at right guard has only grown as the season has gone on, though Weaver has gotten the start in every game.
Starting right tackle Matthew Bedford, a 2019 recruit, suffered a torn ACL against Illinois and was replaced by a transfer from West Texas A&M in Parker Hanna.
Indiana’s line heading into the season, with health in mind, was as follows:
LT - Luke Haggard (2020 transfer)
LG - Mike Katic (2019 recruit)
C - Zach Carpenter (2021 transfer)
RG - Tim Weaver (2019 recruit) OR Kahlil Benson (2020 recruit)
RT - Matthew Bedford (2019 recruit)
So that’s two transfers, two high school developed starters and two developed high schoolers splitting time. That’s obviously not the current line due to injuries, but it’s worrying that Indiana has had to rely on transfers as much as it has.
Before Carpenter’s injury, Bedford was replaced by Hanna, which meant a majority of the offensive line was occupied by transfers rather than young talent the Hoosiers had developed during Hiller’s six years as coach.
Three transfers, one high school recruit holding down the left side with Haggard and two others still competing into the season for time at right guard. You should never say no to an experienced transfer, especially from a program like Michigan, but if you need one there’s an issue.
On top of that, Indiana just isn’t sending linemen to the NFL Draft the way it used to. Indiana could usually count on its linemen getting looks from NFL teams and occasionally earning roster spots.
A curious recent development in that department is Caleb Jones. Hiller said Jones had NFL dreams heading into his final season in 2021, and he ultimately ended up being picked up by the Green Bay Packers as an undrafted free agent.
Jones was in Bloomington for years, joining the program at the same time as Hiller in 2017. He was released following training camp, but joined the Packers’ practice squad not long after. Then, two weeks ago, the Packers elevated Jones to their active roster after months of NFL coaching/development.
It could be his tantalizing size at the position or some unseen development, we have yet to see him in game action at the NFL regular season level, but it’s worth noting.
Obviously the easiest way to evaluate Indiana’s on-field play is to tune in on Saturdays and see how the offensive line holds up to a pass rush or how it creates gaps in the run game, but we’re gonna go to numbers again.
Here’s Indiana’s pass and run blocking grades, courtesy of PFF, since 2014:
The takeaways here are fairly obvious.
Indiana’s play, both in pass blocking and run blocking, has been trending down for quite some time now. For what it’s worth, Indiana’s current pass blocking grade stands at 43.5 on the season and its run blocking grade sits at 49.6.
If both of those hold (and Indiana hasn’t faced vaunted defenses aside from that of Cincinnati just yet) they’d be a clear dip from the previous season. The bottom kind of fell out for Indiana’s pass-blocking in 2020, but that was slightly offset by Indiana’s tendency to get good field position thanks to its defense.
This season, the Hoosiers have graded in the red in pass blocking efforts against both Illinois and Cincinnati with PFF grades of 35.6 and 31.1, respectively. The first came with a mostly healthy line while the second was hit with injuries.
That’s simply not sustainable in the Big Ten, where future first round picks on defense at Michigan and Ohio State outclass those at Illinois from a pure physical standpoint. If Indiana can’t hold up in pass protection at full strength against the Illini, it’s in for a rough time against the rest of the conference as injuries pile up.
Another on-field consequence has been the lack of true running threat following back-to-back NFL running backs in Jordan Howard and Tevin Coleman. While the talent level certainly varied, Devine Redding, Morgan Ellison, and even Stevie Scott failed to reproduce the level of seasons that Howard and Coleman had in 2015 and 16.
All of the backs mentioned above were three-star recruits coming into high school, with the exception of Jordan Howard, who was a two-star ranked the 2141st best player in his class. Coleman (646) was the highest ranked of the bunch, followed by Ellison (837), Redding (1269), then Scott III (1336).
Despite being ranked similarly as recruits, there was a pretty sharp drop off in performance from Indiana’s lead back following Howard’s departure for the NFL following the 2016 season, per the PFF Rushing Grade stat. Coleman’s 71.6 grade in 2015 was enough to make him a 3rd round pick before Howard exploded for a grade of 85.7 the following year. After that, it wasn’t til Stevie Scott’s strong 2019 campaign that the Hoosiers would have another back post a grade above a 70.
Indiana has been left relying on transfer portal running backs for the past two seasons since Scott’s departure for the NFL and McCullough’s one year return to Bloomington in 2021.
McCullough’s replacement, Mike Hart, did some great work with Scott III in Bloomington before going home to Michigan and giving them one of the top running back rooms in the country last season.
Indiana’s rushing stats, as a team, have largely been stagnant since the 2019 season.
When considering this chart, please keep in mind that the first few years were some truly prolific rushing offenses and should not be regarded as the standard. Those were outliers.
However, Indiana’s rushing offense has stood pat as among the worst in the Big Ten on a yards per carry basis for the past three years and 2019 wasn’t much better. The offense in 2018 featured Scott and a few future NFL linemen.
Since the class of 2018, which featured Michael Penix Jr., another Indiana transfer out, Indiana has lost one four-star and four three-star running backs to transfer portal, at one point leaving Indiana with walk-ons starting late in the 2021 season.
Look, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that while Indiana’s recruiting efforts have yielded players on par or better than those they previously had, the overall play of the line is trending down.
The obvious takeaway there is that Indiana hasn’t developed the guys the Hoosiers have gotten over the years. They’ve had to rely on multiple transfers to patch those gaps to mixed results (don’t undersell Haggard’s performance in pass protection) and continue to do so into this season.
Indiana’s most talented class, that of 2022, isn’t ready to take charge yet and won’t be this season.
The Hoosiers just do not have that kind of time.
If you’d like to read more about Indiana’s offensive line, here’s a piece from Herald-Times IU insider Dustin Dopirak.