Play The Best Players – 2017 Edition

It’s a late-August tradition here at PJP: predicting which of IU’s true freshmen will play in 2017.

To answer the play/redshirt question, there are generally four factors to consider, as I discussed in last year’s Play The Best Players post:

(1) Early enrollment – a freshman that starts his college career a semester early and gets spring practice under his belt improves his odds of playing as a true freshman.  For the first time since 2014, IU had true freshmen enroll early. Juan Harris, Thomas Allen and Tyler Knight all arrived on campus in January.

(2) Positional need – graduation, injuries and general attrition can leave the coaching staff with no choice but to run true freshmen out there. This year, positional need exists along the defensive line and on offense at center, running back and tight end.

(3) Physical maturity – This factor is sometimes more about physical immaturity keeping certain freshmen from playing in their first season on campus.  Rashard Fant is the classic example. When he arrived in Bloomington in 2013, he weighed all of 160 pounds.  His body simply wasn’t ready for the pounding of major college football.

(4) Overall talent – Sometimes a player is just too good to redshirt, regardless of any of the other factors.

Last year, just 6 of 15 (40%) true freshmen played, running the 6-year true-freshmen-play percentage in the Wilson Era to 49% (56 of 114). That 60% redshirt percentage in 2016 is the 2nd highest in the Wilson Era.1 The chart below shows my projection from last year of who would play and who would redshirt and who actually ended up playing and redshirting.

Excluding Kiante Enis2, I hit on 13 of 15 (87%) and one of the misses was Cole Gest, who played in IU’s first three games before suffering a season ending injury. This says more about how the coaching staff telegraphs these decisions through their comments during fall camp than it does about my prognostication skills.

Now we turn to the 2017 group. As you may recall, in this exercise, we only consider true freshmen. JuCo players aren’t included primarily because they are expected to come in and play right away (and also because many of them have already used a redshirt year). This year, that means linebacker Mike McGinnis and punter Haydon Whitehead3 won’t be included.

Also, I’m excluding Bryant Fitzgerald from this list. He would have been an “N” in the chart below – because he was absolutely going to play in 2017 – but his ineligibility removes any doubt.

The chart below shows my projection for whether each member of the class will redshirt or not, arranged in order from most likely to play to least.

First of all, you can see that this is a much bigger group than in 2016 – 21 to 15. One small factor in the size difference is Ryan Smith, who was originally in the 2016 class, but ended up grayshirting due to an injury he suffered as a senior in high school. He is now considered part of the 2017 class.

In total, I project that 9 members of the class will play in 2017, while 12 will redshirt. Specifically:

  • Morgan Ellison’s placement at the top of this list is based on positional need at running back – if not in overall members, then in a lack of true impact talent – as well as his pure talent. At this point, it seems very likely that Mr. Ellison will play early and often.
  • Harry Crider is in a similar situation. If Brandon Knight was healthy for fall camp, maybe Crider is lower on this list, but as it is, there’s a realistic chance that the first snap Richard Lagow takes against Ohio State will come from Harry Crider.4
  • My projections for corners LaDamion Hunt and Raheem Layne are based entirely on comments by the coaching staff during fall camp. If Tom Allen and CB coach Brandon Shelby hadn’t sung their praises all camp and almost insisted that both would play, I would have placed one or both of these guys in the “Y” column, given the presence of four talented and experienced corners returning (Rashard Fant, A’shon Riggins, Andre Brown and Tyler Green). As it is, I still think there’s a chance that one of them redshirts if those four all stay healthy.
  • Juwan Burgess falls into the “too talented not to play” category. I wouldn’t be surprised if he works his way to 2nd team field safety behind Jonathan Crawford by midseason.
  • The defensive line is difficult to project. There’s a positional need at defensive tackle and defensive end, following the departure of Ralph Green and Patrick Dougherty and the injury to Nile Sykes. And there’s a ton of talented defensive linemen in this class – six in total. My guess is that at least two and possibly as many as four will play, depending on the health of the upperclassmen. The problem is differentiating among them. Juan Harris seems to be the most likely to play. He already OUTWEIGHS EVERY OTHER MEMBER OF THE TEAM BY 50 POUNDS5, which is insane. I’m sure the staff would prefer that he cut some of that weight, but for right now, Juan is a huge human being who will be hard for O-linemen to displace. And he has the advantage of having participated in spring practice. Beyond that, it gets murky. I listed LeShun Minor as an “N” because he seems relatively physically mature, and if Harris slots in as a traditional nose tackle, Minor seems more like a true defensive tackle. At defensive end, Tramar Reece is my guess to play based upon the need for a pure speed rusher at defensive end, although given his size (6’4, 230), a redshirt year would probably benefit him. That said, I would not be surprised if any of Alfred Bryant, Britt Beery or Michael Ziemba see the field in 2017.
  • But for last week’s news that Danny Friend is moving from tight end to offensive line, I might have had Peyton Hendershot as a redshirt candidate. As it is, Hendershot may be the 2nd most talented tight end on the team after Ian Thomas.