In Part 1 of our three-part series on new offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer, we described Coach DeBoer’s offensive system. Today, in Part 2, we’ll go position by position to examine how IU’s current personnel may fit in that system.
The obvious beneficiaries of DeBoer’s system are IU’s tight ends. It is likely they will see the field more in general and should get the ball more in the passing game. Specifically, Peyton Hendershot could make a huge leap under Coach DeBoer. He was IU’s best receiving tight end in 2018, and he certainly appears to have untapped potential in that area. The only other returning tight end who played in 2018 is Matt Bjorson. While not the athlete that Hendershot is, Bjorson is more advanced as a blocker and should continue to see regular playing time under Coach DeBoer.
The problem is that after Hendershot and Bjorson, IU doesn’t have a tight end on the roster who’s played a non-garbage time snap. The two other tight ends who played last year, Ryan Watercutter and Austin Dorris, graduated and transferred respectively. By the start of fall camp, IU should have three scholarship tight ends in addition to Hendershot and Bjorson – (1) Shaun Bonner, a redshirt junior, who, at least based on Coach Allen’s comments to the media, has made strides and could be ready for an on-field role; (2) T.J. Ivy, a redshirt freshman, who could challenge Hendershot in terms of athleticism and is probably the best bet to be No. 3 on the depth chart; and (3) Gary Cooper, a true freshman from Florida, who doesn’t have prototypical tight end size and could probably use a redshirt year.
An OC like DeBoer that likes to use two – or even three – tight ends at at time would probably like to have more than 5 scholarship players at his disposal. The hope is that one or two of the three inexperienced players is ready to play in 2019. Even if that happens, I will not be surprised if Coach DeBoer dials back his use of two and three-TE sets in 2019 due to the lack of bodies and the relative talent at wide receiver (because he’d be taking a WR off the field for each TE he adds).
DeBoer walks into a pretty good situation at receiver. He has four experienced, talented returning players in Nick Westbrook, Donovan Hale, Whop Philyor, and Ty Fryfogle. If you consider Reese Taylor a wideout, he makes five. I suspect he will want to keep three of these guys on the field as much as possible. In the games that I watched, he never used a 4-WR set, but he might consider it, based on his personnel. Likewise, while slot wideouts weren’t necessarily featured in the games that I watched, DeBoer did run jet sweeps and I will be surprised if he doesn’t find a way to get the ball in Whop’s hands 7-10 times a game.
It will be interesting to see how Reese Taylor is handled. Although listed on the depth chart as a running back, for most of last season, Taylor functioned as a slot receiver. With IU’s regular use of 4-wide (and occasionally 5-wide) sets, Taylor saw regular action as a second slot receiver alongside J’Shun Harris or Luke Timian. Now, with DeBoer’s clear preference to deploy no more than 3 wideouts at a time and with a (hopefully) healthy Whop Philyor, Taylor’s path to the field as a slot receiver isn’t as clear. One option is a simple rotation with Philyor, or possibly Philyor bumps out wide to spell Nick Westbrook, Donovan Hale or Ty Fryfogle. Another option is more reps in the backfield, but that group is already fairly stacked. A third option is a return to cornerback. Whatever the staff decides, I suspect it will involve getting Reese Taylor on the field more than in 2018. I’ll give the 2018 offensive staff the benefit of the doubt and chalk it up to concern over keeping the backup QB healthy (after Penix went down in mid-October), but on an offense that often lacked a home run hitter, Taylor was extremely under-utilized in his freshman season.
In the backfield, I think Cole Gest could carve out a nice niche for himself in this offense. Given DeBoer’s propensity to rotate backs, Gest should rotate in with Stevie Scott and Ronnie Walker[ref] And possibly Sampson James.[/ref], and his receiving ability, which is probably more developed at this point than Scott’s or Walker’s, should be utilized.
DeBoer has used 2-back sets occasionally in the past, and this personnel would seem to be a good fit for that. In the end, I think it’s possible that Stevie Scott’s carries may be cut back a bit, but Scott and the rest of the backs should still see plenty of opportunities. If the past is any guide, Coach DeBoer has no qualms with keeping the ball on the ground if the running game is working.
The most significant challenge of Coach DeBoer’s first season in Bloomington will be crafting an adequate offensive line from a group that has struggled at times for the past two seasons, lost three starters from last season and is lacking top-end talent. And he won’t have his right-hand man to help him with it. DeBoer had Ryan Grubb as his offensive line coach at Fresno State and EMU and for part of his tenure at the University of Sioux Falls. At least as of now, it appears that Grubb is staying behind at Fresno State, and Darren Hiller will remain IU’s OL coach. As one former Hoosier head coach said a few years back, you can only call what you can block. DeBoer’s solid scheme and the returning skill talent will be for naught if this group doesn’t come together. For that reason, I will be shocked if a grad transfer isn’t brought in to challenge for playing time at left guard or right tackle (or possibly center, if DeBoer and Hiller aren’t sold on occasional starter Hunter Littlejohn).
I think most IU fans have the reasonable expectation that one of Jack Tuttle or Michael Penix will win the starting job, and incumbent starter Peyton Ramsey will transfer elsewhere after the spring semester. Between Penix and Tuttle, Penix has college game action under his belt, but Tuttle will be a full participant in spring practice, while Penix will be limited as he recovers from an ACL tear. Both have B1G starter-level talent.
That said, you can talk yourself into a scenario where Ramsey holds them off. This offense still plays to his perceived strengths — decision-making and accuracy — while limiting the impact of his primary weakness, arm strength. Notice I said “perceived strengths.” The problem with Ramsey in 2018 was that he wasn’t a great decision-maker, and he wasn’t accurate in key situations. He did not always read the defense and find the open receiver, and at times when he did locate an open receiver, his throw was inaccurate. If he doesn’t correct those issues, he has no chance of beating out Penix or Tuttle.
In sum, from a personnel standpoint, the pieces are there for DeBoer to have a successful first season. That is, if he can figure out the offensive line situation.
In Part 3, coming next Monday, we will try to answer the question, “why will the 2019 offense be better than Mike DeBord’s 2018 offense?”