Like we did with the defense yesterday, today we will take a look at what IU has coming back on offense.
Once again, the definition of “returning starters” is important here. If the definition is “any player who has starting experience in his career,” then IU has a whopping 18 players that fit the bill. That total reveals the flaw with that particular definition – depending on the circumstances, you can end up with more returning starters than positions on the field. That said, the reality is that for every offensive position, IU has at least one player with starting experience.[ref] This includes tight end, where Ryan Watercutter started a handful of games in 2017. Sure, he was filling in for the injured Ian Thomas, but starting is starting.[/ref]
Of course, that is not to say that IU did not lose key contributors from the 2017 offense. No. 1. wideout Simmie Cobbs left early for the NFL, another starting receiver (at least by the end of the season), Taysir Mack transferred, and QB Richard Lagow and TE Ian Thomas graduated. That’s four of the top eleven in the “possessions played” chart. However, of the 27 offensive players who appeared in at least a possession, all but seven are back.[ref] In addition to Cobbs, Mack, Lagow and Thomas, reserve RBs Devonte Williams and Alex Rodriguez transferred, and backup OT and former TE Danny Friend graduated.[/ref] That’s a lot of returning players.
For a production standpoint, IU loses about 1900 passing yards and 15 passing TDs from the graduation of Lagow[ref] And his 8 INTs.[/ref], about 1800 receiving yards and 18 TDs from Cobbs, Thomas, Mack and Williams, and about 150 rushing yards from Williams and Rodriguez. Of that lost production, the part that seems most difficult to replace by the current personnel is Ian Thomas’ 376 receiving yards and 5 TDs. Barring an unforeseen emergence at tight end, some of that production will likely shift to wide receivers in 2018.
As a reminder:
- Green = starting experience
- Yellow = appeared in non-garbage time, but hasn’t started
- Red = never played or at least never played in non-garbage time
This chart is loosely based on IU’s published depth chart, but does not track it exactly. Where it differs, it’s generally where I’m picking a definitive order, where the depth chart has an “or” notation. I also add in a couple more guys than appear in the two-deep, and those additions are based on comments made by the coaching staff in the spring and so far in camp, as well as my own estimation of who might see the field this fall and where. If a player isn’t listed on the chart, it means I don’t think they will see the field barring any injury issues. Obviously, that is subject to change as fall camp continues and then the season gets underway.
EVERYBODY IS BACK. Seriously. Eight guys saw action last year along the line and seven of them started as least one game. All return. Add grad transfer Nick Linder to that mix, along with promising (and massive) redshirt freshman Caleb Jones, and you have a fairly solid two-deep with some positional flexibility if injuries pop up. The left side of the line was IU’s strength, with all-conference-caliber LG Wes Martin not missing a non-garbage time snap and LT Coy Cronk generally showing improvement in his sophomore season (while occasionally appearing overmatched against the best B1G defensive linemen). Center, RG and RT were a bit of a revolving door, as injuries and a lack of separation between 1st and 2nd teamers led to rotations between Littlejohn and Crider at center, Stepaniak, Nworah and Baker at RG, and Knight and Baker at RT. The positive is that everyone gained experience. Looking at the glass half empty, especially as to center and RG, no one established a firm grasp on the starting role.
Some of that uncertainty led Coach Allen to recruit and land Nick Linder, a graduate transfer and former starting center at Miami. At this point, it’s not clear if Linder will unseat Littlejohn, but I will be surprised if Linder doesn’t see some playing time. The same is true with Baker and Nworah – it is likely they will see some action, even without injuries to the starters.
Hopefully, all this experienced depth will allow the also promising duo of true freshmen linemen – Nick Mazoras and Aiden Rafferty – to redshirt and develop at their own pace.
The likely starter is walk-on Ryan Watercutter. While undersized for a B1G tight end, Watercutter has showed himself to be a serviceable blocker and a reliable receiver, albeit with a limited amount of targets. That said, I imagine Mike DeBord and the offensive staff would prefer for one of the three scholarship tight ends who have been in the program for several years to unseat him, redshirt junior Austin Dorris, redshirt sophomore Shaun Bonner or redshirt freshman Peyton Hendershot. True freshmen T.J. Ivy and Matt Bjorson could also be in the mix. As with some of the defensive positions, I expect TE to be a revolving door in September.
This is probably IU’s best position group. In Nick Westbrook, Donovan Hale, Luke Timian, Whop Philyor and J’Shun Harris, IU has five receivers that are starting-caliber. Sure, three of those five are coming off injuries (and in Harris’ case, a series of injuries), but if this quintet can stay healthy in 2018, look out. If IU sticks with the 3-WR sets they favored in 2017, then expect a heavy rotation. Don’t be surprised if IU also uses 4-WR sets more regularly, as a way of getting more talent on the field.
After that group of five, it will be interesting to see if any of the younger receivers emerge. Sophomore Ty Fryfogle, and true freshmen Miles Marshall and Jacolby Hewitt are likely candidates.
Barring injury, sophomores Morgan Ellison and Cole Gest should split most of the carries. Senior Mike Majette will probably fill the 3rd down back role that Devonte Williams played last year, and his skill out of the back field can be a real asset for this offense. It’s also likely that at least one of the true freshmen backs, Stevie Scott and Ronnie Walker, will play a role. I included Scott on the depth chart based on early reports from camp, but Ronnie Walker’s recruiting profile suggests that he has a shot to see the field early as well. Scott’s size and strength may allow him to carve out a short yardage role at the very least. And don’t forget about redshirt senior and walk-on Ricky Brookins. While I didn’t include him on the depth chart, he always seems to work his way into the rotation by seasons’ end.
Saving the most controversial for last. The depth chart above shows Brandon Dawkins as QB1, but that is based on our pre-camp thought that Allen, DeBord & Co. would prefer to utilize his running prowess. Reports from camp suggest that this position remains very much up for grabs. I have exactly zero insight into what’s actually happening there, but I can say that having three viable starting options is a good – and relatively rare – problem for IU. The bigger question is whether the eventual winner of the competition[ref] To the extent they opt to go with one guy instead of splitting time.[/ref] can provide above-average B1G quarterback play. With the tools at that QB’s disposal, especially at receiver, and the experience along the offensive line, expecting an above-average level of performance seems reasonable.