CHICAGO — Indiana Coach Kevin Wilson has a vision for turning around the Big Ten’s worst football program. It’s not with the conference’s traditional slam-ball techniques, but with finesse.
Wilson’s style nearly worked last year. Yes, the Hoosiers were 4-8, but they were competitive. Four of their losses came by one score, including a three-point defeat to Ohio State and a four-point loss to Michigan State. Indiana fielded the Big Ten’s most prolific passing offense and did so without its original starting quarterback.
The Hoosiers averaged 311.2 yards passing, nearly 40 yards more than runner-up Penn State. Indiana split repetitions, sometimes even series, between now-junior Cameron Coffman and sophomore Nate Sudfeld. Starter Tre Roberson started only two games before he was injured last year and will come back as a red-shirt sophomore.
That three underclassman quarterbacks with little experience can combine to lead the Big Ten in passing is a testament to Wilson’s system. He dispatched more than a dozen players after his first season and played 16 freshman in his overmatched inaugural year. Wilson played 11 freshmen last year and the Hoosiers became competitive.
Now with experience, Wilson believes Indiana is ready to take a step forward. Big Ten writers agree, naming his squad as the most likely to surprise this fall.
“We’ve got 19 starters back, guys, and that’s 19 offense and defense,” Wilson said. “We’ve got our kickers back, our punters back. Our long snapper’s a big-time player and returners.
“A lot of guys back. A lot of positive energy, and a very, very healthy team.”
But his quarterback situation remains up in the air. All had their moments last year. Coffman threw 15 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, while Sudfield tossed seven TDs and only one pick — which was returned for a touchdown. Roberson has thrown for 1,305 yards and five scores in his career and is the best athlete of the bunch.
“We’re unsettled at quarterback,” Wilson said. “Got three guys in a dead heat. It’s not because I don’t think we’ve got a good player. We’ve got three guys that are very unique, can manage us. Haven’t seen someone separate.
“I’d love to see one emerge.”
Wilson didn’t bring a quarterback with him to Big Ten Media Days because of the uncertainty. But he has enough pieces on offense to make the offense run regardless of the quarterback.
Running back Stephen Houston rushed for 749 yards and 12 touchdowns last year. But he’ll be challenged by top recruit Tevin Coleman. Indiana returns its top seven pass receivers, four of which caught at least 41 balls. Both Cody Latimer and Shane Wynn hauled in six touchdowns, while Kofi Hughes averaged nearly 15 yards a catch. Wynn finished second in Big Ten catches with 68, while Latimer was second in receiving yards per game. Tight end Ted Bolser (41 catches) is one of the Big Ten’s leading receivers at tight end. Four of the team’s starting offensive linemen also come back.
But defensively, Indiana was a disaster. The Hoosiers finished last in scoring defense at 35.2 points per game, rushing defense (231.3 yards per game) and total defense (463.5). They gave up nearly 50 yards more per game than any other team in the Big Ten. They also lost their top two players in defensive tackles Larry Black and Adam Replogle.
Three times Indiana allowed more than 350 yards rushing, including a 564-yard nightmare to Wisconsin. Six times opponents scored more than 40 points. To rectify those issues, Wilson brought in 15 defensive recruits and said many of them will play this fall.
“My inclination says you’ll probably see some of those guys on the field,” Wilson said. “Might be some growing pains, but we’ll be growing with guys that are faster and more talented.”
“We have to make significant strides defensively. Quite honestly, it’s been embarrassing about how we played in our first two years. So our effort, toughness, needs to be better.”
The schedule is in Indiana’s favor. The Hoosiers play eight games at home, and they have a shot at all four Big Ten opponents in Bloomington — Penn State, Minnesota, Illinois and Purdue. Should Indiana hold serve at Memorial Stadium, it will produce the school’s first eight-win season since 1993. Throw in a bowl victory, and Indiana could notch its first nine-win year since its only Rose Bowl season in 1967.
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