Hoosiers working through spring with thin running back corps

Indiana running backs coach Deland McCullough was overseeing a handoff drill at practice on Tuesday while two-thirds of the returning members of his position group were more than 100 yards away.

Rising junior Darius Willis, sophomore Antonio Banks, and redshirted freshman Matt Perez and Xavier Whitaker were all doing modified workouts under assistant strength and conditioning coach Rick Danison, avoiding anything resembling game action as they each recover from knee injuries that ended their 2010 seasons.

Meanwhile, McCullough was left to work with a scatback type who saw here-and-there use last season (rising sophomore Nick Turner), a local walk-on who has not yet seen game action (rising sophomore David Blackwell) and a converted tight end looking to pick up some fullback reps (redshirt freshman Leneil Himes).

Right now that’s all he has to work with.

McCullough, a former Miami (Ohio) star tailback who spent three years in the NFL, is looking on the bright side.

“It’s been fun,” he said. “It’s been a great opportunity for the guys who are healthy to go out there and get some good quality reps. It’s been good for me to teach under adversity and coach under those kind of circumstances.”

McCullough’s biggest focus of the offseason has been turning Nick Turner into a player capable of being an every-down back. The speedster from Southport proved he could break open big runs, busting loose for a 67-yarder against Wisconsin and flying by defenders for a 24-yard score against Western Kentucky. he only carried the ball 28 times all season, however, finishing with 157 yards, with those two rushes counting for a majority of his gains on the season. The 6-foot, 185-pounder didn’t show quite the physicality coaches were hoping for to get more reps, especially because the Hoosiers throw the ball so much and senior Trea Burgess was a better pass blocker.

McCullough has already seen Turner get stronger.

“The big thing with me about being a complete back is a guy who can be physical as well,” McCullough said. “It’s obvious Nick, he can break long runs and things like that, but it’s getting his vision better for him to make the proper read keys and being able to finish runs and being a physical guy. Even the defensive guys out there today said, ‘Man, we’ve never seen Nick really run like that.’ He’s being physical every play. That’s the challenge I put to him every day in practice.”

Turner said the reps are helping him do that and he’s also become stronger. He said he’s bulked up from 185 to around 196, though he’s listed at 187 in Indiana’s spring guide.

“Last season I was really little,” Turner said. “From actually experiencing good lifting techniques, it got me a lot stronger and more physically capable to run in between the tackles and everything. It’s a lot easier and a lot better. My body doesn’t hurt as bad.”

The Hoosiers have been happy with Blackwell’s performance and also with the way that Himes has carried the ball and worked into the fullback position, which didn’t exist on last year’s team when the Hoosiers often used the pistol formation. Himes might not be the only fullback, as Max Dedmond and Charles Love III can also play there, and Wilson wouldn’t say for certain how much a fullback would be used. He said it would be largely determined by how they felt about the starting fullback.

“If he’s good, a lot,” Indiana coach Kevin Wilson said. “If he sucks, not much. That’s the great thing about tight ends and fullbacks. If you’re no good, you don’t have to play. So we don’t have to play four-wides. We don’t have to play three. You play the best 11. Can you play two tailbacks at a time? Right now I don’t know because we don’t have a bunch of backs. Can you play four wideouts? Maybe your second tight end is better than your third wideout, so maybe your in two tights. Maybe your fullback is one of your best 11. Right now, we’re just giving them a chance to see.”

AUDIO: Jeff Thomas

AUDIO: Running backs coach Deland McCullough

AUDIO: Nick Turner

AUDIO: Will Matte

AUDIO: Kevin Wilson

3 comments

  1. Blackwell was a punishing running back at Bloominton South. Never seen him as a D1 back though, but I know David personally, he is a hard worker that will do anything he can to help his team.

  2. If Perez is indeed healthy like they say he is, he will be in the mix for major minutes this fall. Anybody know how he looks this Spring?

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