Wilson can afford to wait with freshmen

From his first fall camp as Indiana football coach in 2011 through this morning, when freshmen and newcomers begin reporting, Kevin Wilson has recognized the trends.

Overall player development and positional depth are beginning to yield results, just as recruiting at IU has reached a high point over the last three cycles. But most importantly, with the official opening of camp only two days away, the starting point for incoming recruits is higher than at any point in Wilson’s four previous seasons.

“I do think this class we signed is the most talented class we’ve signed,” Wilson said. “But we’ve gotten to where last year we actually redshirted good players, where maybe year one, year two, some of those guys were playing.”

In February, Wilson signed his third consecutive recruiting class ranked in the top half of the Big Ten, showing that the gains he and his staff made on the high school trail in 2013 and 2014 were no fluke. Some of the incoming freshmen, particularly in the secondary and at receiver, will be forced to compete for immediate playing time this fall.

Otherwise, Indiana is beginning to bridge the gap between both winning now and in the future, showing signs that it no longer feels obligated to force young players onto the field, no matter how talented.

This summer, offensive line prospects Brandon Knight and Simon Stepaniak were two of the biggest standouts among the 24-man class. But Knight, who has potential to see time at either tackle spot, and Stepaniak, a possible guard or center who chose IU over Penn State, Minnesota and Illinois, may not even break into the two-deep, because All-Big Ten linemen Spriggs and Dan Feeney, along with others, are firmly in front of them.

Compare that with the start of the 2012 season, when Spriggs and Feeney were both forced to start all 12 games.

“I think Brandon Knight and Simon Stepaniak compare to Feeney and Spriggs,” Wilson said. “Them dudes walked out the first game they ever played in and had to start. Knight and Stepaniak) might get redshirts. Now, will they develop? They might not be near as good and we might never hear from them, but as they show up with (bigger) body types and the strength level — I’m watching a true freshman power clean 350 (pounds) the other day. That’s pretty good. We didn’t have guys doing that.”

The trend was visible last year, too, when IU could afford to redshirt talented incoming freshmen like offensive linemen Wes Martin and Delroy Baker, bandit Nile Sykes and defensive linemen Derrian Meminger and Mike Barwick. This fall, Meminger and Barwick will push for a spot on the two-deep, Sykes will at least begin the season as the projected backup to Zack Shaw, and Martin and Baker could both contend for spots with good camps.

While a true and accurate depth chart is unclear ahead of Thursday’s first day of camp, Indiana may not have a true freshman on its two-deep outside of corner, safety and receiver.

At corner, Rashard Fant and Noel Padmore will likely receive help from newcomer Tyler Green, a 6-foot-3, 190-pound former Ohio State commit, and athletes Isaac James and Mike Majette. Both James and Majette could also see time at receiver as camp progresses. Safety, too, will see an influx of freshmen competing for starting or backup spots. Chase Dutra will take over for Antonio Allen at free safety, and Kiante Walton and Tony Fields will presumably go head-to-head for the starting job alongside Dutra. Otherwise, there are openings for freshmen Jonathan Crawford and Jameel Cook to push into the two-deep.

With leading returning receiver J-Shun Harris out for the season with an ACL injury, the depth chart at receiver is completely open ahead of the season opener on Sept. 5 vs. Southern Illinois. Returnees like Simmie Cobbs, Dominique Booth and Ricky Jones will have the benefit of experience, but Wilson and company are particularly high on freshmen Nick Westbrook and Leon Thornton. That’s not to mention junior college transfer Camion Patrick, who’s still waiting on academic clearance. In only a few months, Patrick has already driven some to draw comparisons to Cody Latimer.

“To me, the best thing we’ve done in recruiting is the body types, and we’ve gotten longer,” Wilson said. “I was concerned two years ago, and I think it got us last year. I was concerned that we were getting a little small at receiver. In our world, if you want speed, sometimes you give up size. There are some big and fast guys, but a lot of them get gobbled up by traditional, historical places. In our world, if you want speed at a lot of positions, you get smaller. If you get smaller, you have matchup problems. So we’ve been able to identify some longer bodies that have the skill set that we need, (including speed).”

And, for the most part, they no longer have to rush those players onto the field simply to fill a need.

9 comments

  1. Excellent article…it really explains how far the IU football program has come and how far it still needs to go. Coach Wilson has really rebuilt this program to some signs of respectability…i think a lot of big 10 teams will no longer see IU as that walk over, cake walk or automatic win on their schedule….Coach Wilson has built the foundation for a success IU football program, lets not stop him now…In a couple of more years IU football program will be more competitive and winning consistently, provide Coach Wilson is here….Coach Wilson is building for the future, maybe his future is now….i feel that with a good recruiting class this year IU football will be competitive for the next few years and provide that Coach Wilson is still around we will not be last in the Big 10 east division every year…Will we ever reach Ohio State or Michigan State level maybe not, but at least we can be competitive with the rest of the Big 10.

  2. Does anyone know the status of the WR from UAB (I think his name is Hawkins)? I am surprised that I am not hearing his name mentioned at all in the wide receiver conversation.

  3. PB,
    Haven’t heard a whole lot about Hawkins, myself. He broke his wrist sometime around the middle of spring ball, I believe, so that set him back. Wilson did say that he looked fine during the summer, but they haven’t really been able to evaluate him in pads. He’ll be in the mix once camp starts Thursday. Just hard to say with any certainty where he stands at the moment.

  4. Thanks Mike,
    I don’t get much in print down here, so it is good to be able to get on line and find info about the football team . Great article. Feed me more.

  5. Great article Mike. Extremely detailed when discussing depth at various positions. As fans & alumni we tend to view athletics as a zero sum game. Many never really consider the growth of the program under CKW. These kids are competing and the progress is measurable, this isn’t hyperbole. I’m excited to see the team this season, in person as well as on the tube. Go Hoosiers! ! !

  6. Yes, great article. And more reason for optimism about IU Football. Wilson is signing better players and developing their bodies more effectively. But it all boils down to the intangibles that ultimately determine how the deeper level of talent performs on the field and the results they achieve. Just win six!

  7. Great article detailing where the program is right now. We all know that some wins have to come but I am hopeful this team will surprise many. As long as the secondary can play solid and not give up big plays I think IU will be very competitive and will be people they have played close to in the past. Besides the early games I could see IU beating Michigan, PSU, Rutgers, and Purdue. Maybe the team was playing with our emotions playing as hard as they did without Nate last year but I don’t think it was a fluke.

    I was watching College Football Live earlier this evening with MSU coach on. The analyst asked him about the changing athleticism in the B1G – he gave the example that IU could play MSU tough for 3 qrts something that didn’t happen in the past. Even some national announcers are seeing the improvement Coach Wilson and his staff are making.

  8. Poor proofreading before posting.

    “IU will be very competitive and will be people they have played close to in the past.” Should read “IU will be very competitive and will BEAT people they have played close to in the past.”

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