Postseason play has its perks.
For Indiana, it’s the extra practice time afforded during the three-week buildup to the Dec. 28 Foster Farms Bowl against No. 19 Utah.
Like other bowl-bound programs at this time of year, the Hoosiers are afforded practice time in line with the NCAA’s regular season rules — a maximum of four hours of athletic activities per day and 20 hours per week.
That means extra exposure and time on task for the younger Hoosiers, along with the second- and third-team players who may need it most.
“We’ve really tried to work in those guys a lot,” IU coach Tom Allen said. “We call it developmental work, just fundamentals. Often times, those guys don’t get a chance to run our scheme. They’re running scout team and running your opponent’s looks each week. It’s been really good for them to learn the signals, learn the calls.”
Defensively, that means a focus on tackling and shedding blocks. Offensively, Allen and the staff have stressed blocking and catching, in addition to the red zone work the team completed recently.
Allen has likened the buildup to the bowl game to a second round of spring practice, albeit a bit more intense. It could all lead to important developmental results for some of the players currently finishing their redshirt year, like freshman defensive lineman Jerome Johnson.
“I think Jerome Johnson, a big defensive lineman for us, has continued to progress,” Allen said. “We got him in there against our ones and twos (on Wednesday). To see him come off the football, he’s really figuring things out, as we like to say, so it’s been good to see.”
Offensively, Allen pointed to freshman receiver Taysir Mack for the way he’s progressed through his freshman year. Coming out of high school, the 6-foot-2 Brooklyn, N.Y. native was considered the top high school receiver in his home state, according to Scout.com.
It seems this fall has put him into a position to compete for playing time next season, especially with the loss of a senior like Ricky Jones. Looking ahead, Jones likes what Mack might bring in 2017.
“He kind of reminds me of Stefon Diggs (of the Minnesota Vikings),” Jones said. “He’s a really fast dude. He’s got great hands. He’s a little rusty on the route running, but he’s gonna work. He’s a freshman. He’s gonna be a great player for us, I feel like, as a screen runner or a deep-ball threat.”
Jones also says he sees potential in other freshmen receivers like Jonah Morris and Phil Benker, both of whom are also completing redshirt seasons.
“They’re gonna be the next guys to step up after we leave, so I’m making sure I’m building a good foundation with them just making sure they know how to compete and play. They’re not going to know all the plays, but (I want to) make sure they compete on every play and go hard.”
The extra practices also have an effect on recruiting.
The recent open contact period allowed IU to bring both current 2017 commits and that class’ recruiting targets to campus, where a portion of their visit could be spent watching IU practice.
That’s important because a December practice, with a bowl game on the horizon, takes on a different feel than one in March or April. After those practices, Allen took advantage of the opportunity and asked those players for their feedback on what they had just watched.
“It was so neat for them to see us in this kind of mode,” Allen said. “Before, you come for spring ball and it’s not quite the same. Even to have some of them comment. I brought them all together and said, ‘What did you think? What did you see?’ So just (getting) their perspective on it and use that and give them a chance to talk and see.
“I want to be able to give them a snapshot of, ‘Hey, what’s it going to be like to be a student-athlere here? What’s it going to be like to play football here? To be able to see us practice with your own eyes is, I think, huge in our favor because the way we practice is so high-energy and so intense and so physical. Those are the things they notice.”