Young Hoosiers learning to deal with success

The youth movement underway for Indiana comes with its positives, especially when some of the youngest shine brightest.

But with some early plaudits for quarterback Michael Penix Jr., a redshirt freshman, and the emergence of true freshman starters Tiawan Mullen (corner) and Matthew Bedford (left tackle), IU coach Tom Allen has a concern.

He points to Proverbs 27:21, “Fire tests the purity of silver and gold, but a person is tested by being praised.”

“Often time the praise and the successes we have goes to guys’ heads, especially when they are young and not mature enough to handle that,” Allen said. “Articles are written about them, people saying positive things and all these things happen — and then, OK, how are you going to respond?”

With the Hoosiers sitting at 4-2, this week’s depth chart lists 16 non-seniors as starters on offense and defense, while 11 of those are sophomores or freshmen in terms of eligibility.

Mullen, who broke out with four pass breakups at Michigan State, was just given a “starter” tag with sophomore Jaylin Williams projected to line up across from him. Bedford replaced injured senior Coy Cronk at Michigan State. Penix has completed 69 percent of his passes and thrown for an average of 272.8 yards per game in four starts. IU has won three of those games.

At the same time, there has been much discussion over the last week of the Hoosiers’ scoreless second quarter in a romp of Rutgers, a lull Allen attributed to youth and inexperience. At Michigan State, IU battled deep into the fourth quarter but just couldn’t finish, another possible symptom of immaturity.

As the Hoosiers head into important road games at Maryland and Nebraska, Allen isn’t just concerned with the down moments but also how his youngest contributors are handling the highlights of the 2019 season.

“Sometimes success can be harder to handle than the setbacks. Setbacks, you bow up and you fight and all your competitive nature comes out of you,” Allen said. “But when someone tells you you are doing some great things, it can be even harder. That’s why the proverb says what it says. … It’s part of my job to teach them how to handle it and sit them down, talk them through it. Don’t just assume things.

“Good problem to have, you have young guys that are making plays. But you have to have a plan to handle it.”

Allen was very intentional in pinpointing what exactly happened during the second-quarter lull with the Scarlet Knights, taking notes on every play during that span.

He spotted a missed block in pass protection on Penix’s interception. A fumble by freshman running back Sampson James was one unforced error. Penix also missed Whop Philyor wide open over the middle on a busted coverage.

Those are teaching points, as well as a reminder that these are young players that can still grow and improve — even if they are hearing information that sounds contrary.

“People in the media, television, start talking about you, Big Ten Network and ESPN, whatever. How do you handle that?” Allen said. “That’s the earmuffs and blinders mindset that we have as a program. You have to block them out … whether it’s Tiawan or Michael Penix, and whether it’s Matt Bedford. These are true freshmen that are playing and making plays and other guys, as well.

“It’s about teaching it. When you are playing at a high level, that should create confidence within you, but it can’t allow you to let up.”

Talking specifically about Mullen, Allen reiterated that being a starter doesn’t mean he will necessarily get more reps than senior Andre Brown or others, who he is listed above. It’s the same deal for junior defensive end Michael Ziemba, who is now listed ahead of senior Allen Stallings at the weak-side “bull” position.

But it is still an honor to have the title of “starter” on the depth chart. Allen said last week a starter was demoted last-minute because he wasn’t paying attention in a meeting.

“It’s performance, it’s preparation, it’s proving to your teammates you’ve earned the right to be in that spot,” Allen said. “I think the guys, they recognize it. They know Tiawan is a good player. They started seeing that when he got here over the summer, but he had to prove it on the field.

“He’ll have to keep doing it, and if he doesn’t, someone else will take his place.”

Littlejohn questionable

IU may get even younger Saturday if senior center Hunter Littlejohn isn’t able to play.

Littlejohn suffered a lower leg injury last weekend against Rutgers and was replaced by redshirt freshman Charlie O’Connor. Allen came into the week optimistic Littlejohn would play at Maryland, but he said Thursday it’s still a game-time decision.

Littlejohn has been rehabbing his injury, Allen added.

“We’ll see,” Allen said. “He’s doing whatever he can do to get back, very proud of his effort.”

If Littlejohn is unavailable, the Hoosiers have the option of moving junior left guard Harry Crider over to center and plugging in redshirt junior Mackenzie Nworah at guard.

O’Connor, a 6-foot-2, 308-pound native of Western Springs, Ill., joined the Hoosiers as a walk-on during last year’s fall camp.

“We’ve done both in practice all week long,” Allen said. “We have some guards that can interchange in there, and Mackenzie will play, as well, if that happens to be the case, if Hunter can’t go, we move Harry to center.

“If we plug Charlie in, obviously, everything stays the same.”


  1. I’m relieved to read that TA is concerned about his young players being affected by success and positive exposure in media. But I think TA inadvertently contributes to that problem by over-celebrating positive plays on the sidelines during games. You watch the more experienced Big Ten coaches, the men who have been successful for years, and they don’t get too up or two down during games. Specifically, they remain fairly stoic after a positive play, without getting too excited. Oh, they’ll get after the refs when they believe a bad call has gone against the team, and they’ll confront players that make mistakes during games, but they maintain a fairly even demeanor on the sidelines throughout the game. I believe TA can improve his team’s consistency during games by reducing the level of exuberance he displays on the sidelines after a single positive play. He should save his celebration until after the game is over and his team has put a “W” in the record books.

    1. Coach Allen is an emotional exuberant person! Let him be himself! None of us knows what works with 18-23 year old athletes!

  2. Inconsistency is the only thing consistent about this IU team today. Some great plays nullified by even more stupid mistakes. Five penalties in the first ten minutes of the game? Hendershot dropping pass leads to INT that leads to a 60-year TD run.

    Now Penix is hurt and PR is in the game.

  3. 8 penalties and we’re only half way through the second quarter. Fortunate to be leading 17 – 14.

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