Attention to detail brings big plays to IU offense

The magic of Kalen DeBoer’s offensive scheme lies in the smallest of details.

It’s about timing. It’s about spacing. It’s about routes and blocks and ball placement — everything working in unison to create alleys for big plays to occur.

A gifted runner like David Ellis has always been capable of exploding through those alleys, as he did for 39 yards Saturday on a screen pass. But if it weren’t for the details — perfectly executed by a freshman “athlete” learning to become a true route-runner — DeBoer knows the result would have been different versus Penn State’s defense.

“If he didn’t do it perfect,” the Hoosiers’ offensive coordinator said, “that play was probably going to go for zero yards.”

The improvements Indiana’s offense has made under DeBoer are many. Michael Penix Jr. and Peyton Ramsey have quarterbacked the No. 1 passing offense in the Big Ten. The offensive line has allowed 15 sacks, tied for the fewest in the conference. The receiving corps features junior Whop Philyor, No. 2 in the league in receptions.

Those improvements point back to IU’s offensive tactician, a gifted play-caller and teacher of scheme. And the Hoosiers’ growth and understanding under DeBoer were perfectly demonstrated by that screen pass to Ellis.

Motioned out of the backfield and sent out wide, Ellis took three quick steps off the snap, angled toward the sideline. Nick Westbrook, in the slot, quickly shoved the defender in front of him, slowing the Nittany Lions’ linebacker just enough for left guard Harry Crider to leak from the trenches and finish him off. Westbrook veered for the corner across from Ellis, just as Ramsey released the ball.

His pass was essentially aimed at the spot where Ellis started at the snap, leading to an alleyway created by Westbrook’s block of the corner and Crider’s blasting of the linebacker. The play’s timing was quick enough that the two defenders blocked by Westbrook and Crider couldn’t recover. Its spacing was perfect enough, PSU’s near-side defensive end couldn’t get down the line fast enough to snag Ellis before he zoomed 39 yards upfield.

“Earlier in the week, we had talked about some details on that play, and he ran it and it wasn’t quite perfect, but you could tell he was thinking about it,” DeBoer said. “And by the end of the week, the details of the footwork on that play were perfect, and he did it absolutely perfect on Saturday.”

As the Hoosiers begin their work for this Saturday’s bout with No. 12 Michigan, DeBoer showed that play to his squad, a reminder of how preparation leads to success. He also showed one more play from Ellis — one where the freshman’s alignment pre-snap was a yard or so off — just to show what can go wrong when details are missed.

Mistakes are bound to happen, especially with Ellis, still shaping himself into a college receiver. But when Philyor went out with a concussion versus Penn State, the offense wasn’t stalled by Ellis getting more snaps. Junior Ty Fryfogle could slide into the slot at times, as well, because he knew the offense and the goals of each play.

Few obstacles have been able to derail IU’s offense, including season-ending injuries to Penix and left tackle Coy Cronk. Philyor’s injury was just another blow, but it allowed Ellis to show how much he’s grown, hauling in seven catches for 85 yards. It also gave DeBoer an example of where Ellis erred, honing in on more details to improve.

“We are talking one to two yards, and those are the things we are able to talk about right now in our offense because the guys understand the big picture,” DeBoer said. “And the details are what’s important.”

A focus on small details has led to some massive leaps in statistical categories. Last year, the Hoosiers were the Big Ten’s 10th-ranked team in total offense. This year, they are currently No. 2. The Hoosiers are possessing the ball an additional five-plus minutes per game (28:48 to 33:54), which puts the Hoosiers at No. 3 in the conference.

Ramsey, in particular, isn’t just racking up yards, as he did to the tune of 371 versus Penn State. More importantly, he is limiting mistakes.

Last year, Ramsey threw at least one interception in 10 of his 12 starts. This year, he has three picks in eight games.

Maturation is at least one factor for the redshirt junior, but it’s not the only one. DeBoer’s scheme has helped.

“There is always a check-down guy, there are always guys getting open and making my life a lot easier,” Ramsey said. “On that same note, I would say the decision-making process, (DeBoer) simplifies things so much. He makes it easier and quicker to go through progressions.

“When you are able to identify things pre-snap because you are so prepared and so locked in, that’s a credit to how he teaches us throughout the week, and what we are able to do on Saturdays when guys are running wide open.”

Ramsey has been helped by a receiving corps, led by position coach Grant Heard, which has absorbed all the nuances of DeBoer’s scheme.

“I think there’s just an overall understanding from the receivers’ end of what the quarterback is doing,” DeBoer said. “And that’s a huge tribute, not just to Coach Heard with the receivers but Coach (Nick) Sheridan and the tight ends and Coach (Mike) Hart and the running backs, knowing where they are at in protection and the check releases and all that and the timing.

“We are constantly talking that and preaching that with our guys. It’s not just what but why and how.”

So when Ellis motioned out toward the sideline, he knew what he was doing and why. He took three quick steps upfield, angled toward the sideline. When he came back to the ball, Ellis was in the right place at the right time.

That led to a big play, which DeBoer hopes is one of many to come for the young receiver.

“He was just a guy that could run fast at one point and catch the ball. He’s turning into a complete receiver,” DeBoer said, going on to recall that one negative clip of Ellis, as well, lined up a yard or so off at the snap.

“Those were places Whop’s been. David hasn’t gotten a lot of reps and we walked through those today and cleaned them up,” DeBoer continued. “And I’m very confident that David, as well as many other guys, will pay attention to things and make it even better next Saturday.”


  1. The offense has been leading the team this year and has people overlooking the improvement in the defense. What ever coach DeBoer has brought it works and I hope IU can hold on to him for a long time. One thing we need to see from coach DeBoer is a running game that can lead the offense in games where defenses work hard to shut down the pass. Coach has shown the ability to adjust during the game and also have the offense come out in the 2nd half making big plays against the defense.

    It will be exciting to see what the offense is like in another year of working with coach DeBoer.

  2. I almost always feel from year to year and team to team that have recognized winning records….when teams have a dynamic offense they also have a really good defense, but the offense is more talked about. When you set and watch these teams yes, they have dynamic offenses but you realize that their defenses make plays and how good their defenses are also. (Exceptions are teams like Ohio State, Alabama, Clemson, LSU because pretty much everyone knows that they have been good on both sides of ball season after season).

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