Despite changes, Allen and Hoosiers refuse to blink

Indiana coach Tom Allen had been forthright in his expectations for this offseason.

When the Hoosiers hit eight wins for the first time in 26 years, college football powers were bound to notice. Allen’s assistants, suddenly in consideration for more lucrative positions, were bound to leave. Turnover hit IU at offensive coordinator, special teams coordinator, and defensive line coach.

But when staff changes affected IU’s strength and conditioning program this week, with David Ballou and Dr. Matt Rhea heading to Alabama, there was a need for Allen to put things back in perspective. He questioned a room full of players.

“How many of you guys knew Dave Ballou before you came here?” Allen asked.

A half-dozen Hoosiers raised their hands. Ballou and Rhea only arrived to Bloomington in 2018.

“How many guys knew Dr. Rhea before you came here?”

Only new tight ends coach Kevin Wright, who worked with the speed coach at IMG Academy, had his hand up. Allen’s was down.

“Think about that. Two years ago, pretty much nobody knew those guys in this room,” Allen said Friday, just a day before the Hoosiers’ spring practices begin and their collective focus turns to the 2020 season. In the face of change, they have to put their faith in each other. And in their coach.

“We found them and we brought them here, and they did a phenomenal job,” Allen continued. “So I said, I’m just going to ask you to trust me, and we’ll make the best decision, the best fit for this program, and bring in a guy that’s going to, just like before, take the program where it’s at to another level.”

While upheaval has marked this offseason, the Hoosiers’ coach has tried to approach it with a level head. When news of Ballou and Rhea’s exit went public, Allen tweeted out a message of solidarity. Very purposefully.

“We don’t blink,” the post read. It played off of a mantra Allen learned while at Ole Miss. The Rebels’ defense rallied around the term “Landshark,” celebrating big plays with a “fins up.” Allen knows very well, sharks don’t have eyelids. They don’t blink.

In this case, the Hoosiers were facing a test of their motto, “love each other.” Coaches have departed. Some notable players entered the transfer portal, including seniors-to-be Peyton Ramsey and Coy Cronk and top 2019 recruit Sampson James. On top of that, All-Big Ten tight end Peyton Hendershot is indefinitely suspended following a February arrest.

“We don’t blink,” Allen said. “We’ve had some guys make some mistakes. You don’t blink. You have things that happen that you don’t expect. You don’t blink. And we talk that way with our guys. So when I sent that (tweet) out, they knew exactly what I was talking about because we talk about that a lot in our program.”

In a bit of good news, Allen confirmed James has withdrawn his name from the transfer portal and returned to the team ahead of spring practice. The rising sophomore running back entered his name in the portal earlier this week, shortly after the exit of Ballou, who had worked closely with James at Avon schools.

IU had already lost rising junior Ronnie Walker to the portal in early February, so the Hoosiers’ depth at running back would have been tested if James didn’t return.

“Sometimes you make mistakes, and he’s admitted that, and it’s been a few days,” Allen said. “But we love Sampson. Nothing changes.”

IU still has to find Ballou’s replacement, but with hires made at every other coaching position, and a young, maturing group ready to take the field for spring ball, Allen was very optimistic heading into Saturday’s helmets-only session.

“Just really excited to see, with all the work in the weight room they’ve done the last several weeks, to be able to get them out there and move around with maybe a little extra muscle mass on them,” Allen said.

One of those beefed-up players is the returning starter at quarterback, Michael Penix Jr. He is listed at 218 pounds on IU’s spring roster — 16 pounds above his playing weight as a redshirt freshman. After suffering three separate injuries in 2019, including one to his right sternoclavicular joint to end his season in early November, gaining strength was a priority this offseason.

With Ramsey in the transfer portal as an impending grad transfer, the Hoosiers are counting on Penix to stay healthy in 2020.

“I never blinked, like Coach Allen said,” Penix said. “I never blinked at all, and I was always focused on getting back and making sure that I could do whatever I can to make sure I don’t have to go through that again.”

Odds and ends

-Going into spring practice, the Hoosiers will have a few players limited or sidelined completely. Allen listed linebacker Thomas Allen, defensive back Josh Sanguinetti, and defensive lineman Jeramy Passmore as limited following surgeries. Defensive tackle C.J. Person is out. Allen said running back Stevie Scott will also be limited, just to reduce wear and tear on the bell-cow back.

-IU’s players, for the most part, aren’t switching positions. The notable exception was rising sophomore David Ellis, who is now listed as a running back and kick returner. Ellis, the “athlete” from Michigan, mostly played receiver in 2019. On defense, the Hoosiers are cross-training several secondary players at different positions. Safety Bryant Fitzgerald will work at the hybrid “husky” spot, while cornerback Raheem Layne will get reps at safety. Husky Jamar Johnson will also get work at free safety.

-Allen thanked both Ballou and Rhea for their successes — and for potentially increasing the prestige of their position. The buzz the innovative pair brought to IU could help in finding a replacement. “So I’m very excited about the interest, for sure,” Allen said, “and hope to have it wrapped up in the very near future.”

6 comments

  1. Love the attitude. Love the communication style. And you just know that TA walks his talk. That’s leadership!

    As for James, “Sometimes you make mistakes, and he’s admitted that, and it’s been a few days,” Allen said. “But we love Sampson. Nothing changes.” Beautiful.

    Can’t wait to see who they hire to replace Ballou. But will they also hire a speed buy like Dr. Rhea too? If not, those two guys’ previously combined salaries makes a pretty attractive compensation package. I’m betting on TA.

  2. I’m usually pretty dismissive of coachspeak (although Kevin Wilson’s stuff could be a real hoot sometimes), but these words by TA were well-crafted and genuine.

  3. I try to watch TA’s press conferences when possible, you gain a lot of insight when you listen to him with an open mind. He doesn’t tell everything for obvious reasons, but he does try to be as forthright as possible.

    He mentioned something which we all should have thought about, and I kick myself for missing. Losing the S&C guys is tough, but a blessing in disguise when you think about who they were lost to. It certainly puts the IU S&C position on the map.

  4. I too trust Coach Allen. He has earned that. Each year, 1-2-3 he has grown as a head coach, but retained his authentic personality. We know that DeBoer was great! Coach Allen picked his own man, Sheridan. I hope he will be great. The new hires as assistant coaches seem of good quality. But I have no special knowledge to rank assistant coaches. The biggest news is that Sampson is returning! That is huge! IU Football definitely increased the status of strength and conditioning. Now we need a “home run” hire for that position(s). GO IU! Remember at WI is much more difficult than at NE!

  5. Did you guys see Penix? Night and day on his body size. Up to 220 and looks stout. Could probably get another 10 on him and still keep him lean and mobile. I am excited.

  6. We now know coach Allen nailed the S&C hire and Penix now looks like a B1G QB. The program has moved forward under coach Allen and it is important that 2020 is the next step in this growth. Having quality assistant coaches is important and this year’s hires seem to have improved the IU staff despite questions about Sheridan compared to DeBoer.

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