IU backs driven by NFL aspirations

College football programs have faced less-than-ideal conditions this spring, and Indiana running backs coach Mike Hart will be the first to admit that.

At the head of a position group with its share of premium talent, Hart would rather have Stevie Scott, Sampson James, Tim Baldwin Jr., and Davis Ellis pushing weights in IU’s facilities than whatever they have in a garage back home.

“Obviously, it’s not the same as having a strength coach breathing down your throat every day,” Hart said. “But if those guys come back and are still where they were when they left, that’s a success.”

But where this offseason falls short of the college ideal, Hart would think his position group, as much as any, would embrace that fact. It’s no secret Scott has NFL aspirations. When Scott was sidelined late in 2019, James proved his potential.

And if the NFL is truly where the Hoosiers’ running backs want to head, they better get used to offseason training that’s away from a facility. Hart, who spent three seasons with the Indianapolis Colts, knows first-hand.

“The one thing I emphasize to all our kids, if you want to play in the NFL, this is really an NFL schedule,” Hart said. “There are certain times of year you are not going to be around the coaches. You are not going to have mandatory workouts from this time to this time.

“The guys who take care of their bodies, the guys who make the right decisions on and off the field, with what they are eating and what they are putting in their bodies, those are the guys that last in the league.”

They are also the ones who will last at the top of IU’s depth chart.

In 2020, Scott should be healthy, James will be a year more mature, and Ellis brings a versatile running/receiving threat into the fold. Whether the group lives up to its potential, there should be no letup right now. Not when many of them have legitimate NFL aspirations, hoping to follow in the footsteps of a Tevin Coleman or Jordan Howard. And not when slacking off back home could lead to reduced snaps in a competitive backfield.

“When we compete, it’s for a good reason, because we want to see the best of each other,” Scott said. “Like Coach Hart says, he’s going to put the best player on the field. So really, we are all trying to be out there playing. So really, it comes down to who wants it more and just the love of the game.”

Scott, the 6-foot-2, 231-pound workhorse, received more than double the carries (178) than his next closest competitor, James (81), last season. But James really flashed in an overtime win over Purdue, moving piles on his way to 118 yards.

Either way, much of the Hoosiers’ success came when someone ran it well. In the 11 games he appeared, Scott amassed 662 yards on 124 carries (5.3 yards per) in seven wins. In four losses, he gained 183 yards on 54 carries (3.4 ypc). He missed IU’s bowl game to injury, as well, and the Hoosiers managed just 76 yards on 31 carries in a nail-biting loss to Tennessee.

After a disappointing end to the season, the second-team All-Big Ten back is certainly motivated. Scott has been home, working out with his dad.

“Weights are good and all but if you have that core strength, that’s really powerful. That’s your inner stuff. That’s all muscle,” Scott said. “Just doing core strength and going to the field, doing field work, trying to get my footwork right. Just going over the little things.”

Scott also wants to continue improving his pass-catching ability as a junior. He made some strides in that area as a sophomore, debuting with 16 catches for 86 yards and then hauling in 26 for 211 last year.

He wants to be more than just a player who hurts defenses with his downhill runs.

“A player that has all the attributes, I should say, being the type of running back like that and showing the NFL coaches and people around the nation I can be that type of back,” Scott said. “That’s big and that’s something Coach Hart has emphasized in the running back room for all of us.”

On his coach’s show, Tom Allen recently said he doesn’t want to see much change from Kalen DeBoer’s offense in 2019 to what new coordinator Nick Sheridan runs in 2020. Except, he added, the Hoosiers need to run the ball better. IU finished 12th in the Big Ten in rush offense last season.

Hart believes the pieces are there to have more success on the ground, but talent alone won’t get the Hoosiers there. It’s about running the right way, hitting holes and getting yards after contact to “stay on schedule.” There also has to be a collective effort from the coaching staff to keep the running backs involved when defenses stack the box, which happened plenty in 2019.

“The O-line is good enough, the running backs are good enough,” Hart said. “It comes down to us, the staff, in putting in the correct game plan to get these guys where they need to go and utilize their talents.

“Is it outside zone, is it inside zone, is it power?” Hart added. “What are we best at and how can we do it and how can we match those plays up with the pass?”

Sheridan should have more than enough toys to play with out of the backfield, including the potent one-two punch of Scott and James. There is also the “athlete” Ellis, who debuted as a receiver in 2019 but practiced with the running backs in early March.

“He’s got some speed, as you can see from the Penn State game when he caught that quick screen to the boundary and took it for about 70,” Hart said. “He’s an explosive play guy that we need to find a way to get the ball to, in whatever way we can.”

As far as Scott, Hart expects to see an improved version whenever the Hoosiers return. He has plenty of reasons why.

“He’s a kid that I know loves football and wants to be a great player, play in the NFL one day,” Hart said. “Just continue to work on the little things, reads, defensive scheme, where should the ball go, who’s blocking who. Just develop his knowledge of the game.”

31 comments

  1. I like that coach Hart emphasized that this off season was like the NFL because players have to look after themselves and keep working when they aren’t under coaches pushing them. This season will show which players are serious about playing football as they are on the own for many weeks.

    This season with two new starting players on the OL, having very good RBs with some experience will be needed to run the ball. Wanting to run the ball this season is more than wishing for that and it takes a good OL to allow good RBs to have a very good season.

  2. considering that all these coaches where hire around the same time — Lovie Smith at Illinois, PJ Fleck at Minnesota, Jeff Brohm at Purdue and Tom Allen at Indiana — which of these coaches have made considerable improvements (who’s football program is on the upswing) to their respect football program. Illinois with Lovie Smith went to a bowl game and produced and 6 win seasons, Tom Allen and the Indiana Hoosier had an 8 win season…both Illinois and Indiana lost their bowl games. PJ Fleck had and 11 win season at Minnesota and beat Auburn in the bowl game. Jeff Brohm did not make a bowl game but only won 4 games, but had many injuries. With Minnesota, Illinois and Purdue in the Big Ten West – which of those three teams would you put a $1000.00 on to win the Big Ten West?

    1. None. I think they’re each on the way up, but none of them have the foundations of Wisconsin or Iowa and, to get around either of those program, they’ll need to be much better up front on O and D. That’s IU’s challenge too, and it’s why the O line situation is of concern.

    2. Out of those three, the Gophers are the easy choice IMO. The West is a three team race this season with Wisc, Iowa, and Minn.

      1. FS,
        I’m not so sure about MN being a lock, their schedule this year does not set up nearly as well as it did last year. The default is always Wisky, but I am wondering about Nebraska this year. The pressure is on out there, and another season like last will be a big problem.

        1. I agree with you about Minn’s schedule. Nothing is going to come easy and there are some question marks on their defense. Their offense is going to be very nice though.

          Wisc is always the easy default pick and nothing should change that this year. They should certainly be in contention for a spot in Indy.

          I do think Nebraska’s offense will be pretty good this year but their defense is still another year away IMO. I’m sure there will be plenty of “hot seat talk” about Frost if they go 7-5 or 6-6, but I think he’ll still be the coach in 2021.

  3. Bear Down, I agree with you about the teams. People forget about Minnesota winning 9 games before Fleck got hired and his first year was so bad with very good players. I hope IU is just one year behind MN successful year in 2019. The OL is the key and we will have to see how IU’s OL perform. The second important group is the DL and I hope we have players that will surprise teams with how they play.

    IU has some very talented players and with the success last year [they can’t help that some teams were down last year] and the hunger the players they say they have, this will be even better as the experience they gained helps them play better.

  4. Wisconsin would be in a Pinstripe Bowl every season if they had to play in the East.
    I don’t think you can measure the mental and physical demands it puts on a program forever fighting to make up ground in a division containing three of the top four programs in the conference (and, arguably, the only team from the conference almost always in national championship/playoff consideration).

    Tom Allen should have been ‘Coach of the Year’…..I’m not sure if any of us can imagine the challenges to motivate and build quality rosters while working up from a notorious bottom-feeding program which must go up against the ‘Murderer’s Row’ of the BigTen season after season. Many rosters have become quickly emotionally defeated after one slaughter against one Murderer’s Row team. The physical and mental toll to recoup and press on while Napoleon Dynamite fights three Mike Tysons year after year…?
    The conference divisions should be realigned a minimum of every five years….It’s simply wrong to lump three of the top four programs the richest in dollars and tradition in on division as if its poured permanent concrete.

    Give any of the teams in the West a schedule with Michigan, OSU and Penn State breathing up their backside every other week and their improving “glamour” will wear off rather quickly.

  5. What? Wait? Who? Me? You’re gonna hand the ball to me, coach?

    And then as soon as we make the smallest amount of headway, a powerhouse program gets one of our few signature recruits to flip/decommit …or some prestige program steals our very skilled specialty coaches (e.g. strength and conditioning).

    And then some one here want to pile ND into our schedule….? The only ND we should be playing atop Michigan, MSU, Penn State, MSU….is North Dakota.
    Then again, I’ll happily play Notre Dame at the end of a season when they’ve also had to put Michigan, OSU and Penn State on their schedule. Let’s bring ND to BigTen Football and place them in the BigTen East. Move the Hoosiers to the West…and schedule ND occasionally as a cross-divisional game. I’m all in on that sort of proposal to play the Irish.
    Watch their glamour wear off as well….

    1. ND being in the East and IU in the West would be good as ND would see how tough it is to win in the East. I would like the B1G to go to the Pod Schedule Bill Connelly came up with as it would mean every team would play each team every two years.

      1. I just want the ND @ Penn State match-up….This would be football’s Happy Valley version/remake of ‘Boys Town.’

    2. ND in the B1G? I’d love it. But although ND is about as cloistered an environment as you can get, the domers are not stoopid. It’s hard to keep up the pretense of being a program of national significance when you’re slogging from Lincoln, Neb. to Iowa City, Iowa, to E. Lansing, Michigan, to Bloomington (YES!!!), et al. for the better part of each season.

  6. oops..

    The only ND we should be playing atop Michigan, MSU [OSU], Penn State, MSU….is North Dakota.

  7. Would the BigTen be better served if the Irish replaced the Hoosiers in the conference? Wow…Talk about a ratings bonanza? Think a lot of people would tune in to watch ND go up against OSU, Michigan, PSU…regularly?

    And though the facts are painful, we all must admit ND has had more basketball relevancy (deeper tournament runs) than anything the Hoosiers have done in the last decade plus.

    Are we dragging down BigTen athletics….in terms of the two major sports? Thank goodness for soccer, swimming and women’s hoops. Or does the Establishment (including a former BigTen commissioner who was a UNC grad and likely holds a Hoosier heyday basketball grudge) simply encourage blowhard hires like Crean (somehow connects the appropriate “insider” dots to get Izzo’s water bottle holder a Bloomington job)…while promoting the stagnancy of sinking our football program in the East of the BigTen to make it appear as if we drag down the conference?

    Yes, you’re absolutely correct, Harvard!

  8. Can’t believe this H4H,

    but I am going to have to say you were absolute correct twice in one day! I think that is a new record.

    However, going back to your prior comments regarding TA being able to pull out a decent season despite all the obstacles B1G east reminds me of something. You are quite correct if IUFB actually continues to have a small measure of success, expect the raiding parties from other schools to have at it. The biggest concern we should have is for TA himself. I am thinking of a parallel in the SEC west (yes, I know you are going to hammer me for using the SEC as an example again) a few years ago.

    For a brief period of time Dan Mullen managed to get his Mississippi State team ranked #1. I contend that amount of production against all the odds of the SEC west cinched his current University of Florida gig. Even though they didn’t last long at the #1 spot and didn’t even win the SEC west, the UF logic was if could do that much with the resources he had at Mississippi State, image what he could do with the Gators. I think if TA pulls off something remotely similar at IUFB, the same thinking about TA could be in play elsewhere in the country.

    1. Mullen was the offensive coordinator at Florida before he took the MSU job. He was always going to be a gator target.

  9. If I wanted to preach to the choir everyday, I could bat 1000. My concern is not to be “correct” all of the time for the choir.

    But back to Tom Allen. Tom Allen is going nowhere (as in leaving Indiana…not as in how most coaches fare at Indiana). He is from Indiana. He loves Indiana. He is a man of integrity and faith. He will do everything in his remaining lifetime to lead Hoosier Football to the promise land. He will have a bronze statue of his likeness (I’m envisioning a cartwheel pose) erected outside of Memorial. We will soon refer to IU Football as Indiallen Football.

    Try to keep up…Indiallen Football. You heard it here first.

    1. H4H,

      It is going to be hard for me to get to your the Indiallen football level. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around the idea of the bronze statue with TA doing a cartwheel !!!!

  10. Jerry Kill left Fleck a stronger program than Wilson left TA. Lovie Smith took over a dumpster fire but is building it back up. Wisconsin and Iowa are consistently good, but not good enough to win Big Ten Championships. I question Frost’s judgement and ability to get NE back to where it once was. Any coach who rejected Joe Burrow’s request to transfer into his program is obviously not a great judge of talent. “Is he any better than the QBs we already have?” Uh, that would be a big YES, coach!

    IMO, over the long term, as long as he is not poached away for bigger money by an SEC school, Fleck, who is on 39 years old should continue to build MN up and become a consistent winner in the Big Ten’s West Division. Kirk Ferentz is 64 years old, and Lovie Smith is 62. I doubt either will be coaching three years from now. If Purdue has two more losing seasons, no matter how many injuries they suffer, Purdue will fire Brohm. He’s simply being paid too much money to produce less than 7 wins per season.

  11. Gets cold up there in Minnesota in late fall …If the wife of the Gopher’s coach wears flannel to bed, do they contain PJ flecks of maroon on gold?

  12. Purdue will not have two more losing season……with Rondale Moore and Dave Bell at wide receivers in the year 2020 and maybe one more year they will consistently score 30-40 points per game. The only team in the Big Ten with two corner-backs that can cover them is Ohio State. You figure with all the injuries last year Purdue suffered, their players gained valuable game experience. My prediction is that Purdue will finish in one of the top three (first, second or third) position in the Big Ten West. Also Jeff Brohm has recruited very well the last two years. PJ Fleck did not follow Jerry Kill, PJ Fleck followed Tracey Claeys at Minnesota an the football program was a train wreck from the players sex scandals. PJ Fleck has successfully recruited good to fairly well over the last three years. If I remember correctly most people on this blog did not want PJ Fleck as a head coach at Indiana. Yes, Lovie Smith did inherit a train wreck at Illinois, but basically has really improved the program without having recruited especially well…most of players on his team came from the transfer portal. Can he continue to have success? The upcoming season was very important for Lovie Smith and the Illinois football program – to see if they had turned the corner or if 2019 season was a flute. Tom Allen had a winning seasons in 2019, but he beat a lot of programs with losing records – still that is a major improvement from prior Indiana football programs. The major difference is that the other coaches have pull of the major upset — Illinois over Wisconsin, Purdue over Ohio State and Minnesota over Penn State/Auburn – all signature wins for their respected programs. Tom Allen has not gotten that signature win yet but hopefully it will come this year.

  13. Coach Allen will stay at IU and not take another job I believe. He hires very good coaches and brings in very good players to IU to believe in him and his LEO. He loves IU and Indiana along with his family to stay at IU.

    IU is very good against most teams in the B1G and with more depth I think they will knock off one or two of the “big” teams in the teams with the talent we have.

    The B1G is getting tougher with the coaches they have hired. We are seeing improvements in recruiting and in teams that have been down in the recent past. How Rutgers, Nebraska, and MD do over the next few years will show if they have hired the right coaches.

    IU’s defense looked much improved for most of the game against TN. I hope our younger receivers show the talent to be game changers. I want our new DL coach to achieve the same results at IU he has had at other schools. It will be interesting to see if coach Wright can open up the IMG pipeline for IU. Coach Jones seems to be a real upgrade as the safeties coach and he seems to be a good recruiter. IU needs to take advantage of having coach Hart as I am not sure he will stay too long at IU. If Coach Sheridan can live up to the what other coaches have said about him we should see an improved offense anything less will be disappointing. Let’s hope Coach Teegardin can make our Special Teams a dangerous group for our opponents.

    This coming football season will be interesting for several reasons – COVID19, improving teams, and IU’s team looking better.

  14. Not so sure about PU, at least this year, ’79

    The month of September will tell us a lot about how the rest of their year will go.

  15. September…?
    ‘Try to remember a kind of September.

    Try to remember when life was so tender
    That no one wept except the willow.
    Try to remember when life was so tender
    That dreams were kept beside your pillow.’*

    I fear it has yet to hit any of you …September has forever vanished in the way our hearts still remember. Just be thankful it can live dear to your memories and ‘Follow, follow, follow, follow.’

    *Try to Remember (“The Fantasticks” soundtrack)
    Music: Harvey Schmidt
    Lyrics: Tom Jones
    Book: Tom Jones
    Premiere: Tuesday, May 3, 1960

  16. And speaking of perspective of elite status salaries and sacrifice and maybe giving up a little or back or whatever it might be called. Perspective: not just my couple examples that may not apply to all including IU running backs but it does apply to far to many. Elite aspirations? NFL players crimes and in late example of 2 multi million dollar contract players robbing party guests at gunpoint…Major League Baseball players balking at playing for reduced pay for what may be higher risk for them (not worth it), the same will be true for nfl and nba participants, elite entertainers, majority of elite politicians, elite professional athletes, elite top of pyramid Corporate CEO’s, elite Stock board members, the elite Bernie Madoffs of the world etc…Does one really think they care any generic individual as that generic individual may care about them and there professional life? The only thing these elites care about is the support that generic individuals provide for them and support them that allows the generic individual to live in his or her own fantasy. Maybe, a society does get what it asks for. In the end 6 feet for all so to speak.

  17. they care for any generic individual as that generic individual may care about them and their professional life

  18. You can only separate the top tiers of greed from peasantry for so long, t.

    America was once a coast to coast rail with a vision and hope it was built for all….Now there are merely haves and haves nots. They are two trains destined to collide. The pandemic has merely unveiled how little we’ve been in anything “together” over the last half century. Most of our population cannot sustain for a matter of weeks without a paycheck. Most live paycheck to paycheck. Most have no healthcare. Most have zero savings. That’s not a disease that struck overnight. Suffering comes in a heartbeat when things stop.
    But will we change what brought us here? Will we do what’s necessary to uplift the masses forgotten…or do we just keep building the empty soul of parachute packages for those who hold the power and wealth?

  19. IU79, saying the Fleck did not follow Jerry Kill is technically correct, but kind of silly. It’s like saying Tom Crean did not follow Kelvin Sampson, he followed Dan Dachich. Clayes took over for Jerry Kill half way through the 2015 season when Kill had to retire due to serious health problems. Clayes coached MN for the 2016 season and was then let go. Kill built the foundation at MN that Fleck has continued to build on. MN FB was, in relative terms, a stronger program than TA inherited from Wilson.

    As for Fleck, while I won’t claim to have wanted IU to hire Fleck specifically, I wanted IU to hire someone with the same profile. Happy to have TA, but I had always advocated for IU to hire an “up and coming” head coach who had proven he could build a winner at a mid-major school. Fleck, like so many other Big Ten head coaches, fit the profile that I thought best for IU’s football program. He’s obviously doing a great job for the Gophers.

    Anybody want to provide an over/under on how many more years Ferentz will coach Iowa? Right now, I’d guess it will be two more seasons. I think he’ll be done after the 2021 season. But if 2020 turns out to be a disappointment, it could end next December.

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