Five irreplaceable players for IU football in 2020

If the 2020 football season goes ahead, the usual concerns about faltering knees and ankles will still be there.

But the novel concern — a virus that continues to circulate nationwide — will make this season even more complicated. Depth charts that were once comfortable at the first- and second-string levels will have to be even deeper, accommodating the possibility that players become infected with the virus and sidelined.

If last week showed anything, it’s that no program is immune from that reality. Indiana football had to shut down its voluntary workouts because of six positive tests. During the season — if the season happens — the NCAA is recommending athletes sit out 10 days after a positive test. Anyone in close contact with that person is out two weeks.

If the season goes ahead, every team will have to be ready to play without any number of players from week to week. This IU team, believed to be one of the deepest and most talented in recent memory, will be tested in a way no one could have previously imagined.

Here, we’ll look at five Hoosiers that may be the most difficult to replace on a moment’s notice.

QB Michael Penix Jr.

Penix is kind of a “duh” answer here because a starting quarterback is always one of the most important players on the field. Especially a player with as much potential as Penix.

But the issue here is less with Penix — who has been sidelined before — and more about the development of Jack Tuttle. Last year, the Hoosiers had Peyton Ramsey whenever Penix was unavailable. Luckily for the Hoosiers, Ramsey was a more than reliable backstop, and Tuttle only threw nine passes in relief during the season.

But now Ramsey is at Northwestern, and Tuttle has to become that backstop. The former Elite 11 quarterback prospect has always been highly touted, and his arm was apparent in fall camp, even if he seemed a bit rusty. By all accounts, Tuttle improved throughout the year at practice, but that went mostly unseen. So his ability to provide big plays in a pinch is theoretical.

What’s abundantly clear, though, is what sits behind Tuttle. It’s a true freshman, Dexter Williams. He arrived midyear, but Williams hasn’t had what anyone would consider a traditional offseason to prepare.

Penix has to stay healthy. But Tuttle has to be ready.

WR Ty Fryfogle

This may seem like a curveball because Whop Philyor was the star of the Hoosiers’ receiving corps last year. But it could be argued there are more interchangeable pieces in the slot, especially if David Ellis continues to play more receiver than running back in 2020.

Where the Hoosiers have more unproven depth is at the outside receiving positions with both Nick Westbrook and Donavan Hale departed.

That makes Fryfogle all the more important. He’s by far the most productive player the Hoosiers have returning on the outside, hauling in 45 catches for 605 yards in 2019. Miles Marshall added 16 receptions for 196 yards, but Jordan Jakes, Jacolby Hewitt, and Da’Shaun Brown have yet to catch a pass.

Incoming freshmen Rashawn Williams and David Baker offer promise, but it’s unclear what they may provide. Tight end Peyton Hendershot is back with the team, but it’s not immediately clear if he will be docked regular-season snaps for his offseason arrest.

IU needs Philyor for his shiftiness and playmaking in the slot, but the Hoosiers may need Fryfogle’s steadiness from the outside even more, just because of the unknowns.

OT Caleb Jones

As far as the offense is concerned, this skips over the backfield. That’s not to say Stevie Scott isn’t important. He obviously is. But again, with a Swiss Army Knife type in Ellis ready to shift into the backfield, if needed, and a talent like Sampson James in the wings, that position group doesn’t appear as needy in the event of an absence.

The offensive line, however, has a lot of questions at the second- and third-string rungs of the ladder.

One could argue that senior Harry Crider could rise above Jones in importance. He can play both guard or center. But the addition of Stanford grad transfer Dylan Powell does offer some of that same versatility, and Mike Katic and Mackenzie Nworah seem like solid options at the guard spots, as well.

At tackle, it’s Jones and Matthew Bedford as the returning starters and a junior college transfer, Chris Bradberry, thrown into the mix. Bedford played well for a true freshman thrown into the fire in 2020, but he still has room to grow. And whoever the Hoosiers’ two bookends are, there is some work to be done in developing what sits behind them.

Jones, the 6-foot-8, 362-pound specimen, has both the size and light feet to be an anchor on Penix’s blindside. It would appear a bit dicey if he were unavailable at any point.

LB Micah McFadden

This is again an argument rooted in IU’s depth in other places because the defense seems capable of sustaining some unexpected hits.

The defensive line, for example, has developed some useful depth over the last year. If, say, Jerome Johnson had to sit, Sio Nofoagatoto’a, DeMarcus Elliott, and C.J. Person, and maybe even a freshman in Damarjhe Lewis, could help pick up the slack. On the edge, Michael Ziemba gets behind the line of scrimmage, but James Head Jr. and Lance Bryant can do that, too, and there is a hope someone like Beau Robbins will break out at some point.

IU coach Tom Allen said this spring that McFadden could be at the head of the best linebacker corps the Hoosiers have assembled in a while. Cam Jones is an explosive player. Thomas Allen is smart and experienced. James Miller played well in spot duty last year. D.K. Bonhomme and Cameron Williams are also waiting in the wings.

But McFadden is just so productive, it would be hard to snap a finger and replace him. In 2019, the instinctive sophomore led the Hoosiers in tackles (61) and tackles for loss (10). As a junior, he will be asked to be even more of a leader in the middle with Reakwon Jones graduated.

McFadden is a keystone that’s hard to play without.

CB Tiawan Mullen

The hype train has arrived quickly for Mullen, named to the Bednarik Award’s preseason watch list heading into just his sophomore season.

But he was just that productive as a true freshman, breaking up a team-high 13 passes. No other Hoosier had more than three in 2019.

Again, the secondary has some promising depth. Reese Taylor and Jaylin Williams are both juniors with starting experience, and redshirt freshmen Larry Tracy and Josh Sanguinetti are competing behind them. IU wouldn’t be left searching for too long if Mullen was out for any reason.

But there is just something about Mullen’s scrappiness, his heart, his uncommon maturity, that makes him a special player and leader for IU’s defense. He’s that guy the Hoosiers can line up across from the other team’s best receiver and feel better about the matchup.

It’s hard to go from unproven freshman to irreplaceable asset in one season, but Mullen has put himself in that conversation.

15 comments

  1. Cardboard cutout fans in the stands, Virtual football games on those multi million dollar scoreboards and all the tv…or “Social distancing football” where players stay 6 feet apart while throwing bean bags at each other to make tackles, and freeze players in place for blocking etc and other details to be worked out.
    As for referees, as popular in today’s society…don’t interfere…can’t you see we are committing a crime/penalty over here.

  2. The above will protect those 5 irreplaceable IU football players and keep the IU football machine in tact.

  3. Fan attendance will be in our favor as we are already acclimated to playing in front of sparse crowds especially at home. Other schools are not.

  4. Maybe, the TV money will offset some of the pain of no fans in the stands? The Bloomington City Council passed a law no more than 50 people can gather as group, so, I guess I U will have to play their games on the road.

  5. And if this set of circumstances continue for a longer extended amount of time…who keeps all kinds of salaries (talking about nationwide, not just IU) and all kinds of scholarships??? Or should there be redistribution’s???

  6. Or all kinds of financial cuts ???
    Society and this country is in dire straits of some kind of normalcy including the question of what that is going to be.

  7. If pro athletes are locked down in bubbles, what oversight agency is even investigating the accuracy of the testing results/numbers?

    Colleges cheat left and right, create ghost classes, pay under the table to acquire talent, but nothing unscrupulous happens in pro sports operating in a bubble?

    What labs are doing the testing? Why do pro athletes get nearly instantaneous results while the general public wait days upon days?

    Find it rather comical of all the conspiracy theories and accusations that national testing has been politicized/sabotaged/manipulated/distorted from truth to increase infection rates as if the CDC and hospitals will lie for political/financial gain…..but there are no conspiracy theories suggesting pro and college sports just might be unethical and cheat (as they always have) to get their millions/billions of dollars back onto television.

    Don’t give a rat’s ass about all the employees who worked in those stadiums? Athletes earning millions upon millions with rarely a tenth of one percent ever giving a nickel of their salaries back to schools, cities or workers in stadiums who have supported them for decades? Secure their fast tests and mega salaries in bubble systems while the rest of society is emotional and financially squeezed, wait 10 – 14 days for test results, receive one miniature government relief package barely equivalent to a month’s rent, work at huge companies which put up no funds to test or control spread…and are told “this will just go away?”

    Normalcy? Here’s normalcy: Elites of the business, sporting and political world get their fast testing, maintain their incomes and get their bubble lives. Everyone else: Get back to school. Get back to work (just not in stadiums because we have to give the impression that we are ethical and care about the rest of you). Get back to bars. Get back to beaches. Wait for tests. Your kids will be fine though pro athletes are worried sick about going to an infected bubble and putting their families at risk….Hmm? See any contradictions? See any mixed messages? See any strange optics? See any signs of tone deafness?
    Meanwhile, ‘Bunion in Chief’ sells himself as caring about the welfare of our country as he blocks funding for testing and tracing? With the contradictions in this country and how an elite society (including sports) is protected while the rest are simply expected to fend for themselves, we’re fortunate every major city isn’t burning to the ground.

    We need sports back? No. We need sports to sit the hell down and give back. Maybe help your neighbors get the turnaround times and testing you have been afforded. Maybe teach some “bubble basketball classes” to youth in those rioting cities on fire? Nah….Why would you want to do such a thing. Just go to Disney World and count your cash while playing Play Station games with Mickey Mouse during a pandemic.

  8. Hendershot is not on your “irreplaceable” list?

    You’ve just lost your “Objective Journalist” card and your membership has been revoked.

  9. You know……why do we have empty stadiums when the rest of society is being told to get back to school, get back to work, get back to bars, get back to gambling in Vegas, get back to beaches, get back cruise ships, get back to hotels and motels, get back churches, get back to political rallies, get back to standing in line at theaters, get back to malls, get back to wearing your camouflage and plucking pigeons off the streets…and get back to creating a government TAX BASE!
    GET BACK TO ALL OF THAT “NORMALCY” ….but maintain empty stadiums?

    No, if sports is to come back then let’s ignore this pandemic just as we are everywhere else in an “average” American’s life and livelihood. Fans need to start protesting to GET BACK INTO THE STADIUMS NOW!
    No pandemic anywhere else…Why are we pretending there is one in a football stadium?
    GET BACK, Jojo!

  10. Fauci not expected to be at today’s White House pandemic briefing….Reports say he’s very busy handling a testing ‘recall.’

  11. Except for those who made or are setting good to great examples of leadership and sacrifice including his or her life (so much more often in past tense) the hell with all sports and entertainment. Long ago society lost perspective. This blind perspective may be that society gets blindly and ignorantly what it asks for. Then, in crisis situations what good is entertainment and sports except using a platform to create more turbulent stormy weather.

  12. I’ll probably eat my words, but as it ‘stands’ now (no pun intended) , I have no desire to watch sports without fans.
    Sports that are individual competitions are a possible exception (boxing, UFC, golf…and most Olympic sports). Don’t know if it’s a coincidence, but I’m seeing a lot of knockouts in boxing and UFC…Sometimes wonder if the crowds help the underdog more than the favorite. Seeing some brutal hits by the favorites almost as if the opponent is overcome by too much fear and appears as if sleepwalking in a match. The knockout punch/kick ends the underdog’s evening very quickly. Do the fans help an underdog more in bringing a certain amount of bravado/energy to the ring?
    Again, I believe we are underestimating the change in physiology and the essential relationships between mental preparedness/sharpness and a physical “heightened state”/confidence substantially aided and fueled by the presence of fans.
    Does the sliding scale in mismatches spread even further apart when the energy of the fans is the removed variable? Will mismatches on football fields potentially operate on the same increasingly sliding scales widening disparities without the surge/confidence’/energy of fans? Can supreme talent withstand moments of “sleepwalking” far more than the underdog?

    This will be a season of domination where some ugly matches and ugly games quickly unveil the truths in competition disparities unfolding like never seen before. Blowouts, knockouts, humiliations, crushing losses and mega routs all in amplified form within the ghosts towns of empty arenas and empty stadiums.

  13. I’m not a gambling man, but I’d be placing far more money on the “over”…and on the ‘favorite.” Cinderella needs a party to shine. There is no party without fans.

  14. Penix has to stay healthy. But Tuttle has to be ready.

    And the cow jumped over the moon….

    Penix has no proven durability. Tuttle has no experience.
    And now a schedule consisting of only conference opponents? Possible Covid infections to key players above? No crowds to fuel adrenaline and passion for the talent-challenged underdog?

    “Damn Penix and Pandemics” …and the cow jumped over the moon.

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