With Ball out, IU’s depth in the spotlight

When Indiana was hit last week by Marcelino Ball’s season-ending ACL tear, it was “next man up” for the Hoosiers for the first time in 2020.

In this case, they didn’t have to look hard. With the flip-flopping of Jamar Johnson to traditional back-end safety and Bryant Fitzgerald to in-the-box “husky,” Indiana has at least two veteran players who can fill that hybrid safety-linebacker role in the 4-2-5. Fitzgerald, for now, is the one up to take Ball’s place.

But this is just the first case, in a season that could involve more than just everyday injuries on the field. There is always the possibility, given the nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, that whole swaths of players may be unavailable at any given time.

IU’s depth may be tested some more.

“That’s a legit concern that everybody, I think, is having right now, in terms of how you handle the unknowns of the season, both just the natural injuries that always occur throughout the year and then, obviously, the COVID situation that we’re all dealing with,” IU coach Tom Allen said Monday.

This does appear to be one of the deeper IU teams in recent memory, especially defensively. While it’s crushing to lose a fifth-year playmaker of Ball’s caliber, Fitzgerald and Johnson help ease the blow. Sophomore D.K. Bonhomme is also repping at husky.

Offensively, however, there is one group that Allen has top of mind.

“Offensive line has always been an area that we’ve mentioned as a concern,” Allen said. “I do like how that group is progressing.”

Prior to the start of padded practices this Wednesday, there are still unanswered questions about the Hoosiers’ depth, especially along the lines.  The front five brings back experienced players at tackle in redshirt junior Caleb Jones and sophomore Matthew Bedford. Senior Harry Crider should slot in at center. But the Hoosiers will have two new starters on the interior.

Dylan Powell, a grad transfer from Stanford, could fill one of those guard slots. Mackenzie Nworah, who started multiple games last season because of injuries to Hunter Littlejohn and Simon Stepaniak, also has experience. Beyond that, it’s a green bunch.

Allen did mention redshirt freshman Mike Katic as a player who has stepped up on the interior. At the tackle position, junior college transfers Luke Haggard and Chris Bradberry have made strides.

“The whole offensive line is definitely an area that I would say is a concern but I feel better than I did, probably, a month ago, because we’ve had so many reps now,” Allen said. “I’ll know more as this week plays itself out. Defensive line continues to always be, just the mass of our guys, and number of guys there, keeping those guys healthy and fresh will be a priority.

“Those are probably the two (we) went into the fall camp situation most concerned about. Probably feel a little bit better about both at this time, but I don’t know if you ever feel great at this point, because there’s so many things we don’t know at this point.”

While at a different position group, Ball’s injury is a cruel reminder of how quickly a player can be taken off the field. It was a non-contact injury, which isn’t uncommon with ACL tears. Ball also missed most of the 2017 season to injury.

While the Hoosiers have the ability to fill a gap here or there, the bigger question is what happens if quality starters in one position group or another are sidelined due to a positive COVID result.

The good news to this point, according to Allen, has been IU’s initial results with daily antigen testing. There has only been one positive result, Allen said, out of 1,200 tests, and that person isn’t a player or a full-time staff member. With daily testing, the hope is the Hoosiers can minimize the types of outbreaks that have sidelined dozens of players for teams currently playing.

There are also questions about what to do if a coach is sidelined, which has happened with Mike Norvell at Florida State.

“Our staff, everybody, has somebody that’s taking their place at every position right now, already predesigned, predetermined,” Allen said. “But the third and the fourth guy, you know, it gets a little bit more interesting. … I’ve seen where two teams have had their third- or fourth-string long snapper out there on the field and it hasn’t necessarily gone well.”

One supplement to the issue of depth will be the availability of more bodies this season. Because the NCAA is extending eligibility for all fall athletes, there is no need to limit anyone to four or fewer games to maintain a redshirt.

During spring camp, Allen mentioned midyear enrollee Damarjhe Lewis as a player who really flashed along the defensive line. Bryson Bonds, a freshman safety, is someone Allen has pointed to multiple times coming into fall camp. Tight end A.J. Barner and defensive end Caleb Murphy have impressed, as well.

“In the past you say, hey, you probably play (Barner) four games and don’t want to burn a whole year. Now you’re not worried about that,” Allen said. “We’ll see, wherever we think they can help us win the game. Whether it’s one snap, 10 snaps, 15 snaps, whatever it is. If it’s special teams only, or offense, defense. You are definitely going to be more aggressive about that.”

If they are ready, they will play.

There was just a sour note for Allen on Monday, relaying news of a player who will not be able to suit up to play Penn State on Oct. 24.

“Really hate that for him,” Allen said of Ball. “He’s been such a great player for us and has matured so much as a young man. … Wish him nothing but the best.”

2 comments

  1. So sorry to hear about Ball’s injury. I guess it could have been worse. He could have injured it toward the end of the season. At least this way, he’ll have the opportunity to make a full recovery, come back again next year and showcase his skills for the NFL Draft.

  2. It is bad news about Ball as it happened in a noncontact drill. It isn’t easy to go through the rehab but he has teammates can help him through it.

    IU has enough talent to make up for his missing the season but his experience will be missed. It is time to see how well Fitzgerald can play the position or one of the other possible players can.

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