Hoosier O-line growing up

In 23 years of coaching, Darren Hiller has never encountered a situation like this.

The Indiana offensive line coach doesn’t have a single senior in his group.

That’s at least a contributing factor to the growing pains the Hoosiers have experienced up front through the first month of the season, relying on an offensive line that entered the year with a combined 40 career starts among them.

It’s been a slow build for Hiller’s men in the trenches, but during the past two weeks, the Hoosiers are showing signs of improvement.

Indiana’s offensive line has allowed only one sack in the past two games, while finding traction for a running game that struggled to make gains during the first two contests. Hiller says his group is not yet where it needs to be in terms of depth and consistency, but the latest returns are encouraging.

“It’s going to be really run to see the growth that we’re making right now,” Hiller said.

Hiller came to Indiana from South Florida, where he spent the 2016 season after a three-year run in the same position at Cincinnati. He recruited a bunch of current Hoosiers while at his previous stops, arriving in Bloomington this past February with at least some semblance of a relationship with players such as tackles Brandon Knight, Delroy Baker and Tyler Knight, guards Simon Stepaniak, Mackenzie Nworah and Grayson Stover and center Hunter Littlejohn.

Even so, Hiller admits he was surprised to learn just how youthful IU’s O-line projected to be.

“I knew a lot of these guys from recruiting and things like that from when I was at Cincinnati for three years, but I didn’t realize none of them were seniors,” Hiller said. “We’re still a work in progress and they know that. I tell them all the time we’re not anywhere we need to be and we won’t ever be where we need to be because that’s the game of football.”

But those inside Indiana’s program are at least encouraged by the direction the offensive line has taken during the past two games.

Although Georgia Southern was the weakest Football Bowl Subdivision team on Indiana’s schedule, IU believed the Eagles’ defensive front could present some challenges.

The Hoosiers responded by pushing around their overmatched opponent, creating the running lanes that led to Morgan Ellison’s 186-yard, two-touchdown revelatory performance two weeks ago.

Last weekend at Penn State, Indiana followed through with another impressive effort against a Nittany Lions’ front seven that featured five upperclassmen.

“We gave up one sack against a really, really talented defensive line, ran the ball 181 yards at 4.7 yards a carry,” Indiana coach Tom Allen said. “So we held them to 1.1 yard a carry. So we out rushed them by over 100 yards. So I thought that our offensive line is coming together. … Coach Hiller is doing a really good job with a group that’s learning to gel together, work together. And they need to.”

Through IU’s first two games against Ohio State and Virginia, the Hoosiers were averaging 64.0 rushing yards per game and allowed nine sacks.

During the past two games, the offense has averaged 229.5 rushing yards, while surrendering only the one sack, which came when Knight was on the receiving end of a Lions speed rush to the right side.

Knight made his season debut against Georgia Southern after missing most of fall camp while recovering from an injury. It’s taken him a couple weeks to return to form, but he’s one of IU’s most athletic blockers.

It’s believed that he could play virtually anywhere along the line, but Indiana needs him most at right tackle, where Baker struggled as the starter during the first two games.

The Hoosier also believe Baker can supply versatility in spurts, and gave him snaps at right tackle, right guard and left guard during the Georgia Southern game.

“Delroy plays well early, but when he gets tired the drop-off is high,” Hiller said. “We’re playing fast, and we’re trying to play a lot of snaps. Everybody’s wearing down, but when he wears down, it’s a noticeable wear-down. Having Brandon back in there, having Delroy being able to play in and out and play different spots for us, it’s going to be critical as we move forward the rest of the season.”

That’s because Indiana is still not comfortably deep at all five spots. Hiller says he likes the potential of the second-team players, but he’s still not confident enough to play some of them during critical situations.

At center, however, Indiana continues to rotate Littlejohn, an inexperienced redshirt sophomore, with true freshman Harry Crider. During the first month, the philosophy has essentially boiled down to alternating each player quarter-by-quarter.

Meanwhile, the left side of the line, with Coy Cronk at tackle and Wes Martin at guard, is the most experienced end of the group.

It’s also where Hiller and the Hoosiers have looked for leadership.

“Delroy and Wes Martin, I gave them that charge of, ‘Hey, you guys gotta be the leaders,'” Hiller said. “During spring ball, there wasn’t a lot of it. I thought during the summer it was big for those guys to step up and lead the group.

“Then you still have a guy like Coy Cronk, who is just a true sophomore, but because he’s been in the fires (as a starter in each of his first two years), he’s stepping up and he’s being vocal and all those things. It’s fun, but we still have a ways to go.”

But at least now for the Hoosiers, there are many more positive developments than there were during the first two weeks.

“I think our offensive line is getting better,” IU offensive coordinator Mike DeBord said. “We’ve been battling a lot of injuries up front. We’ve had some young guys have to step up and play and they’ve been doing that. The offensive line continues to get better every week.”

22 comments

  1. I also think they are getting better especially with Knight in there. I see even Cronk making foolish mistakes at times but it hasn’t happened at time that hurt the offense. This sin’t the most athletic OL we have seen at IU but they are gelling and it has to help the offense.

    Looking at who Hiller is recruiting he wants guys with a big punch and follow through. I expect in the future we will see a more physical OL in the mode of Dan Feeney. I think Cronk fits that standard but I am not sure how many others do other than Crider. Next year’s OL has a chance to be really good if they stay healthy.

  2. Still too early, but it appears the criticism of Hiller may have been premature. As I said, it takes time for new coaches to get a group of players to mesh and play well as a unit, especially when that group of players is, in relative terms, so young. I believe, based on their performance against PSU, that if they stay healthy, they will be an above-average Big Ten O-line by the end of the season. The most valid test for Hiller will be how effective he is in recruiting.

  3. The OL is improving. But the criticism of Hiller was just. Frey would have had them tougher and more aggressive the 1st game of the season. Much to do with why Harbaugh wanted him. OL recruitment by Wilson and Frey has much to do with the OL getting better.

  4. HC, you never allowed for the adjustment period of learning a new system and coaches learning about their players especiall with the starting schedule this season had. I agree I am not sold yet on the offense but as a coach I went through the same thing starting 1-3 but ended up
    State-runner up. With the schedule and new coaches it wasn’t going to be a seamless transition. The OL’s pass protection and rush game success against PSU was encouraging but we still need some answers about the offense.

    1. I most certainly did. He had Spring camp and preseason camp to get them tough and aggressive. Something coaches routinely accomplish during those timelines. Hiller did not. They were soft for OSU and played timid like they did not want to piss anyone off or be penalized. Positive adjustments have been made. Having to fire them up after the start of the season should not have been 1 of them.

  5. Other major programs appear to do wholesale changes at coaching positions and the product is transitioned quickly and seamlessly. The formula at Indiana cannot be modeled after these programs because the changes are not executed with a true commitment to make Indiana a real competitor in the Big Ten. Sure, we do the head coaching changes…but the names filtered into the head slots are not the names to truly raise eyebrows to create a revolutionary recruiting scene/spark.
    Until Indiana Football can get a true signature hire(Wilson was unproven by his Oklahoma pedigree may have been the closest thing in decades), it will continue to be a program only relevant to the old loyalists forever balancing between some sort of delusional hope and defeatism via denial.

    Winning against mediocre and mid-major non-conference opponents will simply be more of the same. Without the necessary eyebrow raising hire/hires, IU Football will continue to be a program garnering minimal national interest from media and recruits alike. Too many high quality programs near IU Football…attractive to top recruits(and all of the odds stacked against IU as it attempts to make the transformation within a very difficult division of a very top heavy conference with major national stage respect/history).

  6. Yes HC, we all know that you think Frey is a better O-line coach than Hiller. And the fact that Frey is now making about $700K per year as Michigan’s O-line coach suggests that Harbaugh feels the same way. But Frey left IU; IU didn’t fire him. And you may be right that IU’s O-line might have played better during the first four games of the season, but it would not have changed the outcome of a any of those games. IU would still be 2 – 2. Same argument with the difference regarding the running backs coaches. Hart may not yet be as good as his predecessor, but again, DM left IU for more money offered by USC. So what’s your point in opining that our new position coaches are not as good as our former position coaches? They’re both new to coaching in the Big Ten. And I dare say that neither DM or Frey were as good as they are now when they started coaching for IU. Our new guys need some time.

  7. Furthermore/Additionally/Sadly, I believe Indiana Football forever suffers in a sort of revolving door of contentment that suits many who would get denied the same opportunities/salaries if there weren’t places like Indiana.
    Similarly/Regrettably/Disturbingly, our basketball program went through the same safe transition of satisfaction, living in the cradle of a 10-year contentment, that would never see anything resembling McCracken’s old expertise. More fostered and protected complacency transitions from the old excuses of Memorial to across the parking lot as IU basketball fans grow more distant from demanding anything beyond Sweet 16 appearances and tournament results hovering from average to above average.

    Honestly, I believe the complacency is fostered, nurtured, and marketed to simply protect the fortunes of insiders…(and the hires who quickly learn how to play this low expectations/average game). I think very opportunistic individuals learn this game at many levels beyond sports…and, of course, beyond Indiana. Do you believe sports journalists are getting better at their professions? Do you believe politicians are demanding more of themselves than years past? Do you believe corporate America is designed to improve the health and welfare of anything beyond the boardrooms and bottom lines? Mediocrity is the wall protecting the crazy wealth of a very small minority who get to sell it all as something more to adore.

    I refuse to buy in. I refuse to believe we are getting the best for our dollar(sports, administrators, or otherwise). Most of us never get the efforts of marketing departments and podiums to put on Broadway plays on our own behalf. And if we were getting the best for our dollars, then there wouldn’t be the hierarchical structures, the long contracts, and the false idea of required “stability” at the top continuing to keep wealth and institutional power in the hands of so few.

    We are not building models for greatness. Things like Indiana Football functions as just another one of the many subsets of accepting things the way they are while Americans get forever bludgeoned by marketing machines selling a protected class as stellar at all they do. Eventually, we tire and suffocate under the decades of looking up to these sports/political/corporate/tech gods. The humble spirits at the “top” of anything have long disappeared.

  8. H4H, you are right about it would be easier to recruit with a well-know big name as coach but which one would come and coach at IU? Coach Allen and several on his staff have the reputation of being very good recruiters. 2017 was hanging on to Wilson’s recruits with the exception of Tronti which Allen brought in. 2018 looks to be a good class based on commitments but not a top 20 class. The class fills needs at DE, OL, and RB in particular. How well they recruit over the next couple of years will tell how IU will match up in the B1G East. There are many obstacles at IU building the football program as we saw with the compliance mistake on Fitzgerald; it also shows the problem with the NCAA that they punished the player who didn’t do anything wrong [I am still waiting for UNC’s Basketball punishment for the fake class that existed for years].

    1. All true, v-!3….But I just wonder how AD’s survive for so long with such substandard results …And I am more than baffled by the continual rolling over of fans who once again accept another round of reset mode. All I’m seeing is swings and misses…or little dribblers down the first base line. I’m not seeing home runs. But amidst the absence of big hits and home run hires…is not the absence of huge salaries and long contracts for all within the program(including the untouchable AD who gets to keep hitting reset every 7-10 years for both major programs).

      I don’t get to live in that world. My world tells me that the hiring dam is easily broken and the floods of average performers encompassing a thousand more names can easily take my place if I dare believe doing an average job will translate to paycheck.

      Sweet 16’s…and Pinstripe Bowls…..? It just seems like the whole mess needs a reboot far beyond a couple coaching changes. Indiana University and its fans deserves more than this sell job. We had more than enough of the patsy non-conference opponents in basketball over the last ten seasons? It just gets tiring of witnessing such carefulness in football as well. We have nothing to lose in football. There is no reputation to protect. Play somebody. If we don’t make some completely irrelevant bowl then so be it. Safety and complacency…shouldn’t afford such grotesque job security and salaries.

  9. Hear that a lot…”What big name will come to Indiana?”

    If the size and quality of an institution like Indiana U. can’t draw big names, then maybe it’s time to think about what we’re doing here. What is the purpose of building a giant mediocre blob? The fifty year experiment should be over. The idea of doing the same thing over…and over…and over…and over should be over.

    Eight years ago the billboards came to Indiana: “Win Today!” We were told not to take it literally. We were told it’s a metaphor of sorts. Well, I gave them time for the metaphor. I gave the bacteria for winning recipes its time to proof. I thought the bread was in the oven? Hells bells, we’re not even set to preheat for another fifty years of sell jobs and mediocrity. Yet, we have this huge beautiful ‘Viking’ oven called Indiana University. Maybe we don’t belong in the Big Ten kitchen when we really don’t knead to be here in the first place?

    A bakery couldn’t keep customers for a week if they could never deliver the fresh bread …..But yet we expect IU fans to keep flocking to this beyond stale “Win Today” concept that lives somewhere on a cul-de-sac with Rod Serling?

    There becomes a point when even the most loving and loyal fan will have difficulty pledging loyalties to a place seemingly unable to love or demand more of itself. I would fear that day rather than sell another decade of mediocrity to a billboard company.

    1. H4H,
      While I agree with most of what you are saying, I will take issue with your comment, “if the size and quality of an institution like, Indiana U. can’t draw big names, then maybe it’s time to think about what we’re doing here.” I think there may be a perception flaw out there in regards to your premise of, “size and quality.” First, I am not sure everyone out there, especially in the coaching fraternity, shares the same perception by you and others. Secondly, on the football side there has been a perception of IU being the graveyard of coaches dating back many decades. If memory serves, I believe the quote was attributed to the late, and one of the better IU coaches, Bo McMillian.

      I think the problem has been, continues, and will be Hoosier Nation itself. Historically, it has never done the things necessary to consistently, produce high quality programs. To get the kind of program revolutionary football coach IU needs you will need to either show them the money or hopefully, a home grow one as being tried now with Coach Allen ala Bill Snyder in Kansas. Big thing is if Coach Allen turns out to eventually be the real deal, get the BIG money ready and get his name on the stadium fast. Can’t do it the way you do now and expect to succeed. What you paying you head football coach now would be at or near the bottom of the SEC and look at what Louisville basketball program was paying the soon to be dearly departed Coach Pitino.

      Size and Quality of IU is a dog that will not hunt. Like it or not the old saying, Money talks, (fill in the blank) walks, may be the real truth. You could also lump in true program support along with the money.

  10. Perception!! Where would you rank the Indiana football program in the BIG 10??? Personally, you would have to ranked Indiana 10th in the BIG 10, just ahead of Rutgers (Chris Ash – 2nd year, Illinois (Lovie Smith – 2nd year), Purdue (Jeff Brohm – 1st year) and Minnesota (PJ Fleck – 1st year) as to which football program is the bottom of the BIG 10??? Four of the five programs rank in the bottom of the BIG 10 as far as recruiting. My question is which program will have some success (or the most success) by years end and in the next two years (8 or more wins if any). This is all speculation of course, just looking for other fans opinion.

  11. Who will have success first, who gets the better recruiting class the next couple of years. I would bet on Brohm based on his track record but hope it is IU because Tom Allen because he doesn’t accept that IU can’t get the players or the wins.

  12. thinkaboutit; good post, and I agree with much of what you wrote. I remain hopeful Allen will reverse the trend and lead IU football to “break through.” But historically, IU Football has been plagued by really myopic leadership and grossly incompetent management from the University’s administration who behaved as if the football program was an unfortunate necessity. You can blame the Hoosier Nation, and to some degree we all share in the responsibility, but a series of IU administrators plagued the program. When hiring a new head football coach, they have been and continue to be very cheep and cowardly! They’ve been risk averse. Their criteria has been “safe and inexpensive.” And of course, they’ve gotten what they paid for. IU might never have been able to hire a Harbaugh or Meyer, but there have been numerous, experienced, accomplished former head coaches that IU could have hired had the administration not been so financially and politically risk-averse. One media-driven controversy (which he has consistently and vigorously denies) at Texas Tech may turn some people off, but Mike Leach has proven to be a great coach and a winner. He was available in 2010, but IU never gave him a look. Leach took over what may have been the worst program in the Pac 12, suffering from low fan support, a bad reputation, chronically low home-game attendance, and years of consecutive losing seasons (sound familiar?), and transformed WSU into a top-20 program. If you watched WSU upset USC last week, you know it was no fluke. WSU, which not-too-long ago was a joke, is now beating the big boys. And it didn’t take Leach long to transform WSU from the PAC-12 doormat (they went 9 – 40 in the four seasons prior to Leach taking over) into a winner. In his first four seasons at WSU, his teams went 3 – 9, 6 – 6, 3 – 9 and then 9 – 4 and played in two bowl games. Half way through his sixth season at WSU, Leach is 5 – 0 and his team is currently ranked 11th in the nation. And there have been many other experienced, winning coaches available that IU has never even considered. I have argued for years that there is nothing inherently wrong with IU or Bloomington, that prevents us from hiring a proven, experienced, winning head football coach. We did it when we hired Mallory and Hep. The problem is IU’s reputation, as far as football is concerned, is that its cheep. Until recently, we did not invest to keep our football facilities competitive and coaching compensation was the lowest, or near the lowest, in the Big Ten. Those two things alone have been enough to prevent experienced, “big name” coaches from seriously considering taking a job with IU. If Allen does not work out, IU needs to go back to the model of hiring men with previous experience as a winning head coach, like Mallory and Hep. And the compensation budget needs to be at the midpoint of the Big Ten.

  13. The problem is IU’s reputation, as far as football is concerned, is that its cheep

    Huh? IU Football has a cheep problem? I’ve only known Larry Bird to have this problem…and he played basketball. After bypassing a branch McCracken in favor of a Sycamore, he flew like Magic and took ISU to the highest perch of an NCAA tournament.

  14. There is no debate as to the reason why Indiana Football is in the position that it is in today. For almost a century, the football program was vastly underfunded and nary a second thought given to it. College Football programs began the major arms race in the late 80’s to early 90’s. While our Big Ten competitors (shockingly sans Michigan) were upgrading their facilities and embraced the future of the sport, Indiana still didn’t have a room big enough in Memorial Stadium where they whole team could meet together. Indiana Football didn’t even have facilities that could compete with some of the top high schools in the country.

    Wanna blame the AD? What’s his (or her) job? Well, starting with Greenspan, the decision was made to bring Indiana Football into the modern era. And it was too bad, because so many decades of neglect meant we were playing from so far behind, it was going to take a Herculean effort just to get back to the starting line.

    Glass has continued to invest in the football program, doing the job the AD is supposed to. Giving all the support needed to the current coaching staff, while coordinating the funding and construction of facilities worthy of a program that needs to compete in the Big Ten. Given the lack of revenue generated by the football program, it is magical to see the transformation of Memorial Stadium inside and out.

    I still don’t know how Indiana is going to compete with PSU, OSU, and Michigan going forward. Even with all of this great stuff, we’re still way, way behind. But let’s continue to look for bad guys now that Crean is gone. I guess it is Fred’s turn to be enemy. I know Ralph Floyd is lionized around here, but while he was great in many ways, he did miss out on football. But really, it was Clarence Doninger, the single worst AD in our history, that not only oversaw the demise of our basketball program, but did NOTHING to ensure that our football team could compete. It is staggering how bad Doninger was at his job. I can’t say a single positive thing about him.

  15. I believe the problem with IU Football resides in the ‘Hoosier’ name.

    The name ‘Hoosier’ has no bite…It just doesn’t sound grid’iron-esque.

    Who wants to play a violent game of football for a Hoosier? The Indiana Cheeps sounds more ferocious. Illini was also weak…but they at least put “Fighting” in front of it.

    Top 10 revamps for the Hoosier football name:

    10. Yourrrrrr…. Indiana Hilarious Hoosiers
    9. The ‘Hut-hut’ Tater Tot Hoosiers
    8. The Hurryin’ Huddlin’ Hoosiers
    7. The Bruisers of Hoosiers
    6. The Basketball Challenged Hoosiers
    5. The Not-So-Hospitable Hoosiers
    4. The Candy Striped Oinkers
    3. Your Indiana Bottom Dwellers
    2. The Memorial Monsters of the Midday
    1. The Football Footnote Hoosiers

  16. DD, no one is saying Glass is a bad guy. And to be fair, I give him great credit for continuing to raise funds that pay for the enhancement of IU’s athletic facilities across the campus. But the best facilities in the world don’t do any good unless you have the right people in positions of leadership. And when it comes to football coaches, Glass has demonstrated that he’s unwilling to pay competitive compensation necessary to hire experienced head coaches who have proven their ability to create winning football programs. It’s not IU Football’s legacy of losing, it’s IU’s reputation for being cheep, combined with, up until recently, the worst football facilities in the conference, that repel proven football coaches. IU made a great hire with Mallory and again with Hep, but for some reason we stopped trying to hire proven, experienced football coaches after Hep died. And I think it’s clear that money is the reason why. If WSU could hire Mike Leach, IU should have been able to hire someone with a similar track record. Six and half seasons later, compare WSU football to IU football. Compare the before and after for team rankings, recruiting class rankings, bowl games, etc. And remember, WSU plays their home games in a stadium with a seating capacity of 35,117. OUCH!

  17. It’s not IU Football’s legacy of losing, it’s IU’s reputation for being cheep

    This abuse of cheap is beginning to cheepen Hoosier Scoop.

  18. Didn’t Heoppner coach for 13 years as an assistant at Miami(formerly known as ‘Miami of Ohio’) before finally attaining the head coaching position there?

    I guess there’s no reason Allen can’t do the same…If only he had a Roethlisberger? Sorta quirky how he got Big Ben. I had to do some research to find this out…It turns out Big Ben went to Miami of Ohio because Hep was promising Rothlisberger a shot to start at QB(all the other programs wanted him as a tight end/wide receiver)
    But let’s face some more facts; they do love their football in Ohio.

    Hep was 4-12 in conference play at IU.

Comments are closed.