Hoosiers looking for vocal leaders

If anyone has led by example within Indiana’s program, it’s been receiver Nick Westbrook.

His volunteering credits could scroll for hours, from working with athletes with intellectual disabilities to visiting kids at Riley Children’s Hospital. When a nearly 1,000-yard season as a sophomore was followed by an ACL injury as a junior, Westbrook bounced back with determination and grace.

There is no questioning the heart embedded in Westbrook’s 6-foot-3 frame. But IU coach Tom Allen could question his leadership.

It came in the form of a question to Westbrook, along with several of his teammates, during a meeting of the football program’s leadership council.

“I made this statement, that leading by example is not leadership. It does not get the job done,” Allen said. “I said, ‘How would you guys feel if I never spoke and I tried to lead this football team? How would that work?’ Well, it wouldn’t.”

Westbrook has to be more than just a model citizen this year. If the Hoosiers are going to peak after two consecutive 5-7 seasons, Allen needs his best men to take a more active role in leading their teammates.

Even if it’s not what comes naturally.

“It’s something that’s tougher for me, because I am a quiet guy,” Westbrook said. “I have to recognize that and push myself outside of my comfort zone. It’s going to be practice. It might not be perfect at the start. I may not be able to say the perfect thing here and there.

“But as long as I keep trying to be better at being more vocal. It’s going to be needed because we have so many young guys that are going to be playing early on, to be able to lead them and show them the right way.”

IU has 54 freshmen on its roster (true and redshirt) and another 26 sophomores that need to be integrated. Whatever is necessary to grow, the Hoosiers are trying to apply it. The leadership council, consisting of 20 players across all position groups, is something that was instituted in the spring.

Depending on the team, councils can be more gimmicky than productive. But Allen felt the time was right to empower players with a larger share of the leadership load. They were equipped with notebooks, jotting down coaches’ lessons on how to lead. They made vision statements for their position groups.

“Leading by example isn’t good enough. It resonated with them because they saw it,” Allen said. “They’ve seen it the last couple of years. We’ve had some great guys in those positions but they weren’t verbal leaders.

“Everybody just wants to lead by example. ‘I can just work hard, I can be a great guy, I can encourage in my own way.’ But leadership is about confronting. It’s about encouraging, yes, but it’s also about when something is not right, you fix it, and you take it personal. Our seniors take it personal.”

Many of the Hoosiers’ chosen leaders are seniors, like Westbrook and defensive end Gavin Everett. Monday, Allen said he likes what he has seen from the Hoosier offensive line, which is led by seniors Hunter Littlejohn, Simon Stepaniak, and Coy Cronk.

“They got a chip on their shoulder, they got an attitude about them,” Allen said.

That is hopefully not only a positive for the Hoosiers’ first-team unit, blowing open holes in defenses, but also an ingredient in creating a culture — and building depth — in the trenches.

Some younger faces are stepping up in the leadership department. Defensive end James Head, a sophomore, has been pegged by position coach Mark Hagen for more of a vocal role, even if it’s not his nature.

The fact he’s mentioned in the same breath as Everett, a fifth-year senior and former walk-on, speaks to the potential IU’s coaches see in Head.

“He still considers himself a young guy,” Hagen said. “I say, ‘Hey, look, man, you played 25-plus snaps a game last year, you are not a freshman anymore. We need you to do this.’ He’s come out of his shell a little bit. Not quite as vocal as Gavin, but night and day versus where he was a year ago.”

It remains to be seen whether these efforts bear fruit on the football field, but the Hoosiers’ players seem to have bought in.

At Monday’s practice, redshirt junior “husky” Marcelino Ball could be seen on the sideline with freshman Cameron Williams, slowly working through press coverage technique. That is an extremely positive development because Ball is both a huge talent and a big personality.

“He’s really leading the guys around him, especially guys on that side of the football,” Allen said. “He just practices so hard, has passion. He’s an elite athlete, he really is.”

Westbrook is an elite human. A preseason nominee for both the Allstate Good Works Team and the Wuerffel Trophy, he has a chance to be recognized for his athletic talents mixed with his exemplary service off the field.

But it was receivers coach Grant Heard who told him: the coach can’t always be “the hammer.” Critiques just mean more when they come from a teammate.

Even Westbrook’s teammates have been encouraging him to lead.

“We tell him ‘We need you to lead us,’ because you’re the old guy,” junior Whop Philyor said. “We tell him all the time, ‘Come on, Nick, get us right, get us right. Hype us up, hype us up.’ He’s been doing that really well this year.”

It’s a challenge that’s similar to running routes for Westbrook. He just has to be intentional in his effort. The more times he puts his words out there, the sharper each statement will become.

He just needs to speak up.

“Whether it’s meetings or after a lift or after a summer practice,” Westbrook said, “it’s something I’ve tried to consciously think about doing.”

24 comments

  1. I hope I’m not being a preseason fish taking the bait, but everything I read about Tom Allen and the things he is doing, be it coaching, recruiting, etc. sounds very positive. He just seems like a legitimate upbeat, hard-working, straight up man who is infusing the program with the attitude and work ethic it needs to succeed. I sure hope I’m right. I’m excited to see how this year plays out. The pieces seem to be in place to make my eternal hope for a winning season a reality. Go Hoosiers!

  2. Wow…I noticed Duke opens up against Alabama. Now that’s a KICKOFF CLASSIC! That’s equivalent to IU opening up against ND.
    If we are truly aiming for a change in perceptions, we must set our sights on early and strong opponents. Scheduling a premier out-of-conference opponent may result in a shellacking, but reality checks aren’t such a bad thing if you play in the Big10 East.
    It would also immediately quell the ridiculous suggestions forever emanating from the leadership of being on the cusp of “breakthroughs,” etc. We need a put up or shut up mentality. Duke must be serious about turning their football program into something truly competitive and exciting. We, on the other hand, stick to the safety and reliability of Peyton Ramsey throwing wiffle ball passes in the NoDoz Classic against Ball State.

    1. Then Duke plays NC A&T, Middle Tennessee State, tough but winnable game at Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh, Georgia Tech, Virginia, UNC, another tough game with Notre Dame, Syracuse, Wake Forest, then closing at Miami.

      So, they play #2, #10, and #21. That’s three tough games. IU plays #3, #6, #13, #20, #22, and #24 plus you can toss in Purdue just for fun. Duke has nine games on their schedule that would qualify as a ‘breather’ for Indiana. If they don’t go to a bowl game they suck.

      No, I am not impressed with Duke scheduling Alabama when they play nine Marylands.

      1. Opening up against Ball State is simply a dud. Any suck team can get to one of 50 bowl games. Duke is certainly not in that category alone.

        Here’s the deal…If you want to start getting a fan base to get on board early, you must schedule a truly top team out of the gate. Taking on Ball State simply looks like every other year. Test the team early and show the fans what you’ve been preaching about “breakthrough” is not complete malarkey.

        And if you lose to Ball State…? You’ve already killed all your summer hype. A shellacking against a traditional powerhouse football program would not do as much damage to building interest in the program as a loss to Ball State.

  3. Indiana:
    SOS Remaining RK 57

    Duke:
    SOS Remaining RK 34

    (courtesy: ESPN)

    ________________________________________

    Ranking College Football’s 10 Hardest Schedules for 2019 (courtesy: Bleacher Report)

    https://bleacherreport.com/articles/2809825-ranking-college-footballs-10-hardest-schedules-for-2019

    Good luck finding any other instance of a team that plays multiple nonconference games against opponents that were in the College Football Playoff the previous season.

  4. Before we get too carried away attacking the SOS of the Duke this year, we might want to look at another ACC team which will play essentially the same conference schedule. Last time a B1G team played Clemson in the BCS was OSU and the Buckeyes got their hats handed to them in a major way. Did I happen to mention the team was Clemson? The same Clemson will also play such traditional FB powerhouses as Charlotte and Wofford in the non conference schedule this year. In case you are wondering, I suspect this year’s Clemson team, like last year’s, will be much better than the one which blew out OSU.

  5. I like the changes coach Allen has made this year and hope they lead to a winning season. Leadership needs to be taught especially with today’s players.

    Watching today’s video of Coach DeBoer and it was clear he and the reports thought Penix made a move in practice. The reporters made it clear how impressed they were with Penix today which leads me to think Penix or Tuttle have a chance to win the starting job.

  6. I think it is a silent forgone conclusion that Penix (as long as injury recovered) or Tuttle will be the starter. I think the coaches know it but letting the process play out. T.A. could wait as long as game day but probably a few days before game day to make announcement.

  7. Hope you’re right, t.

    I’m thinking Tuttle will start…simply because I doubt Penix is full ready to put the knee through too much stress.

  8. Read something couple of days ago suggesting how much OL and passing play dynamics change when MP is behind center. In other words can Caleb Jones = CC? How much does a RB need to help him? If the TE has to be held in to help block then KB looses a part of his passing offense. Lots of variables for sure for KB and TA to access.

  9. I’ve always liked Tom Allen as a person, and I like most of what he says. I agree with what was said about him above. But Tom Allen doesn’t play. Football is about getting the biggest, fastest, strongest guys to impose their will on the guys lined up across from them. And while TA is making significant progress in improving the level of talent on IU’s roster, and saying all the right things, this team is still lacking the talent, depth and maturity to defeat most Big Ten teams. The Offensive and Defensive lines are really where IU is most deficient in talent. It comes down to physics. Skill players are relatively easy to find and recruit. High Schools across the country are loaded with good running backs. But guys who can become 6’5″, 320 lbs. linemen who have quick feet and who can bench press 450 lbs. are relatively rare and hard to recruit. When IU starts signing 4-star offensive and defensive linemen, and continue to get above-average skill players, then we’ll have reason to be believe IU can produce winning Big Ten seasons.

    The only chance IU has to win six games this season is if we have a quarterback who can compensate for IU’s relative lack of talent/maturity/experience. And IMO, that quarterback is not PR. If Penix or Tuttle are named the starting QB, I’ll start to get really excited about the 2019 season.

  10. Ramsey will look like a world beater against Ball State. And there lies the problem with scheduling an early mid-major/cupcake opponent who lures us into a false sense of our offensive prowess.
    Allen would be pushed much harder into starting Penix or Tuttle if the opponent was the sort Duke is opening against (or any top-20) . We’ll be able to run and execute a short game against BSU. They don’t have the sort of defense that would force us to open things up and get “deep” downfield(as in a ball thrown 50-60 yards on a rope).

    Ball State is a ‘safe’ opponent which allows for a ‘safe’ qb to open a season looking like Johnny Uniitas. Grip those clipboards tightly, Mike and Jack.

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