IU looking for consistency in crowded backfield

On at least one play, Wednesday seemed like Stevie Scott’s day at fall camp.

His moment came on a 33-yard touchdown run versus Indiana’s defense. The freshman rushing sensation of 2018 found himself in open space, getting the last man in his way to go airborne with a hesitation move.

When the safety launched through Scott’s thick limbs, crumpling to the turf, a loud “woooo” rang out from their Hoosier teammates.

After a play like that, the productive but less glamorous moments of Ronnie Walker’s day were more obscure. The Hoosiers’ other sophomore back picked up four yards here, five yards there. It wasn’t flashy.

It wasn’t Walker’s day to make a highlight-reel run, but that play could come tomorrow, or the next day. Every day, it’s carries here and carries there for each member of a crowded IU backfield, and Walker has to take what’s given.

“You just gotta be consistent, day in and day out. You can’t be complacent,” Walker said. “One day you wanna slack, that’s a spot for another running back to get in and show what he’s got.”

While the quarterback competition has received the most scrutiny, there may not be a more competitive position group than running back for the Hoosiers. Scott holds the mantle of returning starter, but redshirt junior Cole Gest — who was the starter before Scott in ’18 — has returned from injury. Sampson James, a four-star recruit from Avon, has entered the mix.

Competition is something the Hoosier backs have embraced. Before camp opened, Scott said he hoped a push from his teammates would help bring out elements of his game that few knew were there, like breakaway speed.

“We just all strive for greatness and compete just to help each other get better,” Scott said. “The competition in that room, it’s helping each other build off the energy and just improve.”

Walker was glad to see Scott rumble into the end zone.

“Big plays like that, that’s what we need,” Walker said. “Open field, you have to be able to break tackles.”

Walker (32 carries, 141 yards) isn’t coming off a freshman season like Scott’s (228, 1,137), but that doesn’t mean he has been knocked down a peg or two by the blazing-fast Gest and a blue-chipper like James. What doesn’t show up in a stat sheet is Walker’s ability to pass protect.

IU running backs coach Mike Hart was asked what it would take for Walker to carve out a niche in the Hoosier backfield, and that question was met with another question.

“What does Sampson have to do to carve out a position? You know what I’m saying?” Hart said. “It’s not what Ronnie has to do. Sampson has to do something to beat Ronnie out.

“From that standpoint, they’ve all got to compete. There are no positions right now. That’s what I tell them right now.”

Hart emphasized that each of the Hoosiers’ backs has had a good day and a bad day. Consistency is what he was looking for.

“The one thing we are not right now is a consistent group in practice every day,” Hart said. “What we need is four guys to come out here, four or five guys, that are consistent every day.

“The guy that is the most consistent is the guy that’s going to play.”

There are carries to be had. Scott received more than half of IU’s carries last season, setting a freshman record. Gest, James, and Walker should eat into that percentage, it just remains to be seen how much, or what the mix will be.

The next couple of weeks will go a long way toward figuring that out. IU only recently broke out full pads at camp, so Hart hasn’t had much of a chance to watch his running backs slip through seams. Scott impressed Wednesday, but there will be plenty of 11-on-11 reps to come this preseason.

Walker’s intelligence and willingness to block give him a shot at being a dependable third-down back.

“He’s definitely a pass-pro guy,” Hart said. “I don’t have to worry about him when he’s in on third-and-long.”

At the same time, Walker saw the competition that was about to unfold in the Hoosiers’ backfield, and he spent the offseason working on his weaker points.

Getting north-south is something that was a focus. He also spent a lot of time working on his hands, because offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer does like to utilize rushers as receivers.

“To be a complete back, you have to do all three, you have to catch, you have to run and pass-block,” Walker said. “Pass-blocking is the No. 1 thing. Coach Hart stresses that. If you can’t pass block, you can’t play.”

Walker wants to play.

He hasn’t dropped a ball yet in practice. And when there have been four or five yards to gain, he has hit the hole for that many. That’s all he can do.

“The competition has pushed me a lot,” Walker said. “Your spot can be taken at any point. I just have to push harder and do the best I can.”

41 comments

  1. Sounds like Sampson James is firmly fourth in the pecking order. It also sounds like the RBs are running wild against the Hoosier defense in practice.

  2. Found this on Athlon’s site (https://athlonsports.com/college-football/big-ten-coaches-talk-anonymously-about-conference-foes-2019)

    Indiana
    “You hate playing this team. They’re always competitive; they’re always fighting back and staying in games even when they’re down.”

    “They’ve been decent offensively, and they can scare you with their tempo if your guys aren’t locked in.”

    “They’ve got some nice young backs and a quarterback (Peyton Ramsey) that can really give them a chance. They’re changing OCs, and the guy from Fresno (Kalen DeBoer) should change some things up.”

    “They’ve had trouble finding the right QB to build a program around. A lot of us thought the other QB, Michael Penix Jr., could be that guy, but he tore his ACL. He was probably their best talent at the position.”

    “Defensively they’re giving up too many points. They’re bad against big plays; you can take the top off on them. The line loses a lot. It’s going be a tough year for Tom Allen, but he’s sort of a magician at finding good defenses with bad rosters.”

    “Being in the Big Ten East doesn’t help them at all when you’re trying to build from scratch. It’s why they’ve been stuck right at five wins.”

    “Allen is highly respected and really well connected in the state. He’s doing a great job recruiting in state, even against Purdue, who really has it going. And it’s not an easy place to recruit top-level guys to. It’s just not a program with an identity when you get outside of that state. It’s a basketball school.”
    ——————————

    I’m very interested in seeing how the DL comes along. An above average showing by this group could really make 2019 into a special season.

  3. Thanks for the link, SOSD. I remember a similar article last year and find that we can get a valuable perspective about our football program by reading the opinions of other Big Ten coaches. I hope TA will use some of those comments, especially about the defense, as bulletin board material. Whoever said it was right. IU does give up far too many big plays and other teams have been able to take the top off our defense.

    As for the comment about TA “finding good defenses with bad rosters,” the perceived recruiting gap between IU and the other Big Ten programs. We still have a long way to go in closing that gap.

    Interesting that we got two differing opinions about our quarterback. One thinks PR is pretty good, and the other is not impressed. Sounds like The Hoosier Nations.

  4. One more comment. Notice how one coach uses the word “identity” in reference to recruiting better talent. It’s true, and a very good point. And the reason IU does not have an “identity” is because we’ve produced 11 consecutive losing seasons. Losing programs don’t establish a positive identity. Only programs that win get to establish a positive identity. Losers are simply ignored.

  5. Right after “identity” was mentioned in the pulled quotes, this was stated: “It’s a basketball school.”

    And there lies the conspiracy…They want us to believe we are a vibrant basketball program. Sadly, as we’ve upped our obsessions tinkering with this broken down electric vibrating football game, basketball, a once true “identity” and presence in March faded off the pages.

    Even if Purdue builds their football program into Big10 average respectability, will they ever be an ND to the north? Nope. But their basketball program just became part of Conference Midwest Elite by making an Elite Eight.

    Our last Elite Eight? Mike Davis….Hard to imagine that was only a couple years after 911.

    We’ve bought into the trends of the day…Simply being known as one of the top basketball programs in the country shouldn’t be enough. Tops in just one thing? Phooey! Break out that old electric football game for that dreary rainy day when you can’t go outside and shoot hoops. I know you’re short a few players, but it can still be a good time. Tinker…tinker.

    Damn, that Coleco quarterback has an arm(0-:11 mark). Ramsey should take notes.

  6. When I was a kid… I matched up my smaller electric team against the larger electric team down the street with my neighbor. No matter how creative and hard my players tried they just continually got pushed around and ran over.
    Today, that would probably be called bullying. I always thought my players were the IU football team.

    1. That’s funny, t. And then there’s Coach Allen on the sideline bouncing around like crazy to encourage your excessively vibrated smaller team not built to withstand the forces of a bigger game…And then poor Coach Allen finally tumbles over. The refs carry him off on a stretcher with foam ball clutched in one arm….

  7. This is the first year in many that I really have no idea how this team/season is going to end up. You can give reasons why they’ll improve- (3 quality qb’s, better rb’s and receivers plus more speed on defense) and reasons why they’ll take a step back- (tougher schedule, mediocre offensive and defensive lines, a 3rd year qb that hasn’t won more than 2 big ten games per year.) I’m just trying to not get too invested in how they play but hoping for the best. One of these years, the breakthrough has to happen.

  8. I don’t understand the constant blaming of Ramsey for the past two seasons. Let’s remember there are two sides of the ball, and the defense in 14 of those 24 games were outscored. Let’s blame the entire defense for failing to stop the opposition from scoring on average 30 points per game.

    Where will the blame fall if IU has another 5-7 record with Penix or Tuttle being the starter? What will the same fans who blame Ramsey for having a weak arm and not making the throws say about the cannon armed Penix or strong armed Tuttle?

    What I’m about to say will not be popular, but IU deserved to lose those 14 games over the last two seasons because they simply weren’t good enough. They laid eggs offensively and defensively against some questionable opponents. They then would turn around and play competitively against superior competition, yet lose. Collectively the team has been inconsistent. That includes the coaches.

    Young teams are inconsistent, and a relatively new head coaching might not understand how to correct that. This is Allen’s third year at the helm, hopefully he has learned from his mistakes and what is needed to have his team play at a consistent level week in and week out, and not just on certain occasions.

    1. It’s more blaming Allen than Ramsey. Ultimately, the head coach is responsible for the product on the field. Many of us simply feel that Allen has been more reactive(e.g. finally putting Penix into a game against PSU when Ramsey’s limitations became far too obvious) rather than proactive. He showed too much reluctance to place confidence in the new gunslinger on the roster(ironically, guys he’s gone far distances to bring to Bloomington who can throw the ball FARTHER), open up an entire new array of play-calling potential, and maybe get a few extra strikes on the board.
      Big play potential from your offense can take some stress off your defense. Will a grind-it-out, exchange body shots, style of play work against the depth and talent of teams like OSU, Michigan and Penn State?

      Ramsey has done everything within the realm of his abilities …..I don’t recall anyone thinking Tim Priller should have started on the basketball team( albeit a fine young man with enough talent to dominate in a college intramural league).

      1. Ali was brilliant when he employed a Rope-a-Dope style to win against George Foreman.
        Allen should take note….Watch what an over-matched boxer attempts to do to stay in a game. Sure, it’s beyond an apples vs. oranges comparison, but creativity and elements of surprise often transfer from sport to sport.
        Allen’s weaknesses as a coach may ultimately boil down to a lack of creativity. It’s pretty difficult to be creative when some of your best offensive talent is watching from the sideline.
        Ramsey will never escape from the ropes to suddenly shock the crowd with a huge right hook. He serves no purpose as a decoy who can suddenly gun a ball 65 yards after three sleepy and uneventful possessions. There are very few opportunities in a game for an out-manned team to steal momentum …or have any remote opportunity to steal a game.
        Ali stole a fight against a bigger and stronger…and younger Foreman. Skill, creativity…and elements of surprise seem to be a necessary ingredient for an Indiana football team forever struggling to maintain anywhere near the breadth and depth of talent found in the top of the Big10 East. You have to know how to engineer some poker playing …and have your talent ready to go for a kill or grab those rare instances where a game may tip in our favor.

    2. SOSD- I agree in part that the defense needs to shoulder some of the blame. The interesting thing is that Kane Wommack’s only year at IU, the defense drops from the 20’s to the 70’s in pts allowed- that’s terrible, yet he gets promoted to Defensive Coordinator? That seems like the ultimate IU move. But Ramsey needs to shoulder some blame too. Less than 17% of his plays graded positively. That’s also terrible. He was ok throwing long and overused throwing short. But college qbs need to earn their keep with the intermediate routes and Ramsey just doesn’t have the arm to get the job done. Punt John Punt shows that:
      http://puntjohnpunt.com/2019/08/02/did-peyton-ramsey-improve-in-2018/ As someone said last year, Ramsey will always get you the tough 2-3 yards, especially when you need 5. He seems like a great kid. And he has all the intangibles, but his tangibles, like arm strength, leave a lot to be desired.

  9. The part about the D’s annual inability to stop the big play is a massive issue. Of course, if your defense is flat out swiss cheese – which has been the case for us for the most part for the last 20 or so years – it’s to be expected.

    Allen is first and foremost a defensive guru and has shored up the defense in various aspects in his tenure. Certainly, back as a coordinator he engineered a remarkable turn around in our national defensive rankings. I’d be interested to see, though, stats on big plays allowed during that time. I’m having trouble finding stats anywhere about it. My impression is that, even during our best defenses thus far under TA, the big play susceptibility has not improved significantly.

  10. The offense does has not helped defense. Plus yes, IU plays some really good big ten teams = very tough to play 500 ball. There has always and will always be winners and losers. IU has been on the losing side. Simply stated. Just not good enough.

  11. I for one just do not see what others see that IU played superior competition all that close. The superior competition almost always had the game under their control.

    1. If IU had made the same effort against Minnesota that they did against PSU they would have won that game. They even played UM and MSU better than they did Minnesota.

  12. t- You are correct. And the superior competition is often resting(interchanging more of their roster) or protecting their best talent when in control. We rarely (more like never) push any of the quality teams from our division into any sort of real distress/panic mode. They coast against us….Even with a foot off the accelerator, the score can swing into a lopsided affair. To say we are anywhere near “breakthrough” is a sales job. Discerning eyes know better.
    And then the insult to play a qb who can’t get any heat on a deep throw while using such terms as “breakthrough?” That is the stuff beyond rose-colored glasses. That sort of malarkey only works with fans gutted their eyeballs from the decades of Keystone Cops football.

    Coaches of IU Football would be far better served to never say things like “Win Today”…or “Breakthrough.” IU Football fans have heard fifty years of the BS selling of an eternally long corner finally being navigated and turned. Just turn the damn corner and SHUDDUP! Play some football and SHUDDUP! Beat somebody worthy of cartwheels on the sideline. Say we “Won Today”….and “Broke Through!” Keep the rest of the malarkey in a gibberish safe box filled with plutonium in which you’ve thrown away the key.

  13. One more thing..and then I’ll SHUDDUP. Yeah, right.

    Conservative football at IU? That’s what I enjoyed about Wilson. He didn’t box himself in to the perceptions of “looking the part”…or “looking like you belong” for two to three quarters. He employed risk-taking and took shots at big plays. He used the extra down known as 4th DOWN. Why? It’s smart. He knew IU had only three decent players to every four top recruits found in the rosters of most our Big10 East foes. Did it always work? No. And Ali’s ‘Rope-a-Dope’ may have also failed. But the alternative? The alternative of not using the down…and not having the qb on the field who can deliver the big blow when on one play a d-back falls asleep on his team’s lead and dominance?
    Allen fears the perceptions and the failure that can come with the risks of creativity. He adheres to doctrines of purposeful football as he does his doctrines of purposeful faith.
    Three downs and kick…Two runs and pass. Three downs and kick…Three runs and punt. Take the field goal rather than go for it and get a needed six on the board. Church on Sunday. Dinner at 4:00 P.M…Tuck the kids in at 8:00. Kiss the wife at 6:00 a.m. Belong. Be normal. Be safe. Be conventional. Be a Buick Skylark. Have a deep voice. Sound confident…..Honor thy football. Fourth downs are for kickers…..and, gosh darn it, we’ll use them the same way any great team will use them.

  14. The increased talent in the RB room brings about more competition and focus on the little things needed for a team to improve. No matter how hard coaches push players to focus on little things to get better, competition makes it happen. We won’t know how this all plays out until IU hits the B1G season but it gives us hope this season can be different.

    SOSD, I don’t know any of us are blaming Ramsey as much wanting a more dynamic QB to give IU a better chance at winning.

    1. SOSD, I don’t know any of us are blaming Ramsey as much wanting a more dynamic QB to give IU a better chance at winning.

      BINGO! We have a winner…

  15. SOSD, I don’t think anyone is blaming everything on PR, it’s just that many people on this site, myself included, don’t think he’s good enough to make up for IU’s other deficiencies. And for teams like IU, that has average talent, they must have a better-than-average QB. PR is a competent game manager. He’s not terrible, but he’s just not a Power-five conference QB. Having Average Yards per Pass of 6.0 and 6.4, that’s just not going to get it done. Maybe it was the OC, maybe it was the defense. Maybe it was everything but PR! Bottom line is that IU has not, until recently, been recruiting enough good players to defeat most Big Ten teams. IU’s best recruits are the norm for the Big Ten teams we play!

    I know TA wants to win now, but if he’s thinking strategically, he’ll name one of the two more talented quarterbacks as this year’s starter. That guy’s inexperience will cost IU some games and probably produce another losing season. But next year, with a more mature, more experienced and more talented roster around him, then the more talented QB’s experience is more likely to produce a winning season. On the other hand, if PR is named this year’s starter, and IU produces another losing season, TA’s more talented QBs go into next season with the same problem; lack of experience. And that would put IU at risk of producing yet another (13th consecutive) losing season, which would probably cost TA his job.

    As popular as TA is, he’s got a limited amount of time to prove he can produce a winner. IMO, he’s got to do it no later than the 2020 season or he’ll be a lame duck.

  16. I’m not lobbying for Ramsey to be the starter, same goes for Penix and Tuttle. It’s not my decision. I’ll leave it up to the coaches to decide who should start as they know (or at least should) who has earned the right to be the starter, and provides the best opportunity to move the offense and score points.

  17. I don’t care who has “earned” the right. I want the best arm to start….whether he’s earned it or not. How do you earn something just coming off a knee injury? How do you earn the start just transferring from Utah?

    Ain’t about earning a damn thing. It’s about getting the best potential on the field now….Let him earn the spot to lose or keep, but get the talent on the field rather than waiting until a mid-season game against Michigan or Penn State when it’s desperation time and too late.

    1. I have been under the impression that starting positions are to be earned based on performance during competition preseason camp. What good is having the quarterback with the “best arm” starting if they show no grasp of the offense, or make poor decisions. That’s placing style over substance.

      Call me crazy for wanting Penix, Ramsey, or Tuttle to earn the quarterback position based on performance by distinguishing themself from the competition.

    2. I have been under the impression that starting positions are to be earned based on performance during competition in preseason camp. What good is having the quarterback with the “best arm” starting if they show no grasp of the offense, or make poor decisions. That’s placing style over substance.

      Call me crazy for wanting Penix, Ramsey, or Tuttle to earn the quarterback position based on performance by distinguishing themself from the competition.

      1. Penix has shown he is making progress and people that see practice are saying he needs to be the starter. The defense is flying around and the receivers are making very good catches so add in the running game and B1G defense will have problems with our new OC calling plays. Ramsey doesn’t have the arm strength to throw passes over the middle or seem routes while Penix and Tuttle do. Ramsey will be a good back up QB if things work out that way.

        The defense has bigger DL and young defenders with experience that are hitters. I hope the secondary continues to fly to the ball and create plays in the run game and passing game. The ST should be better with the number of younger players that can really hit. IU’s roster is improving with the young players. I hope it all leads to a winning season that prognosticators don’t think will happen.

        1. They’ve barely been in pads, so no one is making comments about Penix being the starter yet. The coaches, who are the only ones that matter, sure aren’t. I remember a few people saying King and Tronti were the future at quarterback, too.

          1. Were you at every practice? Seems like you have no way of knowing if people are saying Penix needs to be the starter. At least a couple reporters seeing practice were impressed with Penix’s performance and DeBoer agreed Penix has played well.

        2. V13- I’m with you…The two young quarterbacks are the future. I would be absolutely stunned if Ramsey gets the nod.
          The fan base is desperate for something to be excited about. Sometimes it’s just the way life is…You can believe you’ve earned the right to a promotion at your job, but you get passed over for the new flavor with oodles of untapped potential. Sports is no different.
          A coach has to look at many factors beyond performance in practice. Players may give the perception they’ve gravitated to the returning veteran who does everything right to earn the job, but deep down inside they crave the energy and spark of the bigger arm and new leader yet to be unleashed.

          It’s Allen’s call…Play it safe now and allow Ramsey his limelight against a few mediocre mid-majors…or dial in for the future and allow the young gun(be it Penix or Tuttle) to work out some of his kinks, inexperience and rusty practices now before the ‘Big Boys’ of the Big10 East come marching in.

          Waiting to put Penix in against Penn State last year was a move of desperation. Allen exposed his inexperience…I hope he’s ready for the backlash if he makes the same mistake twice.

    1. V13 said “…and people that see practice are saying he(Penix) needs to be the starter.” You said, “…no one is making comments about Penix being the starter yet.” If you want to say the coaches haven’t said he should be the starter yet, fine. But when you start saying that “no one” is saying this or that, you imply you know everything anyone who has attended a practice has written or said- you don’t. Now you try to shift the goalposts again with “The only reports out of practice have come from the coaches,…” Again, you imply you know everything written or said by anyone that attended any of the practices- unless you are God, ya probably don’t. He can be correct that people seeing practice think Penix should be the starter and you can argue the coaches have the only opinions that matter and they haven’t named a starter yet. There. Done.

  18. He made his comments about “people” without any attribution or proof. Maybe you should direct your comments to him. There’s been nothing reported or suggested about the quarterbacks yet, especially since they’ve barely been in pads. As I said, I remember when enthusiastic fans raved about King and Tronti as two legitimate quarterbacks who could help the team, and neither was close to that level. It’s preseason, so fans sometimes get a little carried away.

  19. Were Tronti or King shown interest from USC…or Alabama?

    In the last 50 years, has IU Football ever had a qb who had been pursued by USC or Alabama? Just curious ….

    I was once pursued by Morgan Fairchild.

  20. That didn’t answer my question…

    Has IU ever had a quarterback who was once pursued by Alabama or USC (whether it was junior high, high school, college transfer, post arm amputation, Joe Namath’s sister, etc)? I just haven’t followed the Hoosier Football coma patient close enough to know.

    My guess is ‘never.’ Maybe there was one in 1923…

    1. Dave Schnell was a high school All-American and the Parade player of the year. He was probably offered by Alabama and all the elite schools before choosing to play for Mallory.

  21. My guess is we’ve never had a “third team at his previous school” transfer who was still originally recruited by Alabama or USC.
    That’s fruit that is usually still somewhere sunning on a tree than any fallen completely to the ground.

  22. What? The coaches don’t need to know a historical inquiry.
    It’s not a relevant question pertaining to their current job at hand. My interest is merely an inquiry …It appears no one here truly knows if any quarterback who ever donned a Hoosier uniform was once recruited by Alabama or USC (no matter the pathway which directly, tangentially, or eventually brought him to IU).

    And for what it’s worth, coaches use guesswork everyday of their coaching lives. They are calculated guess in a chess match in calling correct plays, defending against anticipated plays, etc. And, unless they have a fully functional crystal ball, I don’t believe any can predict what a player will bring to the pressures of a game which operates well outside the realm of a sample set of how much someone shines or doesn’t shine in practices.
    What is “earned” in practice could soon look very irrelevant compared to what is “performed” on the field against high level BigTen competition. The “tide”(no pun intended) can turn very quickly with regard to hardwired perceptions to anything earned in practice or scrimmage as opposed to how it plays out in a live game where explosive plays and very deep downfield plays are required.

  23. For what it’s worth, I don’t believe Schnell was recruited by Alabama or USC.

    I think he was pursued by Michigan, PSU and Louisville.

    Dave Schnell – 1985, Elkhart (Ind.) Central – was named the number
    one football recruit nationally by Sports Illustrated. Also named Parade
    Magazine All-America first team and Bally’s All-America first team. Chose
    Indiana despite being recruited by the likes of Joe Paterno, Bo Schembechler and
    Howard Schnellenberger (courtesy: TheHoosier.com).

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