O-line shuffling doesn’t slow Hoosiers

There was a week in fall camp where Indiana’s line was shuffled, purposefully.

Caleb Jones, destined to be a starter at right tackle, was thrown to the left side. Harry Crider, the left guard, moved to center. Coy Cronk, the left tackle, played left guard.

It was discombobulation with an aiming point — an effort to test out worst-case scenarios, as well as a chance to get the Hoosiers comfortable playing out of their normal positions.

They couldn’t have known in August how prescient that week would be — that Cronk would eventually be lost for the season, or that Hunter Littlejohn, the every-day center, would have to miss the Maryland game.

Suddenly, it was Crider snapping the ball, sandwiched between Simon Stepaniak at left guard and Mackenzie Nworah at right. That’s not even a combination the Hoosiers worked through during that week in fall camp.

But the line wasn’t afraid of the unknown.

“Not a lot of huge adjustments, just a lot of trust,” Crider said. “Knowing that they are going to be doing what they are supposed to be doing, and then I got to do what I’m supposed to do, and just trusting the guys next to you, whoever it is. It helps the unit as a whole.”

IU coach Tom Allen expects Littlejohn to return this week, moving Crider back to left guard, Stepaniak back to right, and Nworah back to a reserve role. But the number of hits the offensive line has been able to take, and just keep ticking, speaks to their collective mindset.

When one man has gone down, the Hoosiers have been able to find another to step up. IU’s offensive line has given up just nine sacks in seven games, the fewest in the Big Ten. The unit has also helped spring sophomore Stevie Scott, who is averaging 6.3 yards per carry his last four games — a significant boost from his 3.2 average through three weeks.

That’s an encouraging development for IU, especially considering Allen’s concerns about line depth heading into the season. It’s also crucial for the pillars of the offense to stay connected as the Hoosiers (5-2, 2-2 Big Ten) try to make the most of their opportunity at Nebraska (4-3, 2-2) and then back home versus Northwestern (1-5, 0-4).

“It is tough, it’s obviously tough,” Crider said of IU’s o-line injuries and subsequent shuffling. “But I think, in the end, it does help our unit grow together and build that bond more because we know we are all we’ve got and that helps our play on Saturdays.”

Matthew Bedford, a freshman, was the first to make an unexpected contribution, replacing Cronk on the left side. The 18-year-old with a 6-foot-6, 307-pound frame has flashed enormous potential early.

Nworah, a redshirt junior, was a different case. The 6-foot-4, 316-pounder from Houston, Tex., started six games at right guard as a redshirt freshman in 2017. He appeared in IU’s win over Maryland the following season, as well, but ankle issues held him out for the rest of the year.

“It was definitely difficult,” Nworah said. “It was just something I had to overcome and continue any way I could to contribute to the team. Work hard, work on my craft until I get my next opportunity.”

His chance came in a shutout win over Rutgers when Littlejohn went out with a lower-leg injury. Practicing to face Maryland as a possible starter, Nworah had to work on chemistry with Crider (to his left) and Jones (to his right).

It helps that Nworah, Crider, Jones, and the entire line are already a tight group. They not only enjoy each other’s company in practice but also off-the-field, either getting food or playing video games.

Nworah and Crider, in particular, have some fierce battles in “Madden” football. Their play-calling choices are exactly what you’d expect from linemen.

“We are always running the ball,” Nworah said.

And it’s in the running game where the Hoosiers have made the biggest strides on an actual field. After producing a little more than 100 rush yards per game in their first three, the Hoosiers gained about 174 per contest in their next four.

Some of that has to do with the subpar rush defenses of their opponents, especially UConn and Rutgers, the country’s 104th and 113th rush defenses, respectively. But Maryland (36th) just surrendered 186 yards to an IU offense missing its starting center.

Nebraska (95th) is particularly vulnerable to the run. The Cornhuskers are currently surrendering 188 yards per game on the ground, and Minnesota produced 322 yards and four touchdowns on 49 carries before Nebraska’s bye week.

The question is how much the Hoosiers will commit to the ground. Early in the year, loaded boxes made it difficult to establish the run. But there were two games where offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer opted for more rush plays than passes: Rutgers and UConn.

DeBoer has been content in taking what defenses will give, which changed during the Maryland game. In the first half, IU sophomore Stevie Scott was held to 12 yards on seven carries, but the offensive line was able to pave the way for 96 yards on Scott’s 11 second-half carries.

“In the game, I just think they held their own early, got a feel for what they were seeing, the speed of the game, and in the second half, the run game became very important,” DeBoer said. “And it shifted that way, the way they were playing us defensively.”

However the Huskers attack, the Hoosiers can be more confident in the five they are sending on the field to block.

Nworah, who may not be a part of the starting five anymore, knows he can’t be complacent, either.

“This year we’re trying to do big things, so everyone is really locked in,” Nworah said. “It doesn’t matter who goes down. Everyone is ready to get up and make sure we achieve the goals we set for ourselves this year.”

5 comments

  1. The OL is playing better and better each week despite losing starters along the way. There is a limit of how many can be lost before it impacts the offense. Teams success is determined by play makers but the OL has a bigger impact on the success of the offense. I hope the OL continues to improve as they face better defense following the bye week coming up.

  2. Pre season and early on experiments with offensive line in practice is currently paying off as in mandatory flexibility.

  3. I see a big benefit for the OL guys at the next level as well. Experience in playing other positions on the line could possibly pay off in the future.

    1. Don’t fool yourself Davis,

      You have at least 2 on the line, if not more, who will likely play in the nfl. Question is, can you figure out who and the order of most likely nfl draftees.

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