Stepaniak and Littlejohn live together, grow together

As the Hoosiers’ center and right guard tandem, Hunter Littlejohn and Simon Stepaniak are bonded.

But they don’t just move together on the snap. They live together. They eat massive quantities of Chipotle burritos and Butch’s pizza and sandwiches together. They watch game film but also cheesy romantic comedies together.

Last year, their band of housemates also included 2018 o-line seniors Wes Martin and Brandon Knight.

“We’re all big, slob-like dudes,” Littlejohn said. “We just enjoy being around each other.”

For Stepaniak and Littlejohn, they’ve had five years together, which is moving toward its end as the Hoosiers play their last home game Saturday at Memorial Stadium. IU sits at 7-3, just outside college football’s top 25, wanting to finish strong with wins over No. 12 Michigan, rival Purdue, and whatever bowl opponent comes next.

There’s an opportunity for the two big boys from Ohio to put their final stamp on the Hoosier program. But through the years, it’s undeniable the impression Stepaniak and Littlejohn have already made on each other.

“Living together, I feel like as an o-line, you are bonded every single day, and that helps playing next to each other because you know every guy’s move,” Stepaniak said, including Knight and Martin in that equation.

“So we were all living as a unit. We eat, like, six times a day, all together. Chill, watch movies, hang out.”

Eating was a necessity for Stepaniak and Littlejohn, in particular, who needed to gain weight when they first arrived at IU. Martin, a 315-pound guard who matriculated to the Washington Redskins, set a standard there.

The story of Martin’s recruiting visit to IU and a dinner at Janko’s Little Zagreb remains a thing of legend.

“I believe he got a porterhouse steak, a pound of crab legs, along with the meatball appetizer,” Littlejohn said, pausing to remember the rest of Martin’s story, “ — a baked potato, and two pieces of cheesecake. And I think he got another ribeye steak to go or something like that.

“He said he ate every bit of it. The coaches were sitting there like ‘Oh my god, I’ve never seen this before.’”

Littlejohn, Stepaniak, and Knight, who each arrived in 2015, tried to keep up with Martin in consuming calories. Littlejohn and Stepaniak, unlike Knight, redshirted their freshman seasons and used open weekends to their advantage.

“Me and Simon, we’d make sure that Friday night, Saturday afternoon, we’d eat to the fullest,” Littlejohn said. “That was the first example of us trying to push each other.”

Their competitive spirit transferred to the weight room, where Littlejohn and Stepaniak were linked in every workout. They both emerged as starters during their redshirt sophomore seasons, but it wasn’t for the same coaching staff that recruited them to Bloomington.

Tom Allen replaced Kevin Wilson as head coach late in 2016. Darren Hiller, who eventually replaced Greg Frey as offensive line coach, walked into a unique situation.

“Alright, you have no seniors,” Hiller recalled Allen telling him. “I’m like ‘Woah, that’s going to be interesting.’”

Luckily for Hiller, he spent time recruiting Stepaniak and Littlejohn during his stint as o-line coach at Cincinnati. It wasn’t too difficult to build a relationship with them.

It was also obvious to Hiller that his offensive line group was close. He would hear stories about the rundown house Littlejohn, Stepaniak, Martin, and Knight occupied.

“I think one day Hunter came in and said a pigeon ended up on his bed and there was pigeon crap on his bedspread and that stuff,” Hiller said.

The linemen have fun with each other, including Hiller. Stepaniak imitates his coach’s raspy growl, which teammates also mimic. They have inside jokes, like in fall camp, when senior Coy Cronk flexed each arm. “Judge,” he said with the right. “Judy,” he finished with the left.

But even though the line likes to joke, and certainly likes to eat, they are incredibly serious about their craft. Right after Monday’s practice, Hiller was diving into a film session, dimming the lights as he watched from his “cave.”

Near the end of his two-hour review, Littlejohn opened the door and flipped on the lights. He didn’t see Hiller there.

“What are you doing?” Hiller asked.

Littlejohn had come just to watch film on his own. He just sat and watched his coach flip through plays for the next 15 minutes, and when Hiller left, Littlejohn took up residence in the cave and dove into the film some more.

The senior center will vouch for his roommate’s dedication to the tape, too. Stepaniak is confident enough in the hours he puts in, he had the gall to argue with quarterback Peyton Ramsey, one of the most astute film-watchers on the team, about who had spent more time breaking things down.

“Peyton and Simon were bickering about something. Peyton said ‘I guarantee I’ve watched more film than you this weekend,’ and Simon was just like ‘There’s not a chance,’” Littlejohn said. “It’s nice, because that’s spread amongst other people on the team. Peyton doesn’t need our push by any means. It was just fun to see that competition even today, spread to guys outside of just their room.”

Stepaniak, Littlejohn, and their senior teammates would like to think it’s the standard they helped set that has elevated the Hoosier program to its first winning season since 2007. Even with a season-ending injury to Cronk, and Stepaniak and Littlejohn each missing games to injury, the line has allowed 15 sacks, tied for the fewest in the Big Ten.

Hiller hopes the example of his current seniors will carry over to the next generation of IU linemen. After they are gone, it’s going to be up to players like junior Harry Crider and redshirt sophomore Caleb Jones — roommates themselves — to lead the group.

“It’s one of those deals where it’s the unfortunate part of college football. At some point, they go, and what you have to keep doing is cultivating the leadership and bringing those young guys along,” Hiller said. “At some point, they’re going to be the old guys in the room.”

Stepaniak and Littlejohn, this year’s duo of old guys, want to enjoy the time they have left.

Recently, they chowed down while watching “Let It Show,” a rom-com about high schoolers mingling during a Christmas Eve snowstorm.

“Great movie, great movie,” Stepaniak said, offering a somewhat surprising review from a bearded, tattooed 321-pound man.

But regardless of the specific activity, it’s more about the company for IU’s line.

They enjoy their time together, on and off the field.

“The more you know each other as people, the better you are going to work together and communicate when you are doing your work,” Littlejohn said. “For us, that’s football. I think the chemistry we’ve built as friends has taken us even further on the football field, for sure.”

3 comments

  1. Good Luck to you both and the rest of the senior class…hopefully you all have great success in your careers (NFL or whatever adventures). Last of Kevin Wilson recruits are graduating, this is totally Tom Allen teams now. An I must admit considering the amount of young man that leave programs thru the transfer portal, too see the majority of players stay at Indiana (from the Kevin Wilson) and play for Tom Allen and his staff says a lot about Tom Allen. You have to say the last three years by Indiana standards has been very successful and things seem to be moving in the right way. An everyone must admit that Kevin Wilson and his staff truly did develop some good offensive lineman.

    1. 79,
      One slight correction. This year’s seniors are not KW’s last class. Actually this year’s juniors are his last class. This year’s junior class had already been pretty well recruited when KW separated from IUFB. You might say this year’s senior defensive players were his last class as TA primarily recruited this year’s juniors, but the offensive players who are juniors now, were KW recruits. May be splitting hairs, but it does bear mentioning. TA does get credit for holding onto KW’s last class similar to Archie holding onto TLC’s last class, this year’s juniors.

  2. OL men typically bond better than any other position group due to the need to work together on the field and results being about how the group does. This was a nice article about our OL players and I hope they have influenced next year’s OL to watch film as much as they have. IU has a very good start to an OL next year with Jones, Crider, and Bedford especially if Cronk comes back and gets moved to guard.

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