IU’s 2021 class the blend of talent, attitude Allen desires

As Indiana coach Tom Allen talked about what his 2021 recruiting class could add, he stepped back a handful of years to the Class of 2016.

Allen, newly installed as IU’s defensive coordinator, was pulling video clips from the Mississippi-Alabama All-Star Game, trying to prove to the rest of the Hoosiers’ staff that a 6-foot-4, 280-pound defensive tackle from Bassfield, Miss., was worth recruiting.

Jerome Johnson had no Division I offers at the time. More than four years later — on the very Wednesday Allen introduced his 2021 class — Johnson was named a first-team All-Big Ten defensive tackle. But in 2016, Allen had to scrounge for tape to sell him.

“That’s why Signing Day is awesome and it’s a great thing, but man, it’s the beginning,” Allen said. “This is the start of it all, not the end of it all.”

So while Allen is pleased with the potential of his 2021 class, including a four-star quarterback, Donaven McCulley, and a four-star receiver, Jaquez Smith, and highly regarded in-state prospects like Joshua Sales, Aaron Steinfeldt, and Cooper Jones, it’s just the start.

IU has built to No. 7 in the national rankings, in a position to possibly make a New Year’s Six bowl game, by finding players like Johnson, who were overlooked and undervalued. Athletes who weren’t considered the “headliners” of the 2021 class today may become the best of the group, like first-team All-Big Ten linebacker Micah McFadden, who was unranked nationally in 2018. Ty Fryfogle, named the Big Ten’s top receiver Tuesday, was just a two-star prospect in 2017.

As of Wednesday, IU’s national ranking for the 2021 recruiting class doesn’t look impressive. The Hoosiers are No. 61 in the country, according to 247Sports, including No. 12 in the Big Ten. But those numbers are deceiving, because this was, by design, a smaller class. The average prospect rating for this group is .865, the best IU has recorded, and markedly improved from last year’s .850.

On top of that, the 2021 class was compiled before the Hoosiers’ 6-1 season. The limelight the Hoosiers captured in 2020 may not yield its greatest reward until the 2022 recruiting class comes together.

“We have been planning and building for that,” Allen said. “That’s where I see the true benefit and the change of what we’re able to do, and who we attract here based on on-field performance, is the ’22 class and beyond.”

That stream of thought, however, brought Allen back to Jerome Johnson. Star ratings are only worth so much. Allen wants a certain type of athlete, and he believes he found those players in the 2021 class.

It starts with McCulley, the Lawrence North quarterback, who IU offered before any other school.

“We saw that natural, quick release that you just can’t coach,” Allen said. “He’s a 6-4, 6-5 guy, and he was long and lean as a younger player, but it was just the physical part, you watch, and you see how effortlessly he throws the football, and you just knew he was going to get better and better, and he did.”

McCulley captured a couple of themes from Allen’s comments Wednesday. One, he’s an in-state player, and Allen noted that IU secured four of the state’s top 11 prospects in 2021.

Two, McCulley isn’t just a football player. Allen recalled how McCulley, who led Lawrence North to rare success in football, also hit game-winning shots in the postseason for his basketball team. He brought up Bloomington North’s 6-foot-5, 235-pound tight end in the same vein.

Steinfeldt also stars in basketball and baseball.

“I want guys who play multiple sports,” Allen said. “I’d really prefer that we get athletes that know how to compete in different sports and have to shoot free throws with maybe very few seconds left on the clock, or have to be at the plate when it’s 3-2, bases loaded, two outs, whatever. You gotta be able to function.

“You can’t create that competitive spirit in a kid laying on his back and doing bench press in the springtime.”

Cooper Jones, the defensive lineman from Valparaiso, has played basketball, too. In athletes like Jones, Steinfeldt, and McCulley, Allen sees athletes who are competitive but also have a higher upside as football players. Jones, at 6-5, 260 pounds, has a very projectable frame.

“When he called and said he wanted to be a Hoosier, I went nuts on the phone, because I knew he was our kind of guy,” Allen said. “He’s big, he’s athletic, he plays basketball. But he’s tough. He plays so hard. He’s so physical. And he cares so much.”

When recruiting experts look at in-state athletes like McCulley, Jones, Steinfeldt, and Brownsburg offensive tackle Joshua Sales, they see intriguing prospects.

“Those guys are all high-upside guys,” 247Sports national recruiting analyst Steve Wiltfong said. “Steinfeldt, you can see him having the same career as a Peyton Hendershot, a multi-sport kid, big body, athletic, was probably under-recruited living in Bloomington. Josh Sales was a heckuva recruiting win. He’s really only been a good player for two years. He’s still developing, learning the tackle position.

“You beat out Iowa for Cooper Jones, among other people. He’s that lunch-pail guy that can help you control the line of scrimmage.”

IU was also able to land two running backs, a bigger, more power-oriented model in Trenten Howland, and a speedster in David Holloman. Wiltfong also points to Virginia’s Maurice Freeman as a “tone-setter” at safety.

“Tom Allen and his staff have proven that they obviously know what they are looking for on the trail, and this a group, when you turn on the film of a lot of these guys, you can see that hardcore tenacity,” Wiltfong said. “There’s a lot of ferocious football players in this class.”

IU may have reeled in some highly-rated recruits, but Allen comes back to attitude. He was asked specifically about Smith, a 6-1, 195-pound receiver from Georgia, who was rated as the No. 26 receiver nationally by 247Sports.

Allen contrasted his new four-star receiver with his current big-play receiver, a former two-star, Fryfogle.

“Ty came here and he decided, man, I’m going to work my tail off. That’s what we expected him to do when he got here, and that’s what he did,” Allen said. “That’s going to be the same for him. Jaquez has to get here and he’s gotta work. It’s about, hey, what do you want, how hard are you willing to work to get that thing you want, and what are you willing to sacrifice to get that thing?”


  1. Obviously no defections from the verbal commits, but were there any surprise gets? Man, it’s such a small class, suggesting that there will be a lot of talented players in front of these incoming freshman.

    1. No surprises, Podunker. No defections. No adds. Just everyone we’ve reported as committed previously.

  2. Can’t wait to see how IU’s success this season affects recruiting for the class of 2022. It should be an interesting list of players who verbally commit to IU in the coming months.

  3. Great article, Jon. Really happy with the Hoosier signees. Wondered if there’s any space left, there’s a lot of interesting players entering the transfer portal – particularly here in the South.

  4. I see that our two former verbal commits for the class of 2021, Aubrey Burks and Rodney McGraw, signed with Virginia Tech and Penn State, respectively. Interesting that McGraw, an in-state kid, would sign with PSU, a program in decline, over IU, a program that is clearly on the rise. As for Burks, I hope he realizes that Big 12 teams are not known for playing good defense. Maybe he felt the other safeties IU were recruiting are better. Who knows, but I always find it interesting how a young man can “commit” and then weeks or months later, change their mind. I guess “verbal commitment” is not really the appropriate term.

  5. I like the make up of this class as it has talent and hitters. We will have to wait and see how they develop here at IU. There attitude and approach to work in class and in football will determine how good this group turns out to be.

    At some point class #s need to be more balanced as 2021 and 2022 are both small classes. 2023 will be a very big class so I imagine coach will work on evening out the classes.

    For those concerned about recruiting, coach Allen stated in an Indy Star article that the success of this season will start to show up in the 2022 class because IU had committed to the 2021 class already. IU needs to have another great year next year to show recruits this isn’t a one shot team but a team on the rise.

    1. I remember the same thing was said about the 2021 class. Do you think this class was achieved based on the 2019 results or are you saying it came in below expectations?

  6. V13, if Penix and or Tuttle stay healthy, IU should have another winning season in 2021. We’ll probably lose some special talent on offense (i.e., two excellent receivers), but we have a grad transfer (who is a true burner) and a 4-star freshman receiver arriving. Assuming we get a quality DC to replace Wommack, IU’s defense could be even better next season.

    It bothers me a little bit to advocate for this, but next year TA needs to start running up the score whenever possible. It appears that “sportsmanship” is not rewarded by those who rank teams and the committee who choose teams for the playoffs. And therefore, bigger margins of victory have an influence on recruiting better talent.

  7. PO, I don’t like running up the score against teams that are lacking in talent but B1G teams should be full go until the end of the game.

    1. I can’t help but chuckle to the idea of IU Football running up a score….I’ll also be waiting for Santa to come down the chimney. Later, Scarlett Johansson will be over for a festive dinner. We’ll no sooner be roasting chestnuts and taking in some Nat King Cole. The snow will be falling so heavily that she’ll have to take residence in the guest quarters….which has an adjoining door to the master suite. For whatever reason, the heating system is not working properly in the guest quarters…..and there will be a knock at the door. “Do you have an extra blanket?”

  8. I don’t like it either, but it seems it has become necessary. If IU is playing an inferior team and the game is well in hand, I advocate playing the back-ups. But if you’re going to play back-ups, allow them to play hard and increase the margin of victory. Having a back-up QB hand the ball off 15 times in a row is a waste of an opportunity.

  9. Yeah, Lou Holtz used to get annoyed as those who accused him of running up the score even though he put in subs late in the game. Can’t tell the lads to practice hard all week and then sluff off when they finally get in a game. Although Holtz did like to mess with the betting line now and then . . . .

  10. Congrats to TA. The only 2 areas where IU is lacking, by national championship standards, are the sizes, depth and quality of the interior line personnel, both O and D. I have been disappointed in particular with Hiller’s inability to sucessfully bring in solid 4* bodies. ‘Coaching up’ marginal sized, mid level recruits has its limitations in the trenches. If IU is somehow able to upgrade the ‘bigs’,….they will be in a position to dethrone the ‘evil ones’ from Columbus. Not until. Yes, I’m aware of 2* Micah McFadden’s great season as an undersized MLB,….but like Mike Singleterry, former undersized team leader of the Bears,..size isn’t the determining factor.

  11. Brad, I agree better OL/DL play is needed for IU to make the next step but wonder if OL play is more an issue about scheme as much as players. The days of power running plays are over and IU had a very good running game under coach Wilson – they just weren’t good in short yardage plays. Unless you are superior at each position on the OL compared to defensive fronts trying to power fronts off the ball is a big hill to climb. I also wish coach Sheridan would see that when the OL was in a three point stance IU did move players off the LOS creating holes for RB to exploit. If IU is going to continue 2 pt stances most of the time, the scheme needs to reflect that driving defenses off the LOS isn’t the goal.

    1. You teach and coach to the scheme, V. If you can’t block it, you’re either running the wrong scheme, have the wrong guys running it, or you’re teaching it wrong. You’ve mentioned going with a hand down, but that’s not the scheme they want to run in most of their sets. They want wider splits and guys who don’t have to come up into pass pro. It’s not now or has it ever been about blowing guys off the ball. This isn’t Wisconsin and Iowa, and it’s not designed to be. Again, it’s wider splits that are meant to create seams but also to give guys a chance in pass pro.

      1. BD, I came up the coaching tree under coaches that believed in wide splits to create running lanes. The problem is you make the blocks one on one and you also give blitzing players more room to shoot into the backfield. I believed in line splits too until we played Hobart and worked hard stopping their running attack. Watching film I was shocked that they did so well on the run with one foot splits on then line. When I changed my offense to feature a reading back I went to the one foot splits and found it was easier for my OL to dbl team and chip blocks.

        IU will go with what their philosophy is, I just think with coach Allen talking about an improved running game each year they should be looking at their current system as part of the problem. It just seems they are beating their heads against the wall with little improvement in the run game from year to year.

        1. Plenty of teams run some version of a spread and run the ball quite effectively. If they’re emphasizing the run game (they are) and not getting the results they want (they aren’t), Allen and several members of his staff need to find a mirror.

    2. In my humble opinion, even though coach TA has publicly voiced aporoval for his OL coordinator, ….Hiller is an ‘okay’ ..average X/O instructor. It appears when watching game ‘reruns’ that there lacks coordinated line movement…the old ‘string tied to their waist’ thing. For those on here that suggest the level of recruit is adequate in size and skill….call up Day, Sweeny and Saban,…ask if they want to switch units? IU, with a #7 AP/Coaches ranking should be able to walk through the front door of any 4* kid’s home ( likely not a 5 yet) sell the ‘love’ and sign ’em. They need guys at 90+ not 83, 84 85 or 86 with 247 ratings.

      1. I think it is fair to say that Hiller is an O.K. O-line coach. Not great, not bad, and probably not as good as his predecessor, Greg Frey. But Frey left IU to go to Michigan for a lot more money. Then, after a year at MI, he jumped to coach the O-line at Florida State, his alma mater. Before he got fired by FSU, he was making about $630,000. He alleges that Willie Taggert lied to him until after the 2019 recruiting cycle was complete, then fired him so Taggart could hire Randy Clements from Houston, who was hired by Houston after Hiller flipped to IU (it’s a small world). So with no job, Frey was a quality analysis at Florida for a year and then got hired by Duke last January. So my question is, can IU afford to hire a better O-line coach? And if they found one from the “up & coming” category that had more upside, how long could they keep him?

  12. Brad, you’re right about IU needing to continue upgrading the talent on both the O-line and the D-line, but I disagree that IU’s O-line is undersized. Keep in mind that two of last season’s O-linemen are on NFL rosters this season, and IU has one of the largest men in college FB playing tackle. The O-line recruits coming in have above average size for Big Ten players.

    As for the D-line, I agree that some of the guys could be bigger, but that position group was not a weakness for this year’s team.

    Four decades ago, when I had a very minor roll in helping IU FB recruit, an IU coach told me linemen were the hardest players to find. While there are lot of gifted athletes that play the skill positions, there are relatively few athletic big men. And many teenagers possessing the size and athleticism to become effective O-linemen grow up playing basketball.

    It’s all about recruiting, and TA has proven he and his staff are effective recruiters. We’ll see in the class of 2022 if he and his staff have elevated recruiting to the next level.

  13. After watching Ball State vs. Buffalo tonight, I must say IU Football looks far removed from its days appearing as a ‘MAC’ team.
    Not saying this year still doesn’t come with a substantial asterisk, but we’ve turned a corner with athleticism and speed. I suppose Wilson and Allen deserve much of the praises for making that leap.

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