Jones in better shape this spring, ready to attack 2021

As an in-state product, Caleb Jones has been a proud representative of Indiana football the last several years.

The 6-foot-8, 355-pound offensive tackle could head home for the offseason after an eight-win campaign in 2019, or the pandemic-shortened, six-win season of 2020, with his head held very high on his very broad shoulders.

But the chorus Jones has heard isn’t all positive. “What happened? What happened?” the Hoosiers’ big man recalled hearing from his former Lawrence North classmates after IU dropped Jan. 2 bowl games in consecutive seasons. “Why didn’t you guys … ? Why didn’t you guys … ?” also echoed in Jones’ ears.

“I think it brings about a level of focus and tenacity toward what we want to do next season and the goals we want to achieve,” Jones said. “Two years in a row, we didn’t finish. And this year, it can’t be that same way.”

Last season was undoubtedly a good one for IU, but Jones thinks back and knows it could have been better. Especially for himself.

Without the structure of a normal offseason, Jones found it harder to keep himself in good shape. By the end of the season — after missing three consecutive games in the middle of it — Jones was playing at around 395 pounds. That weight is carriable for a man as massive as Jones, but it doesn’t allow an athlete to be as quick and nimble as Division I football requires.

He’s down about 40 pounds this spring, determined to cut another five to 10 before he steps on the field next fall.

“Now that I’ve gotten to a weight that I kind of feel good at, it’s about refining my technique and making sure I’m just taking every opportunity and every advantage that I can in spring ball,” Jones said. “Just trying to make sure I can be the best me I can be next season.”

With players like Jones in the fold, IU has an opportunity to build strength along the line. Jones and fellow offensive tackle Matthew Bedford have each started the majority of the last two seasons, while former junior college product Luke Haggard received extended snaps in Jones’ absence. On the interior, center Harry Crider has moved on, but grad transfer Dylan Powell, freshman Mike Katic, and sixth-year senior-to-be Mackenzie Nworah have all played.

There were times last season where IU struggled to establish a run game, and Mike Penix Jr. and Jack Tuttle were under duress more than the Hoosiers probably would have liked. But IU coach Tom Allen went as far as to say he thinks the offensive line could be a strength this season. Jones doesn’t disagree.

“We do have a lot of guys coming back that have a lot of game experience and, of course, that’s going to help when it comes to crunch time … and you have to have guys that know what to do out there,” Jones said. “It’s definitely going to be a big advantage for us, knowing we have so many guys coming back.”

The hope, as well, is the Hoosiers are just more prepared up front. Allen acknowledged during the COVID-restricted offseason that linemen may have been more affected than any position group. Skill guys can find a field somewhere and work on speed. Big guys, who tend to enjoy pushing weights around, not running, didn’t have access to gyms. They didn’t have strength coaches there to keep tabs.

Weight has been a longstanding issue for Jones, who arrived at IU as a 405-pound freshman. He worked incredibly hard to trim down, cutting out some chicken wings and other fast food for healthier options. He did all he needed to do in the weight room and embraced “the suck,” as former grad assistant Danny Friend framed it.

But, admittedly, things got away from Jones last season. And not just for him.

“The COVID offseason was definitely one of the toughest offseasons I’ve ever had as a player,” Jones said. “Not having the structure that you’re used to … during my offseasons here, it definitely threw everybody off. It threw me off, as well, trying to make sure I was getting the work done. It was just a real tough offseason, but this year is a lot different.

“We’ve got structure, we’ve got a great strength staff, our coaching staff is here … and we’re really trying to get better out here.”

Coming into the spring, Allen pointed to the Hoosiers’ running game as a point of emphasis, which the line will carry. Last season, the Hoosiers had a bell-cow back in Stevie Scott, but he averaged just 3.6 yards per rush. As a team, IU was the third-worst rushing offense in the Big Ten, producing 108.6 yards per contest.

Again, the COVID-altered season of 2020 may have affected the run phase more than others, because Allen also indicated the playbook was watered down last season. He didn’t want to run the risk of overwhelming backups who might get thrown into the mix because of a positive COVID test.

But if IU’s running scheme can be more complex in 2021, and the offensive line can strengthen, the Hoosiers can become a more well-rounded offense around Penix and his receivers.

There is certainly competition this spring, especially at tackle. Haggard, for one, came to IU as a 260-pound tackle, and he’s bulked up into a 6-7, 291-pound specimen.

“He’s put on the weight, he’s attacked the weight room, he’s attacked the field, and he’s really tried to make himself a good player,” Jones said. “You don’t want to sit there and let your brother work their butt off and you don’t give the same effort. That’s not fair to him. So he definitely pushes us, and I’d say we all push each other, to just become the best players we can.”

Jones definitely doesn’t want to hear the same chorus of “What happened?” after the 2021 season.

“It’s definitely a certain level of excitement that’s just expressed throughout the whole program. But at the same time, more than there is excitement, there’s a level of focus,” Jones said, “because, at the end of the day, we did a lot of good things the last two years, but neither of the last two years did we finish the way we’ve wanted to.

“There’s still goals we need to attack and there’s still games we need to win.”

9 comments

  1. Glad to read about the emphasis on this aspect of the game. The OL is a benchmark of any teams capability on offense. Just look at the Alabamas, Clemsons, OSUs and in the past, USCs of the country. There should still be concern over IU’s ability to interest, nee sign, 4* talent, especially after the last 2 seasons. Hope it changes.

  2. This articles shows how hard the players are working this year and it will pay off in the coming season. Coach McCollough has said the RBs are listening and working hard and it will make the running game better with the improvements in the OL. It is good to hear from all th coaches how keyed in all the players are this year. I am a bit concerned I haven’t heard Sampson’s name called out for good work.

  3. IMO, if IU finishes 12th or 13th in the conference for key rushing stats again, or if Penix and Tuttle are under duress in every Big Ten game next season, we’ll have a new O-line coach in 2022. I hope we all see a lot of improvement from the O-line, because the problems last season were not about the running backs!

  4. Agree that the run blocking really must improve, but dissent from any implication that the IU QBs were under much duress last year. IU was 16th nationally in sacks allowed last year (10 for -51yds) which was best in the conf.

    1. The QBs didn’t get sacked because they got the ball out of their hands despite the pressure on them from defense players. You can just go by sacks allowed to determine how much pressure the QBs got from the defense. Look at the games from last year and see how much pressure the QBs got despite making good passes to the receiver.

      The sack number get distorted by QBs holding the ball too long or by QBs that get the ball out quick. One of the reasons todays passing game focuses on quick passes, no matter where the ball ends up, is to make it easier for the OL and to stress the defense. Teams with very good running games often have passes off the runs because the pass rush is slowed down as defensive players must check the run first.

  5. Quote copied from a story in The Daily Hoosier: “the Hoosiers finished second in the Big Ten East and ranked No. 12 in the nation, they finished 12th in the Big Ten in rushing offense with 108.6 yards per game. They were even worse in yards per carry, finishing 13th in the league with 3.1 yards per attempts.”

    I don’t have time to find and pate it here, but there are also stats that document that IU’s pass protection in 2020, while not terrible, finished in the lower half of the Big Ten conference. I remember it because I was surprised that it was that bad. And yes, as V13 said, the reason there were not more sacks recorded against IU QBs was that they got the ball out of their hands very quickly. IU’s O-line has lots of room for improvement in 2021.

  6. PO- rushing offense was undisputably lousy. Agreed there’s acres of room for improvement. As to sacks allowed, I took my stats from the NCAA web site (couldn’t find that category on the B1G site). Of course sacks allowed isn’t the whole story, but I’m not sure what other pass-protection statistics are out there. You alluded to some such, please do cut and paste when you have time. I know that sportsblabbers talk about “hurries, which I’ve always thought sounded rather suspect. The NFL does keep that stat (QB chased out of a pocket is one measure, that the QB was “rattled,” whatever that means, was another) but the NCAA does not.

    1. By Mike Miller as published in Crimsonquarry.com on January 28, 2021:
      >”Here’s a notion with which we all could agree: Indiana’s offensive line needs to get better.
      Look, it’s not a terrible bunch of blockers up front. In fact, at times during the 2020 season, IU’s play in the trenches was quite good. But overall? Mehhh — and I think that’s probably being kind.
      >Using Pro Football Focus’ blocking grades, the Hoosiers had a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten run-blocking unit and … the absolute worst pass-blocking group in the league. Actually, if you zoom out, IU graded as the second-worst pass-blocking unit among the 65 Power Five schools and ranked No. 122 in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Yeeesh.
      >Here’s how this year’s blocking compares to IU teams in the recent past, per PFF:

      >Pass Blocking (overall grade | Big Ten rank| Power Five rank out of 65)
      2020: 36.0 | No. 14. Big Ten | No. 63 Power Five”

      If you believe his methods of analysis, IU’s O-line in 2020 was not very good at pass-blocking. According to Miller’s analysis, they ranked last in the Big Ten. Just goes to show you how good Penix and Tuttle performed with less than ideal protection.

      Your welcome!

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