What kind of improvement can Kevin Wilson expect in year two? (Photo by Mark A. Cunningham/Getty Images)
We here at Maize n Brew do our best to keep up to date on everything going on around the Big Ten, but it is a big conference and sometimes you just gotta confront the fact that you don't know it all.
In doing that I decided to get input from someone who does. John, lead man over at The Crimson Quarry was kind enough to answer a few questions I had about Indiana football, new coach Kevin Wilson, and what Indiana needs to do to turn into a solid Big Ten football program.
Kevin Wilson's first year probably didn't go as well as you and the rest of the Indiana fan base wanted. The 2010 team was just one win away from a bowl game and following that up with a winless year against FBS teams didn't seem likely. I had Indiana penciled in for 4 wins in 2011. Were there warning signs that foreshadowed what was coming last year, or was it just a matter of both the really winnable games (North Texas and Ball State) being front loaded on the schedule for a team breaking in a new coach, and the rest of the Big Ten --- outside of Minnesota who wasn't on the schedule --- being better than expected?
I'll admit that I was hoping for more, based mostly on the schedule. The North Texas and Ball State losses remain tough to swallow, and I thought the Big Ten schedule set up nicely, with the more beatable teams visiting Bloomington. Still, as much as everyone knew that IU would miss Ben Chappell, I really didn't anticipate how much of a problem the QB position would be for most of the season or how bad the defense would be. There's always hope that a transition year will look like what Michigan had last year, or what Purdue experienced in 1997, Joe Tiller's first year, but the reality is that most coaches, whether they will ultimately fail or will ultimately succeed, don't do all that well in the W-L columns in year one.
While there has been a lot of turnover at the skill positions in the last couple years, it seems like Indiana is finally set with a solid trio of players who can move the ball. Quarterback Tre Roberson, running back Stephen Houston, and receiver Kofi Hughes all seemed to break out at different times last year. What do you expect from these three in the second year under Wilson's offense and the first as the presumed number ones going into the season?
I do feel very good about all three of those guys, especially Houston, because it's been a long time since IU has had a traditional running back (i.e., not a running quarterback and not an outside-the-tackles guy like Marcus Thigpen and not someone as fragile as Darius Willis was) who was so productive and injury-free. On the other hand, producing quality offensive skill position players hasn't been all that much of a problem for IU over the last 15 years. The offensive line, and to a greater extent the defense, have been the issues.
On to Roberson specifically: I was very impressed with the way he handled the starting role after Dusty Kiel and Edward Wright-Baker went down. Roberson stepped into a tough job without a lot of help and found a way to keep Indiana's offense producing while not giving the job up when the other quarterbacks got healthy. Is Roberson the long-term answer at quarterback in this rebuilding period? Are you worried that the loss of quarterback coach Rod Smith to Arizona will hurt Roberson's development this offseason?
I was impressed as well. I hate to sound like one of those writers who thinks he can look into a guy's eyes and see if he has "that special something," but I really was struck with how confident and non-rattled Roberson seemed to be most of the time. Of course, he made some mistakes, but he's obviously a great talent and seems to be a natural leader as well. I think that whether Roberson is the long-term answer will depend in large part on how quickly he can progress as a passer. Wilson brought in a junior college QB, Cameron Coffman, who apparently played well in the spring game and may well push Roberson for the starting job this year. If there's one thing that doesn't concern me about this team, it's the quality of the offensive coaching staff. Losing Smith was a disappointment, but the new OC, Seth Littrell, produced some quality offenses at Arizona (yep, IU and Arizona traded OCs) and given Kevin Wilson's background, I have confidence on that side of the ball.
More after the jump.
Defense wins championships, and that is no less true in the Big Ten where Ohio State has controlled the conference for most of the last decade with a suffocating defense, and every other conference title challenger in recent memory outside of Wisconsin has been known for its defense. To that end, Indiana's defense has been somewhere between bad and non-existant for a long time. Last year's defense was perhaps the worst in all of the big-six conferences. What is it going to take for Indiana to build up a solid defense, and do you expect any noticeable improvement this year?
Of course, it all begins with talent and experience. As ugly as last season was, at least a bunch of returning players gained some experience. Above, I mentioned juco transfer Cameron Coffman. IU brought in 7 juco recruits, and all of them but Coffman are defensive players. I don't think IU will be able to lean on the defense in the next couple of years. If IU is going to make progress in the win column, it's going to be mostly because of the offense. But hopefully, the defense can become conventionally below average rather than the trainwreck of last season.
The big news around the conference these last few months has been mostly centered around the recruiting efforts of UM, OSU, and Penn State. What do you think of Kevin Wilson's recruiting so far? Indiana isn't known for producing a high level of football talent, so do you think Wilson can go outside the state lines to bring kids to Indiana? Are there any big recruiting targets that Indiana is going for in 2013?
I read your post on it from yesterday (see DGDestroy's take here), and I think your assessment is pretty fair. His classes haven't been disastrous, but they have been ranked at or near the bottom of the Big Ten. Finding recruits who have fallen through the cracks is a pretty big part of turning IU around, and looking to the juco ranks has to be part of the solution as well, I think. I don't know of any current targets that IU is pursuing that would attract the attention of fans of the big three. Gunner Kiel seemed to be our shot at that, but obviously it didn't work out.
Now, this is ostensibly a football preview, but I would be remiss if I didn't at least ask one question about the basketball team. Indiana is the odds on favorite to win the conference next year and should be a consensus top-five team. First, I can only imagine how good this feels after everything that has happened to Indiana's basketball program over the past decade. Second, do you think Indiana is a legit national title contender, or are there some areas of the team that you are still unsure about? Finally, is anything less than a Big Ten title and a Final Four birth going to be a colossal disappointment?
It feels great, obviously. Especially after knocking off Kentucky and Ohio State in December, I recall thinking, "eight weeks ago I wasn't sure IU had what it took to win a road game against Evansville." People with no incentive to say so (national columnists, oddsmakers in Vegas) are rating IU number one for the upcoming season. After three years of lots and lots of losing, the 2011-12 season and the buildup to 2012-13 have been very fun. I do think that IU is a legitimate title contender, but the play on the defensive side of the ball will be the key to an ability to move from good to great. IU's offense was one of the best in the country last season, and nearly everyone responsible for that efficiency will be back. Still, there were some pretty bad defensive performances last season. The other nagging feeling I have is, "hey, we went 12-20 two seasons ago." Without looking it up, I would think that winning the title just two years after such a horrid season would have to be close to unprecedented.
I'm not going to throw down arbitrary goals for the season. Of course, I hope that IU wins the conference and makes it to the Final Four. But if IU goes 15-3, and Michigan or MSU puts together an incredible season and goes 16-2, I'm not going to be heartbroken. As for the Final Four, the Tournament in any given year always produces some strange results, so if IU lands a #1 seed but falls in a particularly tough matchup in the Sweet 16, it's not the end of the world. I'm very excited about the upcoming season, but I'm not desperate. The best way to make it to Final Fours and to win championships is to routinely contend for such things. I feel very good about the direction of the program on the court, off the court, and on the recruiting trail. I would love to see IU win it all next year, but I don't feel like it's a once-in-generation opportunity.
Back to football. What are your expectations for this year's team, both in terms of overall record, competitiveness within the conference, and offensive and defensive production?
It's hard to say. As I said above, I had some schedule-based optimism in 2011, but now IU faces the mirror image of that schedule. The most beatable Big Ten teams on IU's schedule, would appear to be, in no particular order, Illinois, Northwestern, and Purdue, but IU faces those teams on the road. The home schedule (MSU, OSU, Iowa, and Wisconsin) is daunting. Given the disappointing losses to North Texas and Ball State last year, the three games I consider non-negotiable are Indiana State, Ball State, and UMass. I'm not saying that I will call for Kevin Wilson's head if IU drops one of those, but there's no excuse for overlooking anyone on the schedule. Beyond that, if IU could pick up one or two more wins through some combination of the road trip to Navy and the Big Ten schedule, I would feel as if there had been some progress. I don't think it's a year in which IU will make great strides in the conference, although I hope I am wrong.
As I mentioned above, I feel reasonably good about the offense for a number of reasons. As for the defense, I'm not expecting a miracle, but it has to be better. I understand that IU will have a talent deficiency compared to most or all Big Ten opponents, but last year's defense looked lost, even to an untrained eye like mine. In short, I would like to competence on the defensive side of the ball even at times when the defense isn't being particularly effective.
Looking farther down the line, what do you think Kevin Wilson has to accomplish to keep his job? I always thought Bill Lynch was given a short leash considering how long Indiana had been bad before he got there (the Terry Hoeppner years not withstanding). Is it bowl game or bust for Wilson? Will the locals settle down and be more patient with the football team now that the basketball team is winning again? What is the best case scenario for Indiana football five years from now?
I'll have to disagree with you on Bill Lynch. While IU isn't a plum job by any stretch, usually IU can do better than a coach who has been fired by a MAC school. Lynch never would have been a serious candidate for the IU job, or probably any FBS job, in a conventional coaching search. Rather, Lynch happened to be holding the clipboard when Terry Hoeppner died. Lynch did a nice job with the 2007 team (a team that I think Hoeppner could have led to 9 wins), but never really capitalized on that success. It takes a special coach to have any measure of success at IU. I thought you were a little rough on Bill Mallory in Monday's post. Mallory's overall record at IU is sub .500 because he went 4-18 in his first two years and 5-17 in his last two years, but in between, he had a solid 9 year run in which he won nearly 60 percent of his games. Mallory had a fantastic resume--part of the staff for Woody Hayes's 1968 national champs, won a Big 8 title at Colorado, etc. It's not surprising that Mallory has been IU's most successful postwar coach. Anyone who took a blind look at the pre-IU resumes of IU coaches would be able to predict that. To circle back to my point, there was simply nothing in Lynch's pre-IU career or his IU career that suggesting that he was the special sort of coach who would help IU overcome 120 years of mostly middling-to-bad football. The only justifications for hiring Lynch were momentum and continuity, and once those rationales were gone, what would have been the point of keeping him?
And that brings me back to Kevin Wilson. There is always some risk associated with hiring someone who hasn't been a head coach before, but his resume is outstanding. I do think that his transition from assistant to head coach didn't go all that smoothly, but he's had some quality mentors in his career, and hopefully he will figure it out. I don't see his leash as particularly short. IU has had so much turnover in the athletic department that all of IU's coach firings in the last couple of decades have been by ADs who didn't hire the head coach. Wilson is IU AD Fred Glass's guy, and I don't anticipate that Glass will be going anywhere. Assuming modest improvement in wins and losses, I don't think Wilson will be feeling any heat in the near term. Five years from now, I would like to see IU in a position of regularly, if not perennially, qualifying for minor bowls, with the ability to make a run at a New Year's Day bowl every so often (I'm talking Gator or Outback, not BCS). It won't be easy, but considering that every other Big Ten program has managed to do something to that effect in recent years, I refuse to believe that it is impossible for IU.
Thanks again to John for answering my questions and providing some very valuable insight into Indiana football (and basketball). If you don't already have it bookmarked, be sure to head over to The Crimson Quarry for all your Indiana sports needs.