Before Kevin Wilson, there was Bill Lynch. And under Bill Lynch, the pinnacle came in Year 1. The 2007 Hoosiers went 7-6, and lost the Insight Bowl by three scores. It may not seem like much, but the Hoosiers haven't even made it to a bowl since.
For Indiana, success is gauged a little differently. That 2007 season? It was Indiana's best since 1994. The last time Indiana won 10 games? Actually ... it's never happened. Convincing talent to come to Bloomington, and then convincing them to stick around long enough to even think about developing a reputation for something, has proven to be tough. Only one person has really come close - Bill Mallory, who won back-to-back Coach of the Year Awards in 1986 and '87 and coached the Hoosiers to a top-20 finish in '88, is the winningest coach in IU history with a 69-77-3 career record. So while Kevin Wilson hasn't exactly been successful - he's 14-34 in four seasons - the potential that Wilson has imbued into this roster is enough to ensure a possibility of winning - and, perhaps, something other than apathy.
For an Indiana fan, Nate Sudfeld is The Answer. Accurate with the deep ball, knowledgeable in the offense, a veteran in the locker room - Sudfeld gives an offensive coordinator the greatest possible asset, and that is that he makes the right decisions most of the time. It's easy for an offense to succeed with Sudfeld at the helm, and that's evidenced by the 165 points they scored in his five complete games (by contrast, Indiana scored 107 in the next seven games when he was injured).
A microcosm of Sudfeld's 2014 season came in the early going against Maryland, a rough outing statistically for the junior. On 3rd and 11, pressure came from both edges, pinching Sudfeld in the pocket. He tucked the ball, ready to run, but his linemen got control of their assignments. A split second after tucking the ball, he was back in his stance, looking down the field, and rifled a pass to true freshman Dominique Booth. It was a perfectly thrown ball, fit into a tight window, and Dominique dove away from coverage and came up with it. However, the referees conferred and said that Booth actually dropped the pass. Not only did IU have to punt, but Booth got injured on the attempt.
Frankly, it's easy sometimes to forget about what Nate can do - you could say he's in a brotherhood with Braxton Miller and Joel Stave in that regard. But if you projected his numbers from 2014 to a theoretical full season, he'd have performed at a baseline similar to Tommy Armstrong, Jr.: 2,600 yards, about twice as many touchdowns as interceptions. With a better cast of receiving options, it's likely that Sudfeld's production gets a bump to being top-five in the conference. And Sudfeld will be remembered for putting it all together.
The depth at running back is a reminder of the narrow ledge Kevin Wilson is walking. But, we'll get to that in a second.
Jordan Howard, the transfer from UAB, is similar to Tevin Coleman in a lot of ways, although he's less explosive. The footwork is a little slower; the open-field speed won't be enough to break away from Vonn Bell or Eric Murray. But Jordan is as durable as a Chevy truck, and the speed and agility is very impressive for a 225-pounder. So while Howard probably doesn't score 15 touchdowns like Coleman a year ago, he gives Kevin Wilson a very good runner to take pressure off of Sudfeld and the passing attack. In fact, this may be the most multi-dimensional offense Wilson has been able to field - a dangerous thought.
It's fortunate for Wilson that Howard made his way to Bloomington at the expense of UAB football, because the options after him probably aren't ready. D'Angelo Roberts was a veteran backup to Tevin Coleman, but Roberts is also gone now, leaving first- and second-year players like Devine Redding, Tommy Mister and Devonte Williams. Like Diamont, all of them flash some abilities much better than their respective three-star rankings. Redding, the most experienced, has all the physical tools, but he's still learning the blocking schemes and probably can't be a feature back this year. Tommy Mister was a quarterback when he played last. And Devonte Williams isn't on campus yet.
There's enough young talent behind the durable Howard to say Wilson probably could have fielded an above-average offense without him. Last year, Indiana managed with Zander Diamont for long stretches and did pretty well after a rough three or four games. But for a coach on the hot seat, and a roster that needs a lot of coaching, Howard's transfer was a godsend.
With early departures for the NFL and other attrition, receiver wasn't the same in 2014. Shane Wynn was a terrific slot receiver who wasted away on the outside, since the team had no other reliable options. The second receiver, Nick Stoner, had only 217 yards and caught only 50% of his passes. The next three guys - J-Shun Harris II, Simmie Cobbs, and Dominique Booth - were true freshmen.
Now, the youth movement is in full bloom, but there will be more options this time around. UAB gave Kevin Wilson a receiver, as well, and a handful of other players earned redshirts. Even more will make it on campus this fall. Suddenly, there's depth (yes, depth) at a position where it's easy to see the field early. Will it be Camion Patrick who breaks out - the former four-star Tennessee commit who has overcome family and school problems? Will it be Marqui Hawkins, the 6'2", 217-pounder uprooted from UAB? Or Nick Westbrook, the 6'3" speedster who was called "too good" for Indiana? All of these players give Sudfeld the kind of tall receivers he had in his successful 2013 campaign.
This has continued to be one of the underrated units in the conference. Pundits have praised Tevin Coleman for 2,000+ yards even when opponents knew the Hoosiers would run, but part of the reason for that (one-dimensional) success lies with these guys. And most of these guys are back.
Jason Spriggs is a star left tackle who, despite just turning 21, is a senior with a track record of durability. Another couple, more anonymous linemen are right guard Dan Feeney, who has a great all-around game, and Dimitric Camiel, who has played everywhere but left tackle and center. There's depth, there's technique, there's fantastic communication between these guys. Offensive coordinator Kevin Johns has to replace a starting center and a key player in David Kaminski, but with their philosophy of giving guys experience early and spreading snaps around, it's hard to be worried that they'll somehow not replace them.
If you love watching big guys, this group will be fun to watch. First, you have Nate Hoff, a 6'2" nose tackle who was second on the team in sacks a year ago. He's listed at 300 pounds, but it's a lean 300 pounds in the body of a former all-state wrestler. It doesn't help that Brian Knorr plugs him in at the zero-technique, so he's literally going one-on-one with the center, generally the weakest link on the line.
Then, Darius Latham is a great athlete at 6'5", 305, and Ralph Green III is a 6'5", 315-pound defensive end. Nick Mangieri and Adarius Rayner are great, too. Kevin Wilson put it simply: "The line will be a strength."
However, as is the case with most 3-4 lines, don't expect too many sacks from these guys. This defense puts pressure on the linebackers to make plays, and there may be some plays left on the field. The back seven will be the weakness opponents can exploit.
The star here is T.J. Simmons, who at 6'0", 233, excelled as an athlete at middle linebacker. Of course, if there were big gashes against Indiana's defense, Simmons was sometimes the reason why - he takes some poor angles and lacks a subtle concept of timing as a play unfolds. Right now, he's a missile, and though he has the potential to be one of the better 'backers in the league, the discipline and knowledge aren't there.
With Tegray Scales, a 6'0", 220-pounder, they have another athlete who can move in space. After that, you have a couple guys who always seem to not make a play: senior run-stuffer Zack Shaw (6'3", 252), senior SAM Clyde Newton (6'1", 230). Shaw is a former four-star commit who moves like a 235-pounder (I'm not sure how much of a compliment that is), but something is missing in his diagnosing skills. The staff will put him up at the line, but he doesn't make plays around the ball.
After this group, there is a little bit of young blood that might make an impact, though the problems with this group won't be solved by young blood; they need comfort, experience, and instincts. Still, redshirt freshman Nile Sykes is an intriguing breakout candidate.
Depth has been mentioned here several times as Indiana's biggest enemy. And in overall talent, there's nowhere that Indiana loses more than in their defensive backfield. Michael Hunter and Tim Bennett were a really underrated cornerback duo, and Mark Murphy was a physical four-year starting safety. A defense that's hoping to redefine itself is at a real risk of giving up buckets through the air.
And, as I've said for a number of positions, this unit is young, and needs to learn how to harness its athleticism. Four-star Rashard Fant is entering his second year, as is high-three-star Chase Dutra. The only veteran is Antonio Allen, who I trust a little bit more at strong safety despite his size (5'10", 205). He has a good body for making hits, but he's stiff in space. Allen has also given up more than his fair share of long runs.
The term 'athleticism' has to be given loosely, though, for a group of three-star commits who don't have much playing time. Make no mistake, this will be the Achilles heel of a team with postseason hopes. I'm confident they can eventually be good - just not in 2015. To succeed, this back seven has to find the communication and knowledge that makes the offensive line work so smoothly, and makes Nate Sudfeld and Kevin Wilson's playbook such a deadly combo. Because after the wall that the Hoosiers have built at the line of scrimmage, there's a whole lot of green to defend.