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Behind Enemy Lines Preview: The Indiana Hoosiers

Indiana will no longer sneak up on the Big Ten.

NCAA Football: Big Ten Conference Media Days Robert Goddin-USA TODAY Sports

As we get closer to the 2021 football season, we decided to poll other sites on the college football internet to get a sense of where their programs are at. Today’s edition welcomes Mike Miller of Crimson Quarry to preview the Indiana Hoosiers.

Here is the full rundown from Miller on what the Hoosiers bring back and how the fanbase feels about their outlook moving forward.

Your team’s key departures

-Jamar Johnson, jr., free safety: A fifth-round draft pick of the Denver Broncos, Johnson was a ballhawk on the back end of an opportunistic IU defense.

-Whop Philyor, sr., receiver: Slot man and one of the top targets for IU quarterback Michael Penix.

-Jerome Johnson, sr., defensive tackle: Johnson was IU’s top D-lineman in each of the past three seasons, capping his career with four sacks, 4.5 tackles for loss and one interception in his final campaign.

-Harry Crider, sr., offensive line: Crider’s ability to play both guard and center gave IU some trusted versatility up front in recent seasons. After seeing the bulk of his snaps at left guard in 2019, Crider was exclusively a center in 2020.

Your team’s key returnees

-Michael Penix jr., quarterback: Considered one of the five best returning quarterbacks in the country by Pro Football Focus, Penix has demonstrated he has the arm and the offensive command to be a difference-maker for IU. The biggest question is whether or not he can finally stay healthy for a full season.

-Ty Fryfogle, sr., receiver: The veteran went from operating as IU’s second- or third-best receiving option to the top pass catcher in the Big Ten in 2020, becoming the first Hoosier to receive the Richter-Howard Receiver of the Year Award. Back-to-back big games against Michigan State and Ohio State in November made him the first player in Big Ten history to record consecutive 200-yard receiving efforts.

-Tiawan Mullen, jr., cornerback: Rarely in the tortured history of Indiana football have the Hoosiers enjoyed having a corner with the skill set of Mullen, who caused havoc with his ability to cover receivers and harass quarterbacks. The first IU corner to earn first-team All-American honors, Mullen led all-Big Ten defensive backs with 3.5 sacks while also recording three interceptions.

-Micah McFadden, sr., linebacker: This former two-star recruit has blossomed into one of the best defenders in the nation. In calling him “the best blitzing off-ball linebacker in college football,” Pro Football Focus graded McFadden as the second-best linebacker among Power Five players at his position.

List a few true freshmen or transfers that will make an instant impact

-D.J. Matthews, sr., receiver: The Florida State transfer projects as the replacement for Philyor in the slot. Matthews, who ranks No. 10 all-time in Seminoles program history with 582 career punt return yards, will also help on special teams.

-Stephen Carr, sr., running back: A former five-star recruit who was ranked as the No. 3 running back nationally in the 2017 recruiting cycle, Carr never quite lived up to his billing during his four seasons at Southern California. Injuries were a factor, and a revolving door of position coaches probably didn’t help either. IU is hoping that a reunion with Deland McCullough, his first college running backs coach, will help him finish strong in Bloomington.

-Jaren Handy, jr., defensive end/outside linebacker: Auburn transfer will be in the mix for snaps at IU’s hybrid “Bull” position.

-Ryder Anderson, sr., defensive line: Versatile transfer from Ole Miss projects to see the bulk of his snaps on the edge.

-Zach Carpenter, so., offensive line: Michigan transfer projects as the starting center approaching the fall.

-Jaquez Smith, fr., receiver: Considered the No. 41 receiver nationally in the 247 Sports Composite, Smith boasted a long and impressive offer list and could work his way onto the depth chart with a strong camp.

Donaven McCulley, fr., quarterback: Ranked as the No. 99 overall recruit nationally by Rivals, -McCulley is IU’s quarterback of the future. Ideally, he won’t need to play this fall.

Brief overview of 2021 team

Is program building in college football a linear process? Indiana sure hopes so. After posting the program’s first eight-win season in 26 years in 2019, the Hoosiers followed up with their most encouraging, exhilarating season in generations in 2020, winning six of their seven regular-season games, cracking the top 10 in the Associated Press poll, and finishing second in the Big Ten East. It was a very, very good season — a dream season, perhaps — for a program that has gradually learned how to win.

Now, though, the Hoosiers won’t be sneaking up on anyone. While IU returns the bulk of its starters from last year — several of them established All-Big Ten caliber players — there are some significant questions that coach Tom Allen’s group needs to answer. The most pressing is whether quarterback Michael Penix, who has suffered season-ending injuries in each of his first three campaigns, can stay healthy enough to play a full season. There’s also concern about the offensive line, which left a lot to be desired with its play in 2020. The schedule, too, packs a punch with a season opener at Iowa, a non-conference showdown with Cincinnati, and a non-league game at Western Kentucky on top of the typically hellacious Big Ten East schedule.

And yet, in performing the way they have in recent years, the Hoosiers seem to have developed some maturity, both in terms of the way they approach big games and digest big wins. Sure, they’re still looking for that ever-elusive bowl victory, but the path to the postseason has recently produced a much tougher, more resilient group — a team that has finally become one that IU fans can believe in.

What’s your team’s biggest strength?

Secondary: In fortifying IU’s defense, Tom Allen has addressed the one thing in Bloomington that once seemed unfixable: the defensive backfield. Tiawan Mullen was the Big Ten’s best cornerback last season, demonstrating that he was not only a threat in coverage but that he could also scare teams coming off the edge. And IU sure did love a good corner blitz. Mullen and fellow corner Jaylin Williams will also look to help IU recapture the edge it found in the turnover battle last season when the Hoosiers averaged 2.1 picks per game. Veteran hybrid safety Marcelino Ball is also back after missing all of last season, while senior safeties Devon Matthews and Raheem Layne will provide additional support on the back end.

What’s your team’s biggest weakness?

Offensive line: If we’re going by the Pro Football Focus grades, IU had a middling run-blocking line last year and the worst pass-blocking front in the Big Ten. Without question, IU has to be better in the trenches this season. There is some reasonable hope that it can be. Tackles Caleb Jones and Matthew Bedford have flashed ability in the past, IU has always liked the upside of guard Mike Katic, and veteran Dylan Powell brings experience to the other guard spot. In the middle, IU is hoping Michigan transfer Zach Carpenter can further complement the group.

How does your fanbase feel about your coach and his staff?

Tom Allen is college football Ted Lasso. He is earnest and genuine. He coaches with empathy. He is, without question, a good man — the kind of person that college sports could use much more of. He has also proven to be a very good football coach, which is obviously what makes his whole approach to his vocation all the more attractive. Right now, you’d be hard-pressed to find an IU football fan unsatisfied with the work Allen has done. I’m not sure quite the same can be said regarding second-year offensive coordinator Nick Sheridan, who appeared to have his good moments and his bad in relatively equal measure last year. So we’ll see what Year 2 brings. On the defensive side, former Georgia defensive backs coach Charlton Warren replaces popular and effervescent defensive coordinator Kane Wommack, who left in December to become South Alabama’s head coach.

Who is your team’s MVP this season and why?

It probably needs to be Michael Penix. Earning such an honor would mean the fourth-year quarterback was able to (finally) stay healthy enough to play the full season.

Predict your team’s record, its best win, and a potential surprise loss

8-4 (though, with this schedule, I could just as easily see 7-5)

Best win: Cincinnati at home in a must-watch non-conference matchup on Sept. 18.

Surprise loss: at Maryland on Oct. 30. It’s the classic trap game (!) sandwiched between contests against Ohio State and Michigan.