Opponent Spring Review: Indiana
With spring practices now wrapped up around the country, HuskerOnline.com will take a look at where each of Nebraska’s 12 opponents in 2019 currently stands coming out of spring ball and heading into the summer.
We continue today by taking a look at Indiana, which comes to Lincoln on Oct. 26 for the first time since 1977.
The Hoosiers are searching for their first winning season in its third year under head coach Tom Allen, but much of that will depend on how some big questions are answered at quarterback and on defense this offseason.
We caught up with Stu Jackson of TheHoosier.com to learn more about what the Huskers can expect from IU this fall.
Like many other Big Ten teams, Indiana's main focus this spring was trying to figure out its starting quarterback. Unlike most others, though, the Hoosiers aren't lacking on viable candidates.
Redshirt junior Peyton Ramsey is back as the returning No. 1 from last season, as he started all 12 games and completed 66 percent of his passes for 2,875 yards, 19 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions.
However, IU also had two former four-star recruits pushing for Ramsey's job this spring in redshirt freshmen Jack Tuttle, an immediately eligible transfer from Utah, and Michael Penix Jr., who appeared in three games last year as a true freshman before tearing his ACL in October.
Allen said it was Ramsey's job to lose entering the spring, but the competition will remain open into the fall before a starter is officially confirmed.
The winner of the competition will have some nice weapons to work with in running back Stevie Scott and wide receivers Nick Westbrook and Donovan Hale, who all helped Indiana average 415 yards of total offense a game last year.
Adding intrigue to the offseason is that Indiana is transitioning under a new offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer, who joined IU from Fresno State following the retirement of former OC Mike DeBord in January.
Whoever the quarterback is he'll be working with a revamped offensive line that lost one of its top centers in Nick Linder (who rotated with returning senior Hunter Littlejohn), its starting left guard Wes Martin (a fourth-round NFL draft pick), and the No. 1 right tackle in Brandon Knight.
On the other side of the ball, Indiana graduated five players from its top defensive line rotation in 2018, four of which were defensive tackles. That will likely lead to a lot of youth being counted on to play right away this season up front, including some incoming true freshmen.
Linebacker is another position to watch going into fall camp after losing Mike linebacker Dameon Willis. The Hoosiers do return top outside 'backer Raekwon Jones and hybrid safety/linebacker Marcelino Ball, but the search continues to fill Willis' shoes as the QB of the defense.
In the secondary, Bryant Fitzgerald is back after leading the team in interceptions (3) and forced fumbles (2) as a redshirt freshman, and he'll be counted on to fill another big void on defense left by Jonathan Crawford at strong safety.
Offensive star: RB Stevie Scott
Scott is coming off a breakout true freshman campaign last season where he set Indiana freshman records with 1,137 yards, 228 carries, 10 touchdowns, and six 100-yard games in 2018.
Like at quarterback, Indiana has some talented players behind Scott on the depth chart that could push for carries, but his 6-foot-2, 233-pound frame and physical running style have already drawn comparisons to former Hoosier standout and NFL running back Jordan Howard.
The honorable-mention All-Big Ten selection ranked in the conference's top 10 in carries per game (4th), rushing touchdowns (4th), rushing yardage (5th), rushing yards per game (5th), all-purpose yards (8th), total TDs (8th), and all-purpose yardage per game (10th).
Defensive star: S Marcelino Ball
In an era where versatility is such a sought-after trait, few bring more of that to the table than Indiana's Ball.
Playing the "Husky" position, the 6-foot, 219-pound redshirt junior takes on the role of a hybrid safety/linebacker and can line up in a variety of spots on the field on any given play.
He ranked third on the team with 59 total tackles, led the Hoosiers with 7.5 tackles for loss, was third with 2.5 sacks, and added three pass breakups, an interception, a forced fumble, and a quarterback hurry. In other words, Ball did a little bit of everything for IU's defense in 2018.
Ball earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors for his efforts, and he'll be asked to carry an even bigger workload this season.
Biggest question: Who fills Crawford's shoes at safety?
Crawford was one of the faces of Indiana's defense well before Allen even took over in Bloomington, ending his career as a four-year starter and one of only two players in program history to play in 50 games.
Not only was he a fixture on the field, but Crawford was also a valuable presence as a leader in the locker room. So big are the shoes he leaves behind, Indiana might have to turn to a committee approach to replace him this season.
Fitzgerald is the frontrunner to take over as the starting strong safety, but it's unclear as to whether a redshirt sophomore can do all of the little things Crawford handled as the leader of the secondary that made him so important.
Early outlook on Indiana vs. Nebraska
Jackson: "Just from an Indiana perspective and looking at their schedule, the Nebraska game - at least from what I'm seeing - going to be arguably their toughest road game of the year. By that point, Indiana will have played Ball State in Indianapolis, at Michigan State, and at Maryland. Those will all be good tests, but Nebraska is one of the best atmospheres in college football, and it's not easy to win in Lincoln.
"On paper, Indiana could either be 5-2 or 4-3 going into that game, so I'm just interested in seeing how Indiana handles that kind of a road environment. That will be past the midway point of the season, so we should have a pretty good idea of what IU's offense looks like under new offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer."
Overall 2019 win-loss expectation
Jackson: "In each of the last two years it's come down to Indiana taking care of business in non-conference play and then winning at least three Big Ten games. Now, that's easier said than done because each of the last two seasons their bowl eligibility has come down to the regular season finale in the rivalry game against Purdue, and they've fallen short in both of those instances.
"So at least the first half of their schedule is pretty favorable. There are tough tests obviously at home against Ohio State and then at Michigan State, and road games have been no easy task for Indiana in the Big Ten. A lot of their record as far as getting to that six-win mark and qualifying for a bowl game comes down to quarterback play, the interior defensive line, and the play at linebacker.
"If Indiana gets the level of play that it wants from those positions, I think you're looking at a team that at the minimum shouldn't have any issues going 6-6. But at the same time, if those positions don't meet expectations, then you could be looking at another 5-7 season or worse."