The Hoosiers rank No. 40 in Athlon's Top 130 for 2020
The growth of Tom Allen’s program was confirmed in 2019 when the Hoosiers celebrated their first eight-win season in 26 years but also lamented the two games they gave away, including the Gator Bowl to Tennessee. Indiana also learned success has its price as it lost three assistant coaches, its top two strength and conditioning coaches (to Alabama) and multiple players to transfer.
That said, the Hoosiers appear primed to make back-to-back bowl games for only the second time in three decades with 17 returning starters, including nine on a faster, more physical defense.
Previewing Indiana's Offense for 2020
Michael Penix Jr. unseated Peyton Ramsey at quarterback last season but was sidelined with a knee injury after winning two Big Ten Freshman of the Week awards. Penix has a strong, accurate left arm and does not force throws into coverage.
Penix has added 15 pounds to his wiry, 6'3" frame after being stopped by injuries in consecutive seasons. With Ramsey transferring to Northwestern, new offensive coordinator Nick Sheridan will depend on Jack Tuttle, a four-star who transferred from Utah, to back up Penix.
Stevie Scott III is a durable between-the-tackles back who ran for 10 TDs in each of his first two seasons. He’s not a breakaway threat, but sophomore Sampson James showed that skill while running for 118 yards at Purdue. Although David Ellis is a wideout, his ability as a running back will get him snaps in several formations.
The Hoosiers are also stacked at the receiver position. Whop Philyor operates with energy and determination out of the slot. He led IU in receiving yards with 1,002 and had four 100-yard games. Ty Fryfogle and Miles Marshall will be pushed by Ellis on the outside.
Tight end will remain a question mark until IU administrators make a determination on the status of Peyton Hendershot, who was suspended during the offseason. Matt Bjorson or South Alabama transfer Kham Taylor will get the job if Hendershot doesn’t return.
As always, the offensive line is where Indiana needs improvement in talent and depth to hold up against the more talented opponents in the Big Ten East. Tackle Matthew Bedford has the athleticism to emerge as a star, and mammoth bookend Caleb Jones (6'8", 362) could join him with improved footwork. Allen believes that Dylan Powell, a graduate transfer from Stanford, will be an immediate contributor at guard. This is the unit where the Hoosiers cannot afford injuries.
Previewing Indiana's Defense for 2020
Allen surrendered defensive play-calling to coordinator Kane Wommack last season. The Hoosiers allowed 71.6 fewer yards and 5.5 fewer points per game. With nine returning starters, the IU defense should continue to improve under Allen’s preferred 4-2-5 alignment.
Returning starters Jerome Johnson and Demarcus Elliott will be pushed by sophomore Sio Nofoagatoto’a and the arrival of Stanford grad transfer Jovan Swann, who had 10 sacks the last two seasons for the Cardinal. Johnson and Elliott were the top two tacklers on the line. Expect the Hoosiers to rotate all four players.
The athletic James Head Jr. is a force on the edge. Michael Ziemba emerged on the other edge as the team’s most improved player, making 33 tackles in nine starts.
Linebacker is another strength. Micah McFadden is a tough, determined inside linebacker who led the team in tackles in his first season as a starter. Cam Jones creates turnovers and opponents’ indecision with his speed and nose for the football. Marcelino Ball, the hybrid Husky linebacker, returns for his fourth season as a starter.
The secondary is no longer a target. Allen has called sophomore Tiawan Mullen as talented as any cornerback he has coached. As a true freshman, Mullen drew the top receivers over the final half of the season. Reese Taylor, a converted quarterback, and Jaylin Williams will share the other corner. The Hoosiers also return experience at the safety positions.
Previewing Indiana's Specialists for 2020
Special teams are critical for teams like Indiana that have a small margin of error against more talented opponents. Charles Campbell takes over for Logan Justus as placekicker. Campbell made a critical 41-yarder after Justus misfired three times against Purdue. Punter Haydon Whitehead returns after he was granted a sixth season for medical hardship. His leg is accurate, not booming.
The return game looks solid and experienced. Ellis averaged nearly 21 yards on kickoff returns, while Philyor made few mistakes handling punt returns.
This is the most athletic and talented Indiana team since the Bill Mallory era nearly 30 years ago. The Hoosiers have productive, experienced players at every position. They have finally improved their depth on defense, leaving only questions about their ability to withstand injuries on the offensive line.
If they could shock Wisconsin in their Friday night Sept. 4 opener in Madison, the Hoosiers would likely be favored in their next six games.
The key, of course, will be the health of Penix, who failed to finish his first two seasons. With Ramsey gone, there is not a proven backup at quarterback. With a ceiling of nine wins and a floor of five, Indiana is positioned for its first back-to-back seasons of at least seven wins since 1988.
National Ranking: 40
(Top photo by Missy Minear/Indiana Athletics)