Last season was a pivotal one for Indiana football and head coach Kevin Wilson. Wilson was entering his fifth season in Bloomington and had yet to put together a winning season or appeare in a bowl game since arriving in 2011. The Hoosiers have still yet to put together a winning season under Wilson, but they have improved slowly through the years — and that is how athletic director Fred Glass plans on building this Indiana program, in baby steps. Glass showed his commitment to that vision by signing Wilson to a six-year contract extension worth $15.3 million, which commits Wilson to the program (and vice versa) through 2021.
Although Indiana lost six games in a row for the second time in as many years, the Hoosiers were able to rally the final two weeks of the season, defeating Maryland and Purdue to finish at 6-6 and receive an invite to play Duke in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium. The Hoosiers fell to the Blue Devils 44-41 as a controversial Indiana field goal attempt was ruled no good on the final play in overtime.
The bowl loss aside, the strides shown by the Hoosiers were noticeable, especially in big games against Ohio State, Michigan State, and Michigan — all games Indiana had legitimate chances at winning — and games that many fans would argue should have been won.
Here’s a look at what’s ahead for the Hoosiers this spring.
1. Replacing QB Nate Sudfeld
Sudfeld was arguably the best natural thrower in the Big Ten last season and finished his Indiana career as the school’s all-time leading passer in yards (7,490) and touchdowns (58). Sudfeld’s importance to this team was palpable. After suffering a shoulder injury midway through the 2014 season, the Hoosiers would lose their next six games. With a healthy Sudfeld running the offense, Indiana led the Big Ten in scoring (36.5 ppg) last season.
The Hoosiers will have two quarterbacks fighting for the starting spot this spring. The popular choice is the former Oklahoma State walk-on and Cisco (Texas) College transfer Richard Lagow. The rangy (6-6) Lagow will first have to beat out Sudfeld’s backup, sophomore Zander Diamont. Diamont filled in admirably for the oft-injured Sudfeld, as he started six games in 2014 and two last season. Diamont earned folk hero status two seasons ago after scoring the game-winning touchdown to beat Purdue and earn the Hoosiers the Old Oaken Bucket trophy.
2. New Defensive Coordinator Tom Allen
Allen is the third defensive coordinator since Wilson took over in Bloomington. Former DC Brian Knorr was let go after just two seasons in which the Hoosiers were the worst defense in the Big Ten, surrendering 509.5 yards and 37.6 points per game in 2015.
Enter Allen, a New Castle, Ind., native who spent his younger days coaching at Indianapolis high school football powerhouse Ben Davis. Allen spent last season as the defensive coordinator for South Florida where he was successful in implementing his 4-2-5 defense, slowing down high-powered spread offenses — something the Hoosiers have yet to do under Wilson. The move to Bloomington from Tampa surprised many in the college football world as Allen was seen as a popular up-and-coming coach in the college ranks.
3. Defensive Line Concerns
The Hoosiers’ defensive woes have been well documented, and a lot of their issues started up front. Things aren’t going to be any easier for Allen, the new guy in charge, as all three starters from last year’s front have all moved on, including Darius Lathan, who entered the NFL Draft early. But new defensive line coach Mark Hagan, a former Hoosier football player, is confident the defense can improve from within. Last season the Hoosiers were 13th in the Big Ten against the rush and dead last against the pass.
4. Replacing Jordan Howard
For the second consecutive season the Hoosiers are replacing a game-breaking running back. Last year, Howard filled the void left by all-world runner Tevin Coleman after Coleman headed to the NFL. Howard responded by averaging more than six yards per carry, totaling 1,123 yards with nine touchdowns and fishing second in the Big Ten in rushing yards. Howard, like Coleman, decided to head to the NFL a season early. But Hoosier fans aren’t panicking — not with 5-foot-10, 202-pound junior Devine Redding ready to take over the lead role. Redding combined for 274 yards rushing the final two weeks of the season in wins against Maryland and Purdue. But Redding caught national attention in Indiana’s loss in the Pinstripe Bowl against Duke when he racked up 227 yards on 35 carries. It appears that the Hoosiers lineage of elite running backs is in good hands with Redding carrying the load this spring.
Pre Spring Indiana Outlook in the Big Ten
Looking ahead at the Hoosiers’ 2016 schedule and it appears there are eight very winnable games on the docket. Granted, the Hoosiers are notorious for losing games against lesser teams and killing their own bowl chances. But the schedule this fall seems somewhat forgiving, with home games against Wake Forest, Ball State, Nebraska, Penn State, Maryland, and Purdue, which should play into Indiana’s plan of improving in small increments. Last season the goal was to make a bowl game, something the Hoosiers accomplished. The next step is to actually win a bowl game — something the Hoosiers haven’t done since 1991 when they defeated Baylor 24-0 in the Copper Bowl.
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.