Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
It's a critical year for Indiana football and head coach Bill Lynch. As the program moves into its sparkling new end-zone facility at Memorial Stadium, the team must rebuild after sliding to 3-9 in 2008. Two years removed from a breakthrough bowl season under Lynch, the Hoosiers can ill afford another step back.
Despite losing former All-Big Ten quarterback Kellen Lewis after spring ball, Lynch is excited about his team, which he says has more depth and experience than ever before. Perhaps most important, the Hoosiers are relatively healthy after being ravaged by injuries in 2008. Several standout defenders return -- ends Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton, linebacker Matt Mayberry -- and junior quarterback Ben Chappell enters camp as the clear-cut starter.
Here are some of Lynch's thoughts on the upcoming season as we chatted last week.
You've mentioned a couple times that you feel this is a different team. Is there anything you can put your finger on as far as why things are different?
Bill Lynch: It really goes all the way back to when we got going in January with our offseason program. Every team's different. As guys get older and become seniors and juniors, this group's really taken ownership. It's the leadership we've seen and the way they've really held each other accountable to the work it takes to be a good football team. When you're in this business long enough, you see that and you feel it. That's where we are, throughout the program. This group is very committed.
I know you're excited about the pistol offense this year. Has that system fully sunk in, or is it still a process?
BL: They've got a good handle on it. It's not drastically different. The biggest thing is we want to run the football better and run it in a little different style. The spread is primarily a zone-blocking scheme where you're trying to spread the defense and create some creases, versus the pistol is more of a traditional offense where you can be a little more downhill. As a result, we can use some different blocking schemes, run some power and some gap and man schemes. We just felt like we needed to get more multiple in our offense. Our guys really picked that up in the spring. We're still going from the no-huddle attack, and that hasn't changed. The terminology is very similar, so it's not like we totally changed the offense.
I know Marcus [Thigpen] was a smaller back. Do you get a little bit more size with the guys you have now?
BL: Bryan Payton might not be that way in weight, but Brian's definitely a banger, a tough, hard-nosed kid. One guy that's a bit of an X-factor is Demetrius McCray. He's had moments in his career, but he hasn't been able to stay healthy. He's had a great offseason. He's got great feet. He can make people miss. He's got stronger, although he's not a huge guy. And then we've got two big bangers in Darius Willis, who we're excited about playing, and then Trea Burgess is another big banger that has been in the program a long time. We've got some depth, and they all can do what we're looking for them to do.
Which unit will make the biggest jump from last year to this year?
BL: I've got to think the offensive line. They're just older. We didn't have a fourth- or fifth-year scholarship football player a year ago in the offensive line. That's hard in the Big Ten. And then when you throw some injuries in there, we're playing a lot of young guys and it caught up with us. But they're back and they've had a great offseason. And then we've added some young kids in the mix: Justin Pagan and Will Matte. We've got more depth there and they've become better football players.
A lot of people are wondering who will be the playmaker on offense now that Kellen's gone. Who are you looking for to step up?
BL: I think we're going to be more multiple, so there's more guys going to be involved. I do like our young wide receivers in Tandon Doss and Damarlo Belcher. We played them as true freshmen and now they're a year older, a year stronger, and understand what it takes to play football at this level. And then [Terrance] Turner and [Mitchell] Evans and [Matt] Ernest, we've got some wideouts that can play. Our backs are good, tough, hard-nosed guys. Our offensive line's better. And I'm a big fan of Ben Chappell. The guy's got a chance to be very, very good. The more you're around him, you really appreciate all the things he does. I don't think it's a football team that's going to be geared around one guy. We did so much that was around Kellen and before that, around James Hardy. They were very, very good football players, but we have more guys and more balance in what we're doing.
You were excited about Ben even before last season as well. What one or two areas does he need to improve to make that next step in his development?
BL: He will [improve] by just playing. That position comes under so much scrutiny, but when he played, he played pretty well with a banged-up football team around him. He's going to be a little bit quicker with the trigger, but he's a very accurate passer, a good thrower. He does a lot of things that aren't noticed by people, whether it's an audible system or a check with me, getting us in the right protections whether it's a run play or pass play. All those things are so critical to playing that position. A lot of people don't see those things that we do. I think he'll continue to get better at what he does. He knows his strengths and he knows his weaknesses. He understands that, and that's what a good athlete does. Now he's into his fourth year and he's been around.
Switching to the defense, how much do you lean on those older guys, Jammie and Greg and Matt?
BL: We've got two defensive ends that as a combination have the most returning sacks in the country. Those are two senior guys who have played very, very well. We've got three senior linebackers in [Will] Patterson, who last year was elected a team captain, Mayberry is an outstanding football player and Justin Carrington, who has played a lot. And we have Tyler Replogle, who's a junior. We've got four linebackers that have a lot of experience. And then in the secondary, we have three seniors in [Austin] Thomas, [Nick] Polk and Ray Fisher, so
there's no question we're going to count on those guys to lead the way. It's not like counting on some unknowns and not sure really how they're going to play. I think we'll be much better [at defensive tackle] as well because we've got three big, strong kids that we redshirted last year who are going to give us some depth to help Deonte Mack.
With all these older guys, what are your expectations for this season?
BL: The biggest thing is we can't wait to get going. We've got to get back to the approach we had in 2007, where we take care of the little things and have a great camp, get better in camp and not look forward to the first game or the third game or the fifth game. Maybe it happened a bit last year, when you start looking ahead and think about what's going to happen during the season and which ones are key games. That's not where we are. We've got to have a great camp. We've got to get better as a football team. If we do the little things right, we can be a very good football team. We're not going to put any limitations on this football team, and we're not going to get ahead of ourselves, either.