- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Like most true freshman, Indiana offensive tackle Jason Spriggs entered his first preseason camp with measured expectations.
"I thought I was going to be redshirted," Spriggs told ESPN.com, "just like all the other freshmen."
It was a reasonable assumption, but one that in recent years often has proven incorrect at Indiana. The Hoosiers in 2011 played 32 freshmen (16 true, 16 redshirt), the most in the FBS. Last season, they played 11 true freshmen and five redshirt freshmen. IU had just eight seniors on its 2012 roster, tied for the fewest in the country.
Offensive line typically is the position group where freshmen are least likely to see the field. Most come to college lacking the physical development to stand their ground against Big Ten defense.
But Indiana's offensive line hasn't been immune from the youth movement. The Hoosiers play fast on offense, and their linemen grow up fast, too.
Spriggs started all 12 games last season, setting a team freshman record. But he didn't reach the milestone by himself: fellow true freshman Dan Feeney also started every game at right guard.
The Hoosiers opened the season with two true freshmen (Spriggs and Feeney) and two true sophomores (Bernard Taylor and Peyton Eckert) on their starting offensive line, flanking fifth-year senior center Will Matte. Both Taylor and Eckert had cracked the starting lineup in the third week of their freshman year in 2011. When Taylor went down with an injury midway through last season, he was replaced by a redshirt sophomore (Collin Rahrig) who had made eight starts as a redshirt freshman.
"Getting in the mix early on takes away a lot of the nervousness and the worry of thinking about what it's like," Spriggs said.
Indiana's line remains one of the Big Ten's youngest. But because of the fast-tracking, the Hoosiers are among the league's most experienced groups. They also could be one of the best.
"We’re striving to be the No. 1 O-line in the Big Ten," Spriggs said. "And I think that's actually going to happen this year."
Indiana wasn't far off in 2012, despite its youth. The Hoosiers finished second in the Big Ten in total sacks allowed (17). When pass attempts were factored in, IU led the Big Ten, surrendering one sack every 31.8 pass attempts. Indiana led the league in passing by a wide margin, and the line recorded five games with no sacks allowed and two others with just one sack allowed.
Although Matte departs, Indiana brings back its other four starting linemen as well as two others with starting experience.
"We have everybody returning," Spriggs said, "and I feel like the trust is a lot better than last year. Last year, we had me and Feeney and the rest of the freshmen coming in, nobody really knew where we stood. During the season, I was still learning everything, flying by the seat of my pants.
"Now everybody's been in the same room for at least a year, so that's going to help out a lot."
Spriggs got his opportunity when projected starting tackle Charlie Chapman sustained a concussion in camp. Feeney simply outplayed the competition into a top spot at the end of camp.
The 6-foot-4, 305-pound Feeney didn't surrender a sack all season, while the 6-7, 280-pound Spriggs led Indiana with 80 knockdowns. Both earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors and made several all-freshman teams, including ESPN.com's.
"It was pretty crazy, playing against people so big and knowing the Big Ten is known for having such big, talented linemen," Feeney said. "I definitely had to adjust to the size of people and the speed. But I felt like I transitioned well."
Taylor came to Indiana targeting a starting job early in his career. But he also was realistic about his development.
"When I got here, I felt like I wasn't ready," he said. "But when coach throws you in there, you're not going to say no. You've just got to step it up and do it. I was in the same boat as Jason. I ended up getting thrown in there.
"But we've all grown together because we're with each other every day."
The linemen are together on the practice field, in the weight room and even away from Memorial Stadium. Feeney lives with Eckert and center Jake Reed, Taylor lives with tackle Ralston Evans and Spriggs lives with center Wes Rogers and tackle Jacob Bailey. Spriggs and Feeney roomed together last year.
"When you're with somebody that long," Spriggs said, "working and striving to get better, you start trusting everybody."
Matte is the lone starter lost from an offense that finished second in the Big Ten in yards and put up 49 points against Ohio State, the most the Buckeyes had allowed since 1994. The Hoosiers boast three experienced quarterbacks as Tre Roberson returns to the mix, as well as arguably the Big Ten's top receiving corps.
IU's linemen prioritized the run game this spring, as the team finished 10th in the Big Ten in rush yards (1,570) and last in attempts (399). If the Hoosiers achieve better balance, stay a step ahead of defenses and more effectively translate all those yards into points, their goal of becoming the Big Ten's best line could come true.
"We talk about that all the time," Taylor said. "It's our No. 1 agenda."
19hBrian Bennett and Austin Ward