During the third quarter of Saturday's victory over Penn State, the Indiana offensive line broke open a gaping hole in the middle. As soon as Tevin Coleman passed through the line of scrimmage, quarterback Nate Sudfeld pointed in the air, because he knew it was a touchdown.
Granted, a bulldozer could have rolled through that chasm, but Coleman still had to go 44 more yards to reach the end zone. Once the long-striding Hoosiers running back cleared the gap, however, no Nittany Lions defender came close to catching him.
"It's so fun to watch," Sudfeld said. "He just takes off and has a burst like I've never seen."
The touchdown at Penn State was ironic in a way as well. Coleman showed off his tantalizing speed and also happened to do so between the tackles, a place where the sophomore never felt comfortable before this season.
So far this year, Coleman has looked like a complete back. After his 92-yard effort in Indiana's 44-24 win on Saturday, he ranks fourth in the Big Ten in rushing with 478 yards, averaging 6.2 yards per carry with seven touchdowns in five games. He'll try to keep it going this week against Michigan State, a school he almost attended.
"When I recruited him, I told him he could be a great running back," said Deland McCullough, who coaches the position for Indiana. "Nobody's ever a finished product, but he's trending in that direction."
McCullough saw the potential early on while recruiting Coleman out Oak Forest (Ill.) High School. He attended one of Coleman's track meets, and the athleticism was obvious as Coleman competed in the 100- and 200-meter dash and long jump (he twice finished second in his class in the state long jump finals).
But while Coleman averaged 11.4 yards per carry as a high school senior, he never touched the ball more than eight to 10 times per game. When he did, it was always on perimeter runs. That was odd for a 6-foot-1 running back with his skill set.
"You look at his size and make some assumptions,'" McCullough said. "But just looking at the system he played in, I knew it would be a tough transition for him [to college]. He was going to have to change his mentality.
Coleman appeared in all 12 games last year as a freshman, running for 225 yards, but he mostly made his mark on kick returns, including a 96-yard touchdown at Northwestern. McCullough told him that his breakaway ability was of no use, however, if he couldn't break through the first wave of defenders at the point of attack. So the 205-pound Coleman hit the weight room and worked on developing the mindset of a tough inside runner during the offseason.
"I was really hesitant with the plays last year," he said. "When I came here, I was like a shifty guy. I was into juking. But once you're in college, that stuff doesn't work out. You can't just juke everybody. I had to get a physical presence about myself."
He did it so well that he managed to beat out two-year starter Stephen Houston for the No. 1 tailback job. Houston had run for 1,551 yards and 20 touchdowns combined in 2011 and '12. But Coleman brings more explosiveness, as he showed when he erupted for 169 rushing yards and two scores in the opener against Indiana State and again in a 129-yard day vs. Bowling Green.
Coleman has a very similar body type to Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and turns the corner almost as quickly. McCullough talks about his backs hitting the hole with "velocity," and Coleman does that for sure.
"Once I get out in the open field, there's no catching me," Coleman said. "I speed through the gaps and the holes. I feel like I'm a big-play guy."
The trick will be finding big- or even small-play opportunities at Michigan State this week. The Spartans are first in the FBS in rushing defense, allowing just 51.2 yards per game and a microscopic 1.97 yards per rush attempt.
"That's going to be a real big challenge for our running game," Coleman said. "We just have to soften their defense up with some passing, then in the second half hopefully get some big runs on them."
Had things gone slightly differently, he could be playing on the other side of the Old Brass Spittoon game, maybe even on that Michigan State defense.
Several Big Ten schools recruited Coleman, though many wanted him to play cornerback. Coleman wanted to stick at running back and narrowed his choices to the Hoosiers and Spartans, visiting both within a week of each other. He said Michigan State initially recruited him as a running back and then talked to him some about playing corner. In the end, he said, he felt "a great vibe" from the IU players and coaches and thought he could play sooner in Bloomington. But he called it "a really close decision, one that was really tough for me."
It's unlikely that Coleman will find as much room to run in East Lansing as he did last week against Penn State. But if he gets a crease or two, he could make things tough on the Spartans.