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Tuesday, July 14, 2009
Indiana's depth could eclipse lack of star power

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

In 2007, Matt Canada oversaw a record-setting Indiana offense led by one of the nation's most dangerous downfield combinations. The Hoosiers lit up the scoreboard, snapping the Big Ten's longest bowl drought at 14 years.

A snapshot at Canada's unit heading into preseason camp reveals a different landscape.

All-Big Ten wide receiver James Hardy has departed for the NFL, and quarterback Kellen Lewis was dismissed from the program in April after being moved full-time to wide receiver. Running back Marcus Thigpen, who contributed on the 2007 squad, also is gone after exhausting his eligibility.

Indiana returns a group of young but mostly unproven wide receivers, a mix of veterans and youth at running back and a quarterback in Ben Chappell who had mixed results in 2008. Lewis' dismissal leaves many wondering who will emerge as a bona fide playmaker for the Hoosiers, who finished seventh in the league in offense last year.

The Hoosiers have undoubtedly lost some key parts, but Canada likes the sum of what he'll be working with this fall.

"[The depth] is better than it was in '07, to be honest," Canada said. "On offense, I don't think we've had this kind of depth since I've been here."

Quite possibly the biggest reason for Canada's optimism is an offense line that was ravaged by injuries last season. Four starters return, including left tackle Rodger Saffold, who has made 29 career starts.

Indiana has held high hopes for the line, but injuries to Saffold (back and knee), center Pete Saxon and right tackle Mike Stark, among others, have left the depth chart in a constant state of flux.

"We've been a very young offensive line," Canada said. "What we had to go through last year with injuries was a challenge, but the benefit of that now is a bunch of kids played a lot of football. We've got a tremendous amount of depth up front. They're bigger and stronger and understand what we're asking them to do.

"Up front, there's a huge difference. We're playing with the juniors and seniors, finally."

The biggest questions surround Chappell, who earned the nod as the full-time starter at quarterback after sharing time with Lewis last year. No one expects Chappell to repeat what Lewis did in 2007 (3,043 pass yards, 28 TDs), but he needs to produce consistently.

He won't have a Hardy at his disposal, but the coaches expect big things from sophomore wide receivers Damarlo Belcher and Tandon Doss.

"I feel real, real good about Ben Chappell being our quarterback," Canada said. "People will be impressed with his accuracy. Ben's a big-time quarterback, and people will get to see that this fall."