Big Ten: Ryan Marando
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
It's time to take a snapshot of the Indiana Hoosiers heading into spring ball.
Coming off a 3-9 season, the Hoosiers appear to be a team filled with weak spots and few strong points. But Indiana didn't lose many key seniors and could make significant upgrades in several areas if the team's health improves.
Strongest position -- Defensive end
Key returnees: Senior Jammie Kirlew, senior Greg Middleton
Key departures: Ryan Marando (28 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks)
The skinny: Indiana returns arguably the Big Ten's top pass-rushing tandem in Kirlew and Middleton. Each man has earned first-team All-Big Ten honors -- Kirlew in 2008 and Middleton in 2007 -- and if they can deliver breakout performances in the same season, look out. Middleton exploded for 16 sacks as a sophomore and Kirlew recorded 10.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss last fall. Other strong spots include linebacker, safety (if healthy) and maybe quarterback.
Weakest position -- Running back
Key departures: Marcus Thigpen (94 carries, 631 rush yards, 7 touchdowns, 13 receptions, 2 receiving touchdowns)
The skinny: If Indiana boasted a true threat at running back, Kellen Lewis might be able to end his skill-position tour and simply take snaps again, as he did brilliantly in 2007. Thigpen quietly turned in a very solid 2008 season and will be a significant loss for a team looking for a featured ball carrier. Payton and McCray have experience that needs to translate into production, and the coaches are high on Willis, a heralded recruit. But until someone steps up and establishes himself in the backfield, this will continue to be a weakness. Other trouble spots include defensive tackle, which is very thin entering the spring, and offensive line.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Indiana head coach Bill Lynch breaks down the team's personnel in the second half of my interview with him (for Part I, click here).
Does Kellen [Lewis] still have the respect of his teammates? I'm sure some were disappointed after his suspension.
Bill Lynch: Yeah, I'm sure. But ever since he's been back, he's certainly earned it. And the players wanted him back. That was a part of the whole thing while he was gone, and I had told him that, 'I'm going to check with a lot of people and one of them is your teammates.' And they wanted him back. And he's done everything we've asked and he's practiced well, he's practiced hard, he hasn't missed a rep. So I'm not worried about that.
Did you feel like you were losing him at any point?
BL: The best word to use is I was hopeful through the whole thing.
As far as the defense, you had some great individual performers last year, but does the unit need to take another step?
BL: I think so. We're in the same defensive scheme for the fourth year, and that's really important. The position coaches are the same. And this is a game of repetitions, it really is. The more you do it, the better you get and the consistency is so important. We've been able to develop that. But we've also developed depth and overall team speed on defense. Our linebacker play is the starting point. We really feel like we're two-deep with guys who fit the mold physically in terms of size and strength and speed, but experience now, as well. We have much more depth at d-line. We've got a name guy in [Greg] Middleton, but [Jammie] Kirlew and [Ryan] Marando and Greg Brown and Deonte Mack and the Burrus brothers [Keith and Kevin], we've got some depth. We've got solid safeties in Austin Thomas and Nick Polk. Chris Phillips is a very solid player. He played some good football for us. And then the other kids are coming along at the other corner. We haven't made a decision on that yet.
As far as the quarterback decision, do you have a timetable?
BL: I'm going to sit down with [offensive coordinator] Matt Canada, our quarterback coach and coordinator, because we haven't done that. At some point, you make that decision based on not only what's best for the two kids involved, but also what's best for the football team. We're getting to the point where we need to sit down and have that conversation. We've really been through the grind of camp. Starting out, we talked about we would get through the camp and there was going to be 1 and 1A, but we really have rotated them a lot. The reps have been almost even.
Is playing both of them in the discussion?
BL: We haven't talked about that. I'm not, at this point, thinking that's what we're going to do. They're both capable. We can win with both of them.
Offensive line, any concerns there with depth?
BL: We've kind of missed our left guard and left tackle [Pete Saxon and Rodger Saffold] since before last weekend, but both of them, we feel like by game week, will be out there going. We're being smart this week. Those are our two most experienced guys, but what it's done is some young kids have gotten a ton of reps. So as a result of some injuries, we've been able to develop some depth. But [the offensive line] doesn't have the same depth as the d-line has.
Who have stood out among the freshmen?
BL: We've got a couple wideouts. [Damarlo Belcher] had a really good day today and he's been coming on. I still think Darius Willis, our running back, has got a chance. We haven't decided what we're going to do there, either, because we've got some older guys ahead of him. But he's everything we thought he was going to be, and he's going to be a complete back. It would probably take some injuries at the other places for somebody else to play.
Willis is a bigger guy. Is that a novelty a bit in this offense?
BL: Not necessarily. It's nice to have, but [Marcus] Thigpen has something to offer because of his speed and experience and ability to play to play wide receiver when we go into different formations. [Bryan] Payton's a tough, hard-nosed guy that has played. [Trea] Burgess is a solid guy who has gained yards as a special teams guy. And [Demetrius McCray's] a little bit of a guy that we're anxious to see keep going because he's missed a lot of time with injuries, and he's been able to stay healthy through the whole camp. And then you've got Darius. It's really a matter of giving everybody work before we kind of decide which way we're going to go.
You mentioned gaining national respect is a goal. Do you think you've gained some respect in the Big Ten?
BL: A little bit. If you look at the preseason picks, we haven't gained a whole lot. But it takes time. We're gonna earn it. That's our job to do that, not worry about it at this point. You've got to do it more than one year. I firmly believe that. We took a step last year and it was a start. We've got a lot more to do.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
I'm headed to Bloomington to spend the day with the Indiana Hoosiers. I'll be talking with the quarterbacks, coach Bill Lynch and this guy Matt Mayberry I've heard so much about from you guys, so check back throughout the afternoon/evening.
Here are three questions the Hoosiers will face in their quest for consecutive bowl appearances:
|Scott Boehm/Getty Images|
|Can Kellen Lewis return to form after missing spring practice?|
1. Who starts at quarterback?
Lynch did the right thing in making Kellen Lewis compete to earn his job back after the junior was suspended for spring practice. Lewis, who admitted Monday that his "party lifestyle" had taken his focus away from the field, must regain the respect of the coaches and his teammates. Fortunately for him, he's got the talent to make up for lost time. Ben Chappell got the lion's share of reps this spring and has taken advantage, making the quarterback competition closer than expected. But it's hard to envision Lewis sitting on the bench, especially since Indiana implemented a no-huddle offense that fits him perfectly.
2. Will the defense take the next step?
The Hoosiers received great individual performances last season from national sacks leader Greg Middleton, cornerback Tracy Porter and others. But as a unit, the results were too predictable. Indiana ranked ninth in the Big Ten in points allowed (28.5 ppg), rush defense (159.7 ypg) and pass defense (243.7 ypg). The word is out on Middleton, and the Hoosiers need players like Jammie Kirlew and Ryan Marando to capitalize on the favorable matchups they'll see this fall. Cornerback is a concern after the loss of both starters, but a linebacking corps featuring Mayberry, Will Patterson and Geno Johnson could be the strength of the defense. If Florida transfer Jerimy Finch is allowed to play, he'll provide a big boost at safety.
3. Are there enough playmakers?
Wide receiver James Hardy was one of the Big Ten's toughest matchups, particularly in the red zone. His scoring production is tough to replace, but Indiana should be fine at wide receiver with veteran Ray Fisher and Andrew Means, who gave up playing baseball in the Cincinnati Reds' organization for one final year on the gridiron. A bigger concern is getting more from the running backs. Marcus Thigpen bulked up during the offseason and wants to prove he's more than a speed back and can handle 25-30 carries a game. If Thigpen falls short, the Hoosiers will need Bryan Payton, Demetrius McCray or brawny freshman Darius Willis to step up.
BIG TEN SCOREBOARD
Final Penn State 14 Illinois 16 Final Indiana 27 6 Ohio State 42 Final 25 Minnesota 28 23 Nebraska 24 Final Northwestern 38 Purdue 14 Final Rutgers 3 11 Michigan State 45 Final 16 Wisconsin 26 Iowa 24 Final Maryland 23 Michigan 16