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Hoosiers look to revive 'embarrassed' passing game

4/15/2015

Indiana offensive coordinator Kevin Johns has the numbers from last year's passing attack plastered on meeting room walls. In previous years, those stats would have served as a source of pride. This spring? They're being used as motivation.

"We're really embarrassed by it," receiver Ricky Jones told ESPN.com. "We went from the top in nation all the way to the bottom. We definitely took it hard and we're working hard to change that mentality."

The Hoosiers didn't totally go from the penthouse to the poorhouse, but these passing numbers read like the inverse of one of Drake's most famous songs:

2012: 311.2 passing yards per game (17th in the FBS)

2013: 306.7 ypg (17th)

2014: 141.3 ypg (120th)

There are some obvious reasons for this precipitous drop. Starting quarterback Nate Sudfeld was lost for the season in the sixth game against Iowa, as was backup Chris Covington. True freshman Zander Diamont was thrust into the starting role before he was ready, and the Hoosiers mustered just 11 passing yards in his debut, a one-sided loss to Michigan State. He threw for a total of 103 yards in his first three games as the starter.

But it wasn't all the quarterback position. Sudfeld's only 300-yard game of the year came against a shaky Bowling Green defense.

"Even when I was playing, we weren't the passing offense we were in previous years," Sudfeld said. "We were embarrassed by that."

A mostly raw receiving corps played a primary role in the decline of the Indiana aerial attack. Last year's team had one real veteran in Shane Wynn, an explosive playmaker who was ill-suited for a No. 1 receiver role because of his diminutive size. True freshmen J-Shun Harris, Simmie Cobbs and Dominique Booth were forced into significant playing time and showed predictable youthful inconsistency.

Wynn is gone, so the position is still young this spring. Jones, a redshirt junior with three career catches, said his fellow receivers refer to him as "the old man." But some hard-won experience, an influx of talent and last year's humbling performance leads to hope that the receivers can approach the production levels of predecessors like Cody Latimer and Kofi Hughes.

"We're not where we want to be yet," coach Kevin Wilson said. "But we're going to push it to see how far we can take it."

The Hoosiers are looking for big steps forward by sophomores Harris and Cobbs. Johns said that the 5-foot-8 Harris reminds him of Wynn with his speed and frame but is probably a better route runner than Wynn was at a similar stage.

"To be a little fast guy like he is, he just has to find ways to get himself down the field without getting mugged and grabbed and everything else," Johns said.

Cobbs looks the part of a No. 1 receiver at 6-foot-4, 215 pounds. He still needs to learn the nuances of the game, but Jones compares Cobbs to former Texas A&M star Mike Evans.

"Mark my words," Jones said. "He's going to be a special guy."

Jones his hoping his time has finally arrived after dealing with injuries earlier in his career. UAB transfer Marqui Hawkins can add some experience and physicality, though a broken wrist kept him from going through spring practice. Wilson is intrigued by junior college transfer Camion Patrick, who will arrive this summer, and the Hoosiers also signed four high school receivers.

"It's going to be a work in progress," Wilson said. "I think we're going to need some of the guys who aren't here yet. Two or three of those guys will probably get in the mix."

Wilson also thinks his offensive line and running game are strong enough that Indiana can use the run to set up the pass, after doing the opposite in previous years. Sudfeld is healthy this spring and slinging the ball around. The onus is on his receivers to get open and make plays.

They don't have too look far for motivation, as the numbers from last year are spelled out in front of them every day.

"I do think these kids are taking that personally," Johns said. "We plan on using that as a driving force."