If the 2020 football season goes ahead, the usual concerns about faltering knees and ankles will still be there.
But the novel concern — a virus that continues to circulate nationwide — will make this season even more complicated. Depth charts that were once comfortable at the first- and second-string levels will have to be even deeper, accommodating the possibility that players become infected with the virus and sidelined.
If last week showed anything, it’s that no program is immune from that reality. Indiana football had to shut down its voluntary workouts because of six positive tests. During the season — if the season happens — the NCAA is recommending athletes sit out 10 days after a positive test. Anyone in close contact with that person is out two weeks.
If the season goes ahead, every team will have to be ready to play without any number of players from week to week. This IU team, believed to be one of the deepest and most talented in recent memory, will be tested in a way no one could have previously imagined.
Here, we’ll look at five Hoosiers that may be the most difficult to replace on a moment’s notice.
QB Michael Penix Jr.
Penix is kind of a “duh” answer here because a starting quarterback is always one of the most important players on the field. Especially a player with as much potential as Penix.
But the issue here is less with Penix — who has been sidelined before — and more about the development of Jack Tuttle. Last year, the Hoosiers had Peyton Ramsey whenever Penix was unavailable. Luckily for the Hoosiers, Ramsey was a more than reliable backstop, and Tuttle only threw nine passes in relief during the season.
But now Ramsey is at Northwestern, and Tuttle has to become that backstop. The former Elite 11 quarterback prospect has always been highly touted, and his arm was apparent in fall camp, even if he seemed a bit rusty. By all accounts, Tuttle improved throughout the year at practice, but that went mostly unseen. So his ability to provide big plays in a pinch is theoretical.
What’s abundantly clear, though, is what sits behind Tuttle. It’s a true freshman, Dexter Williams. He arrived midyear, but Williams hasn’t had what anyone would consider a traditional offseason to prepare.
Penix has to stay healthy. But Tuttle has to be ready.
WR Ty Fryfogle
This may seem like a curveball because Whop Philyor was the star of the Hoosiers’ receiving corps last year. But it could be argued there are more interchangeable pieces in the slot, especially if David Ellis continues to play more receiver than running back in 2020.
Where the Hoosiers have more unproven depth is at the outside receiving positions with both Nick Westbrook and Donavan Hale departed.
That makes Fryfogle all the more important. He’s by far the most productive player the Hoosiers have returning on the outside, hauling in 45 catches for 605 yards in 2019. Miles Marshall added 16 receptions for 196 yards, but Jordan Jakes, Jacolby Hewitt, and Da’Shaun Brown have yet to catch a pass.
Incoming freshmen Rashawn Williams and David Baker offer promise, but it’s unclear what they may provide. Tight end Peyton Hendershot is back with the team, but it’s not immediately clear if he will be docked regular-season snaps for his offseason arrest.
IU needs Philyor for his shiftiness and playmaking in the slot, but the Hoosiers may need Fryfogle’s steadiness from the outside even more, just because of the unknowns.
OT Caleb Jones
As far as the offense is concerned, this skips over the backfield. That’s not to say Stevie Scott isn’t important. He obviously is. But again, with a Swiss Army Knife type in Ellis ready to shift into the backfield, if needed, and a talent like Sampson James in the wings, that position group doesn’t appear as needy in the event of an absence.
The offensive line, however, has a lot of questions at the second- and third-string rungs of the ladder.
One could argue that senior Harry Crider could rise above Jones in importance. He can play both guard or center. But the addition of Stanford grad transfer Dylan Powell does offer some of that same versatility, and Mike Katic and Mackenzie Nworah seem like solid options at the guard spots, as well.
At tackle, it’s Jones and Matthew Bedford as the returning starters and a junior college transfer, Chris Bradberry, thrown into the mix. Bedford played well for a true freshman thrown into the fire in 2020, but he still has room to grow. And whoever the Hoosiers’ two bookends are, there is some work to be done in developing what sits behind them.
Jones, the 6-foot-8, 362-pound specimen, has both the size and light feet to be an anchor on Penix’s blindside. It would appear a bit dicey if he were unavailable at any point.
LB Micah McFadden
This is again an argument rooted in IU’s depth in other places because the defense seems capable of sustaining some unexpected hits.
The defensive line, for example, has developed some useful depth over the last year. If, say, Jerome Johnson had to sit, Sio Nofoagatoto’a, DeMarcus Elliott, and C.J. Person, and maybe even a freshman in Damarjhe Lewis, could help pick up the slack. On the edge, Michael Ziemba gets behind the line of scrimmage, but James Head Jr. and Lance Bryant can do that, too, and there is a hope someone like Beau Robbins will break out at some point.
IU coach Tom Allen said this spring that McFadden could be at the head of the best linebacker corps the Hoosiers have assembled in a while. Cam Jones is an explosive player. Thomas Allen is smart and experienced. James Miller played well in spot duty last year. D.K. Bonhomme and Cameron Williams are also waiting in the wings.
But McFadden is just so productive, it would be hard to snap a finger and replace him. In 2019, the instinctive sophomore led the Hoosiers in tackles (61) and tackles for loss (10). As a junior, he will be asked to be even more of a leader in the middle with Reakwon Jones graduated.
McFadden is a keystone that’s hard to play without.
CB Tiawan Mullen
The hype train has arrived quickly for Mullen, named to the Bednarik Award’s preseason watch list heading into just his sophomore season.
But he was just that productive as a true freshman, breaking up a team-high 13 passes. No other Hoosier had more than three in 2019.
Again, the secondary has some promising depth. Reese Taylor and Jaylin Williams are both juniors with starting experience, and redshirt freshmen Larry Tracy and Josh Sanguinetti are competing behind them. IU wouldn’t be left searching for too long if Mullen was out for any reason.
But there is just something about Mullen’s scrappiness, his heart, his uncommon maturity, that makes him a special player and leader for IU’s defense. He’s that guy the Hoosiers can line up across from the other team’s best receiver and feel better about the matchup.
It’s hard to go from unproven freshman to irreplaceable asset in one season, but Mullen has put himself in that conversation.