Whop Philyor knows how physical Big Ten football can be.
As a freshman and sophomore, the 5-foot-11, 180-pound slot receiver waded through injuries and surgeries. As a junior, Philyor had a breakout campaign, but a double-whammy of hits to the head at Penn State knocked him out of the next week’s game.
IU’s colorful, energetic receiver may be the headliner of the corps after a 1,000-yard season in 2019, but he knows better than most. He can’t be the sole star of the show. Nobody can be in a league so physical, or in a season where one positive COVID-19 test can sideline someone for weeks.
So as the Hoosiers prepare for an Oct. 24 opener with Penn State, Philyor has been looking to Ty Fryfogle and Miles Marshall, and younger receivers like Javon Swinton, Da’Shaun Brown, and Jacolby Hewitt, and he’s challenging them.
“I tell them boys all the time. ‘Man, them (PSU) boys knocked me out,’” Philyor said. “I’m going to need y’all boys to bring that dog, too. You already know I’m going to bring that dog with me. I tell the boys — I tell them all the time — this game is real personal to me. I need y’all boys to make it personal with y’all, too.”
Philyor, who compared himself to the cartoon Tasmanian Devil in the leadup to the 2020 season, feeling trapped, spinning inside of a box, will soon have a chance to let loose on Big Ten defenses. But he expects to have a pack of playmakers riding with him.
In Philyor, Fryfogle, and tight end Peyton Hendershot, IU has its top three leaders in receiving yards back. There should be enough there to split the attention of opposing defenses. But as the Hoosiers prepare for the Nittany Lions, there is an urgency to develop even more behind Philyor, Fryfogle, and Hendershot, and even Marshall, a redshirt sophomore who received his first dose of significant snaps last season.
As Philyor knows, more will probably be needed.
“You never know, Mike went down last year,” Philyor said, recalling the numerous injuries his friend and fellow Tampa native, quarterback Michael Penix Jr., experienced in 2019. “God forbid it happens again, but the next guy has to come up. I might go down. Fry might go down. Everybody has to be ready, so we have to have collective chemistry together.
“That’ the biggest thing, just being together basically.”
In the pursuit of replacements for outside receivers Donavan Hale and Nick Westbrook, there have been positive developments. Fryfogle and Marshall have made steady progress in their years in Bloomington. They are “Steady Eddies,” according to receivers coach Grant Heard. And they offer quite a contrast with Philyor.
“Sometimes I don’t know if they have a pulse,” Heard said. “I got Whop, who is an Energizer Bunny. But those two are just steady, and nose to the grindstone, and just work, and just go out there and make plays.”
Fryfogle may be a senior, but he’s a player Heard wishes he could have redshirted in 2017, before there was a four-game rule. He was a little raw when he arrived at IU via Lucedale, Miss., but his steady progress as a route-runner and jump-ball winner has put him on the doorstep of being an NFL-level prospect.
That was the level Heard wanted Fryfogle to push for as he went into his final offseason with the program. Of course, it was anything but a conventional offseason, but Heard saw the 6-2, 214-pound wideout working hard down in Mississippi.
“Ty, he’s exactly where he needs to be. He worked his butt off in the offseason,” Heard said. “Down in Mississippi, they didn’t really think (COVID-19) was real, so he was down there, working out, getting his work in. Every day I talked to him at home, he was outside, working out. He’s exactly where I need him to be and I expect big, big things out of him this year.”
Fryfogle clarified his coach’s wisecrack: He wore a mask as he went about his work, social-distancing as much as possible.
“I just tried to keep the same routine at the time the season was postponed,” Fryfogle said. “I just tried to stay in shape and catch balls. Never knew what was going to happen and if they were going to call us back up. Just tried to keep the same work ethic and not get out of shape, because they say if you get out of shape, it’s hard to get back in shape.”
If Fryfogle can build on his 45 receptions for 604 yards last season, that gives the Hoosiers at least two receivers opposing defenses have to respect week to week.
Marshall, who pulled in 16 catches for 196 yards, is the real wild card. He may be similar to Fryfogle in demeanor, but Heard also trusts both to play multiple positions on the field. At 6-4, 208 pounds, Marshall also has the frame to be a difficult matchup.
“Practice is one thing, and practice is good, but games are different,” Heard said. “For him to be able to get in there and have success … has helped him just to understand, for one, he can play at this level, and two, the things he has to work on and continuing to get better. He’s done an awesome job.”
Beyond the top trio, there are more intriguing options. Da’Shaun Brown, who redshirted his freshman season, received some good reviews from IU coach Tom Allen just from practice last season.
This fall camp, Allen has repeatedly mentioned how true freshman Javon Swinton has caught his eye, absorbing the offense and flashing playmaking ability.
“It ain’t always pretty,” Heard said, admitting the freshman has some room to improve his technique. “But he finds a way to get to the ball and he has really good hands. Just trying to get him to understand the pace of the game, how physical the Big Ten can be, and as he progresses, I think he’s going to be really, really good.”
While there is still the question of who exactly will rotate in for Philyor, Fryfogle, and Marshall during the PSU contest, Heard at least feels it’s a solid batch to choose from.
Philyor has confidence in them, as well. Along with the whole team.
When he was asked about the PSU kickoff nearing, Philyor hinted at some chippiness at practice, because the Hoosiers are just tired of going against one another.
“We just ready, man,” Philyor said. “We’re ready. Whoever set on the plate, we’re ready to eat them up.”
(above photo courtesy of IU Athletics)