BLOOMINGTON -- You might think Tre Roberson is Indiana's guaranteed starting quarterback, but there is no guarantee in the aftermath of a 1-11 season. You get what you earn and Roberson, who became the first freshman quarterback in IU history to start last season, has not earned anything.
Does that mean Roberson is struggling in his first college spring practice?
“Look at the games Tre played in against good competition,” offensive coordinator Seth Littrell says. “You do that and you've got to grow up fast. He's beyond his years. He's very competitive. He doesn't back down from anything. That's what you want to see from a quarterback and a leader.”
And yet …
Flash-back to a recent scrimmage. The sun dazzles above Memorial Stadium. Roberson's passes do not. He is short on some, wide on others. He completes his share, but not at the rate coach Kevin Wilson wants.
Last season Roberson was a 57.0-percent passer. Wilson wants it closer to 70 percent and Roberson is not there yet.
“We need a guy who can get us in the end zone,” Wilson says.
Roberson understands. He is a dual-threat quarterback capable of making a big play on every snap. But he has to learn offensive nuances and defensive vulnerabilities. So he works with Kevin Johns, the assistant offensive coordinator who coaches quarterbacks and receivers to help foster an in-sync atmosphere crucial for success.
“Coach Johns has brought a lot of intelligence,” Roberson says. “He has me in the film room a lot. Understanding all that slows down the game a lot. I'm getting better at understanding where receivers will be, understanding defenses and what spots will be open compared to what the defense is.”
Rather than run specific routes, Roberson says, receivers now seek holes in the coverage and settle in. Roberson has to read the defense, know where the holes will be and deliver on target. This requires precise timing with the receivers. If everybody is on the same page, the offense is relentlessly efficient.
“It's just like baseball,” Roberson says, “just pitch and catch."
If not, well …
Competition is here, and if it no longer involves Dusty Kiel and Edward Wright-Baker, who have moved on as so many players have in the transition from Bill Lynch to Wilson, that doesn't mean that it isn't real.
Cam Coffman arrived as a late newcomer out of Arizona Western Community College. He led Arizona Western to the junior college national title game, throwing for 291 yards and four touchdowns. For the season he threw for 2,244 yards, 21 touchdowns and six interceptions while completing 61.4 percent of his passes.
He brings, Littrell says, a rare toughness to the position.
“He competes in drills most quarterbacks wouldn't be involved with, and he's not just competing, but winning them.”
Coffman is more consistent in the scrimmage, and Wilson uses it as a coaching point entering Saturday's spring game.
“Cam had a couple of drives, got into a little rhythm, got it going, got some communication, some play calling, hit a couple of shots,” Wilson says. “Tre needs to do that. He needs to be a little more consistent. We're working hard on the passing game and he's still a little errant on plays you'd like to be more high percentage.”
Wilson and Littrell have invoked the pass-heavy spirit of Mike Leach, the former Texas Tech coach known for his throw-it-around approach, as well as Wilson's own pass-happy instincts.
“We're keeping it simple and consistent,” Littrell says. “A lot of the plays and route combinations are already in place. It's just different tweaks and getting the players to understand leverage and gaps and where you want them to be and getting the receivers and the quarterback together.
“You've got to understand Tre is a young guy. The last six games last season he was playing as a true freshman in a very multiple system. He's a lot more comfortable and understands it a lot better. It's getting those guys on the same page.”
Wilson says if IU throws 50 passes in a game, 30 should be “almost guarantees -- a lot of bubbles and screens and quick hits and high percentages. You're not laboring on easy throws. You take a two- to three-yard pass play and maybe get five to seven yards. We should be like 30-for-30 or 28-for-30 there.”
The remaining 20 passes would be deeper and more difficult.
“If you hit a third of them, or maybe half, you're still completing 67 percent overall,” Wilson says. “That's getting high.”
And if things break down, Roberson brings the running dimension. He rushed for 426 yards last season while throwing for 937.
“I like to do both, but I like to pass first,” he says. “If the pass is not there, I'll run it.”
Littrell is fine with that.
“If running the quarterback is what we're good at, we'll see a lot of that. It's very simple. I want to be great at what we do. If that's running the quarterback, we'll do that. I don't have anything against that. The only thing is you don't want to get him hurt. What's most important is winning games.”
That's the only guarantee you get.