BLOOMINGTON -- Kevin Wilson sees progress. That's crucial. His Indiana football players are bigger, stronger and -- this can't be emphasized enough -- more experienced.
Of course, when you're coming off a 1-11 head coaching debut season, as Wilson is, progress comes with perspective.
“If you watched us practice,” he says, “we didn't look like a (1-11) team. Now, we performed that way. That's what has to change.”
So does perception. IU is picked by most preseason publications to finish last in the Big Ten's Leader's Division behind Wisconsin, Ohio State, Illinois, Purdue and Penn State. It has had just one winning season since 1994, and with a Big Ten schedule that includes road games against national powerhouses Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio State, at least another season of struggles seem assured.
Still, there is reason for optimism. IU returns 15 starters, and has two players up for national awards. Junior tight end Ted Bolser is on the John Mackey Award preseason watch list. The annual award goes to the nation's best tight end. Fifth-year senior center Will Matte is on the Rimington Trophy fall watch list. That annual award goes to the nation's best NCAA Division I center.
Bolser caught 14 passes for 165 yards and a touchdown last season. As a freshman he had 27 catches for 405 yards and five touchdowns.
Matte helped the Hoosiers rush for 1,374 yards in Big Ten play last season, including 319 rushing yards against Northwestern. That was IU's biggest conference total since 2001, when Antwaan Randle El was running the show.
Quarterback Tre Roberson is a pass-and-run threat, but he is not a starting lock, Wilson insists. Newcomer Cameron Coffman had a solid spring and incoming freshman Nate Sudfeld of California will get a preseason shot.
The Hoosiers played more freshmen (32) than any team in the country last season, which reflected an unintended purge from the Bill Lynch era. Veterans bolted, some by Wilson's choice, some by their own. Now, it seems, the guys are here who want to be here.
“I didn't like some things I saw last year,” Wilson says, “but I saw some young guys playing hard. I saw some young guys, at the end, battling.
“They have to get better. That's what we're trying to do. We got a couple of really good recruiting classes that came in since the improvement to our facilities and stadium.”
IU will have to win this coming season with youth, a difficult challenge in any league, and an almost impossible one given Big Ten maturity, depth and talent. But with patience, good coaching and strong development, it can lead to a brighter future.
“Our best players are our young players,” Wilson says. “That's those the previous staff recruited, and guys we're recruiting now. The freshmen and redshirt freshman are really good classes.The guys we signed (incoming freshmen) on paper are better than what's playing.
“Now, we don't play on paper. You've got to line up and hit guys in the mouth, move your feet, catch the ball, block and tackle. We'll see if that paper transfers in.”
IU has just three recruiting commitments for the Class of 2013 with Homestead receiver Isaac Griffth (rated the state's No. 19 player), Ohio defensive end Patrick Dougherty and Ohio tight end Evan Jansen. That's well behind the 22 players from Michigan's top-rated class as well as Notre Dame (17 commitments), Illinois (15), Ohio State (14), Penn State (14), Nebraska (13), Illinois
No matter. Wilson and his staff are being selective in their recruiting, diligent in their efforts, relentless in their demands. Whether it's recruits or veterans, Wilson pushes a hard-hitting style that the Hoosiers finally seem to be grasping.
“You've got to learn how to hit to play football,” he says. “You've got to love getting after someone. As teammates, I love you, but I'm trying to knock the crap out of you, too. There's appreciation in practice where you compete. We gained on it in the spring, but we're not there. We've got to keep gaining.”