Indiana coach Kevin Wilson doesn't blink in the face of Cream and Crimson football optimism. Yes, defense remains the No. 1 key to a winning record and bowl appearance. The awful breakdowns that have shattered hopes with numbing regularity have to stop.
And yet …
There is no established No. 1 quarterback. There are clues and suggestions, but there is no fact. Until that happens, until either Tre Roberson, Cam Coffman or Nate Sudfeld establishes himself, all that optimism from a Big Ten-leading 19 starters, the best freshman class in a generation and a school-record eight home games is so much hot air.
And Wilson knows it.
“For our program to win, for us to have the year we're capable of having, we need to be dynamic at quarterback,” he said. “We can't be average and let the complementary pieces give us the victories we need. So our quarterback has got to be a difference maker.”
On paper Roberson is the guy. He has the dual-threat ability the others do not. He is swift and athletic and, it seems, fully healed from last year's broken leg that limited him to two games. If he can achieve the 70 percent passing accuracy Wilson wants from his quarterback, he would almost certainly be the guy.
If not, Coffman and Sudfeld are very much in contention. They shared duties after Roberson went down, and did it well enough for the Hoosiers to lead the Big Ten in passing. Coffman did it as a junior college transfer. Sudfeld was a true freshman.
And yet …
“We're unsettled at quarterback,” Wilson said. “We've got three guys in a dead heat. They're all great leaders. They're all capable of winning.
“I'd love to see one emerge. I'm not going to anoint someone. They'll have to earn it on the field.”
Preseason camp starts Friday and while there are plenty of questions in plenty of areas -- did we mention the perennially shaky defense? -- the quarterback battle looms largest. No position in any other sport is so important.
“Those three guys are capable,” Wilson said, “but who is going to take it to the next step.”
Wilson has thrived with a spread attack, and it becomes even more effective when the quarterback is a running threat. That threat was lost last year when Roberson broke his leg.
“We were going to be mobile with Tre,” Wilson said. “We were going to be mobile with the other two guys. But when Tre got hurt and we just had those two guys left, that was really all we had, so we had to be very smart about protecting them, about the amount of hits they took and exposure we put them through, the contact and just for the confidence so they didn't get shell shocked and battered. We played a little left handed. We weren't able to play with a full deck.”
Now, they can.
“Our quarterbacks are talented,” Wilson said, “but we haven't proven we're going to win a lot. The criteria is we need someone who is going to be a difference maker, be dynamic and help us win.”
IU went 1-11 in Wilson's first season, 4-8 in his second. Four of last year's losses were by four or fewer points. A good quarterback will go a long way to getting the Hoosiers to their first bowl since 2007 and just their second in 20 years.
Each quarterback, Wilson said, brings a different skill set.
“Maybe the guy with the greatest arm strength is Nate Sudfeld. He's tall. Very smart. As a young player, he's very good.
“Maybe the guy with the most moxie is Coffman. He's a little daredevil. He'll take some shots and take some chances. He has great anticipation and vision.
“The best athlete is Tre Roberson.”
What will be the determining factors?
“One, the ability to complete the ball,” Wilson said. “Two, the ability to not just move the ball, but to score. Last year our offense moved the ball well, but we didn't score proportional to moving it. You don't win games by getting yards. You win by scoring.
“So we want a passing percentage that keeps us on schedule. A guy who gets us in the end zone. A guy who's going to protect the ball.”