“We need our starting quarterback playing at a higher level,” Wilson says. “In his time, he's done well, but not as good as we need. We need Nate to be a better player.”
As the Hoosiers brace for Saturday's season opener against Indiana State, Wilson aims for a higher purpose, with Sudfeld as his weapon of choice. If the junior masters his position as former Wilson quarterbacks Sam Bradford and Zak Kustok did, all things are possible this season, with making a bowl game a minimum.
So Wilson pushes and prods. Extraordinary team accomplishments require extraordinary quarterback play. It's not so much about numbers as it is, well, about numbers. Specifically, the number of touchdowns the offense scores.
“He's got to get the ball in the end zone,” Wilson says. “That's his job.”
Sudfeld does that. He's played in 19 college games and thrown 28 touchdown passes, which already ranks seventh in school history. He's been a huge contributor to an offense that averaged 38.4 points last season, 30.8 the year before.
But that's yesterday's news. What can Sudfeld do with a revamped group of receivers? Can he handle expectations? Will he lead the Hoosiers, coming off a 5-7 season, not just to wins over teams they should beat, but to ones experts think they shouldn't?
“It's more managing all the situations, managing the team, getting the team in the end zone,” Wilson says. “As he plays, it's understanding the strength of his team and how to maximize things. It's no different than any other quarterback.”
Wilson puts Sudfeld and the offense in a variety of practice pressure situations — four-minute drills, two-minute drills, 30-second drills, third-and-20-yards-to-go scenarios.
“What do you do?” Wilson says about that third-and-20. “Would you want to force the ball and maybe throw an interception, or do you want to check down for eight yards? Now your 38-yard punt average is really a 46-yard kick.”
In other words, play smart instead of reckless. Think about the big picture and not just one play with the odds and the defense stacked against you. Create scenarios where you win the battle of field position so that, with patience, you get the chance to make game-winning plays instead of force yourself into victory costing ones.
“It's manage the team; get the team in the end zone,” Wilson says again.
Sudfeld gets it. Just because his battle for No. 1 ended in early June with co-starter Tre Roberson's transfer to Illinois State doesn't mean he takes anything for granted. It's not about having the job. It's about excelling at it.
“I've tried to work extra hard, maybe a little extra gear,” Sudfeld says. “I'm still competing against myself.”
Sudfeld has worked with noted California quarterback guru Roger Theder. He spent four days this summer in Florida training under former Florida State Heisman Trophy winner Chris Wenke.
“That helped a lot,” Sudfeld says. “He gave me some good coaching points.”
Offensive coordinator Kevin Johns says it's paying off.
“He has a ton of personal pride. He wants to be very good. This camp has been about Nate challenging himself. The first two weeks of camp, he was OK. It was not his best. The last two weeks he's developed some rhythm. I feel he's peaking at the right time. I believe in him. I think he'll do just fine.”
While Wilson pushes him, Sudfeld pushes himself. He doesn't have class on Monday mornings, so he's in at 9 a.m. watching film with coaches. But as much time as he puts in, Wilson says, it doesn't match what Bradford (the 2008 Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 2010 NFL draft pick) did at Oklahoma.
“It ain't close to how hard that guy worked to be a great player,” Wilson says.
Yes, there is motivational ploy in that, which doesn't make it any less true.
Sudfeld gets it, just as he gets all the quarterback responsibilities. Sometimes that's an anchor. When he makes a mistake, he can dwell on them instead of moving on.
“Coach Johns will say that sometimes that's my biggest weakness, that I'm my own worst enemy. I over-think things at times. I thought a lot about what I could have done differently in those games we've lost.”
Here's one thing to think about — what happens if Sudfeld gets hurt. Backups Nate Boudreau, a redshirt sophomore, and true freshman Zander Diamont are not ready. Neither has won the No. 2 job. Neither has ever thrown a college pass.
“It's a little bit all over the place right now,” Wilson says. “Zander is a little streaky, a little hot and cold, a little mature. (Boudreau) is more polished, but we have a lot of work to do there. We'll keep bringing them along.”
Adds Johns: “We've had good days with them; we've had bad days with them. Right now we're trying to get the base schemes and execute at the tempo we want to. I'm not sure there is a clear-cut No. 2.”
Indiana State, coming off a 1-11 season, doesn't project as a threat. The Hoosiers are 5-0 against the Sycamores, and won last year 73-35.
Still, Wilson doesn't want complacency.
“We're getting ready for a team that scored 35 points on us. Two years ago, we're in a one possession game (IU won 24-17). Indiana State comes in ready to get after us.”
In the end, it's less about the Sycamores and more about the Hoosiers.
“There are some things I'd like to see a lot better, but it's early,” Wilson says. “We're making strides. I'm looking for consistency and competitiveness.”