Indiana Hoosiers spring football: 5 questions in the air

Indiana quarterback Peyton Ramsey, left, looks for a receiver against Maryland last season. (Photo by the Associated Press)

Tom Allen’s first season as Indiana University football coach ended on a sour note with a loss to Purdue and a 5-7 record. It took about five minutes to turn the page.

Allen’s enthusiasm has energized the Hoosiers’ program and his optimism has permeated everyone connected to it. The progress made in 2017 might not have reached the highest hopes, but it should have set the foundation for more to come.

As IU opens spring practice Saturday in Bloomington, it’ll be interesting to see which players make the biggest steps forward. Here are five intriguing questions of IU this spring as the Hoosiers work toward the Cream & Crimson Game on April 14:

1. Is Peyton Ramsey a lock for the quarterback spot?

Ramsey looked good as a redshirt freshman last season before a knee injury took him out of the mix. He completed 134 of 205 passes (65.4 percent) with 10 touchdowns and five interceptions. He also finished third in rushing (226 yards), which is probably more of an indictment of the Hoosiers’ ground game.

Incoming freshman Michael Penix Jr. is expected to participate in spring practice, so he’ll provide a push at the position, as will 2017 scout team player of the year Nick Tronti, who was redshirted as a freshman. Penix, from Tampa, threw for 41 touchdowns to six interceptions his last two prep seasons. Tronti was Florida’s Mr. Football in 2016. Other quarterbacks on the roster include former Bishop Dwenger standout Mike Fiacable.

2. Can IU finish more with its running game?

The Hoosiers had the fewest rushing touchdowns in the Big Ten last season, but they return a group of players who should be improved with age and experience. Morgan Ellison averaged 4.9 yards per carry last season and led the team with seven touchdowns. He rushed for 704 yards and should be in line for a push for 1,000 yards in 2018 if he continues to blossom.

Also back is second-leading rusher Cole Gest, who averaged 4.6 yards per carry. Again, Ramsey is a running threat at quarterback if he wins the job.

3. Who steps into the void left by linebackers Tegray Scales and Chris Covington?

This is a major concern for the Hoosiers, considering what Scales and Covington brought to the table last season. Scales was second on the team with 89 tackles (12.5 for loss, six sacks) and Covington third with 85 tackles (12 for loss, three sacks).

Allen has talked about how important the linebacker spot is for success, so it will be imperative for some playmakers to emerge. Among the candidates are Reakwon Jones, Michael McGinnis and Kiante Walton. There’s also the possibility of safety Marcelino Ball merging into a linebacker spot. The inexperience at this position will have to be overcome in a hurry. That’s one reason spring football is so important.

4. Could the receiving corps become the team’s best unit?

The Hoosiers lost Simmie Cobbs, and he was a playmaker with his 72 receptions, 841 yards and eight touchdowns. But a look at the returning players reveals a wealth of possibilities if the starting quarterback – whoever that is – can find the rapport and connections.

Returning to the receivers unit are Luke Timian (68 catches, 589 yards) and Whop Philyor (33 catches, 335 yards) and, perhaps most significantly, senior Nick Westbrook, who tore his ACL in the first play of the season last year. Westbrook caught 54 passes for 995 yards in 2016. Bishop Dwenger alum Ryan Watercutter, a tight end, returns after hauling in 12 passes last season.

5. Can Allen’s motivational shtick keep working?

Allen is an inspiring guy, clever with the acronyms (LEO: Love each other) and strong at team building, and persuading players to buy into the process. The first season, a coach almost always has the players’ ears. The second one can be trickier, but Allen has the energy and commitment necessary. There’s no reason to believe he won’t have the team focused and antsy for fall camp by the end of spring ball.