Indiana's Wilson has confidence in Hoosiers' depth despite offseason injuries
CHICAGO -- In the span of one summer, Indiana has already endured the kinds of losses that would have crippled its program in the recent past.
Last month's dismissal of leading tackler Antonio Allen was the first blow to a team that closed spring practice confident in its course ahead. Then, at the Big Ten Football Media Days on Thursday, IU coach Kevin Wilson revealed that his Hoosiers will be without a couple more key contributors on the offensive side of the ball.
J-Shun Harris, Indiana's leading returning receiver, will miss the upcoming season with a torn ACL, and right tackle Ralston Evans has decided to take a medical waiver and end his career due to nagging knee injuries.
Without question, the losses of all three players will be felt while Indiana pursues its first winning season in five years under Wilson. But there is also the belief that the 2015 Hoosiers are in a much better position to withstand the latest succession of gut punches to its program as depth and athleticism reach a higher level.
"This is the deepest team we've had," Wilson said. "We've had a couple of things where you can say we've had an injury, lost someone. We're getting deep enough, I think we can overcome that."
Decades have passed since Indiana could boast about an athletic two-deep it feels comfortable matching up against some of the league's heavyweights. To play and succeed in the Big Ten East, it had no other choice but getting to that point.
Up front, the Hoosiers have a projected offensive line headlined by an average height of 6-foot-5.5 and an average weight of 305.5 pounds. The line Wilson inherited in 2011 averaged 6-4 and 295 across. The receivers, while still unproven, make up a group of potential playmakers built through a mix of size, speed, agility and potential. The secondary, while raw, also has a degree of athleticism and budding size that have not been luxuries in Bloomington for some time.
In that secondary, Wilson plans on replacing Allen at free safety with Chase Dutra, who he called the leader of that group. Dutra, a redshirt sophomore, made noticeable strides by the end of last season and shared the team lead with three interceptions. Most importantly, his technique improved and he wasn't getting beat on the same moves in November that he struggled with in September.
But his move also creates a hole at strong safety, where Wilson feels there will be quality competition for the open spot. Tony Fields and Kiante Walton, each of whom enter their sophomore seasons with a decent base of playing experience, will be at the top of the list of replacements. Wilson also likes what he's seen from incoming freshmen Jonathan Crawford and Jameel Cook.
"We'll have to have a lot of young people step up," Wilson said. "I think skill-wise we will."
At receiver, IU will have a similar reliance on youth. With the graduations of Shane Wynn and Nick Stoner, along with the season-ending injury to Harris, the Hoosiers lose 60 percent of its receiving production from a year ago. With Harris set to take a redshirt, Indiana's next leading returning receiver is sophomore Dominique Booth, a former four-star prospect who caught only eight passes for 79 yards in 2014.
Yet Wilson believes there's enough talent left at the position between returners Simmie Cobbs, Ricky Jones, Damon Graham and incoming freshmen like Nick Westbrook, Leon Thornton, Isaac James, Mike Majette and junior college transfer Camion Patrick, if he qualifies academically.
"It's a tough break for J-Shun, but I think this is the most skill [in that] group we've had," Wilson said. "This is a significantly better skill group than last year. And I think we've got some kids on par with [Cody] Latimer and [Kofi] Hughes and that crowd. Now, they're young. They'll have to step up. They have a great quarterback that can deliver. I think they'll have a really good offensive line and a run game to complement."
On the flip side, even with Harris' injury, Wilson said there's still enough depth at receiver to give James and Majette a look at corner -- the position that presents IU's biggest glaring hole. For years, some of the best athletes at IU, like Hughes, have been turned into offensive weapons while the defense foundered.
Natural athletes like James, a gifted track and field competitor from Carmel, and Majette, who played defensive back, quarterback and receiver in high school, could bolster a defense that is beginning to show proof of its increased athleticism.
Nowhere on the depth chart is Indiana better, bigger and deeper than at offensive line. Evans' loss certainly hurts, but he would have been pushed at right tackle this year by Ohio State transfer Tim Gardner.
For Wilson, Evans' decision to hang up his cleats might be a bigger sentimental loss than it is to the personnel group. He was Wilson's first recruit in 2011, but dealt with knee issues after a leg press accident in 2011 that tore all of the major ligaments. Now, Evans will transition into a position as a student coach.
"He's hands down one of the best I've ever been around," Wilson said. "Just caring and loving and wanting to do things right and be a positive influence. Basically, his legs have been worn out. ... It was his decision, and if he wasn't ready to decide, I wasn't going to have him decide. He decided and what that does now is he can be a student coach. He can still be at practice, he can keep his locker in the locker room and he's basically gonna be Ralston, but he can't put on the pads and hit."
And yet Indiana still feels it has plenty of players who can and will.
The losses of Allen, Harris and Evans create holes where Wilson once felt strong, but the drop off in talent on the two-deep does not present the same major chasm that would've been present even a couple years ago.
"It's a deeper team," Wilson said. "It's a more exciting team. That's led to our best recruiting. That's led to an outstanding winter, spring, summer. Again, we're cranked and we're ready to get rolling. We'll have some glitches. We're not a perfect football team. But we're kind of back to where we were, and we're ready to roll this year."
This article was written by Mike Miller from Herald-Times, Bloomington, Ind. and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.