A position that was originally expected to be a liability for Coach Terry Hoeppner in his debut season might just wind up being reliable after all.
When the curtain dropped on the 2004 season, it did the same on the career of the most prolific wide receiver in IU history, Courtney Roby. Roby departed Bloomington with school records in both receptions (170) and receiving yards (2,254), leaving a glaring hole for Hoeppner and staff to address.
If the search for a No. 1 option wasn't a tall enough order, compounding the problem was the loss of three more senior wide receivers - David Lewis, Travis Haney and Patrick Thompson - who combined to catch 34 balls last season for 480 yards a year ago.
The receiving corps took another off-season hit when promising freshman James Bailey was seriously injured in an automobile accident, sidelining him for all of spring practice and putting his fall return in doubt. Return specialist Lance Bennett, meanwhile, was also missing during spring practice following off-season surgery, and freshman James Hardy was available, but just coming off a long basketball season.
"It was slim pickings," said wide receivers coach Billy Lynch.
As the Hoosiers went through spring drills, Lynch wasn't so much concerned with finding out who was going to be in the two-deep in the fall – instead, he was simply trying to find enough healthy bodies to run out onto the field.
As if that wasn't trouble enough, Hoeppner's newly unveiled spread attack often relies on the use of three and four wide receivers, meaning Lynch was rounding up and sending out just about every able-bodied wideout at times this spring.
Lynch is breathing easier now that fall has arrived. Not only have the likes of Bennett and Bailey returned to the practice field, but the debut of four promising freshmen – Brandon Walker-Roby, Nick Polk, Andrew Means and Chris Banks – have lived up to and in some cases exceeded expectations during the first week of camp.
"During our first position meeting, I told the older guys to look around the room, and there were 15 of us there," said Lynch, who came with Hoeppner from Miami (Ohio). "We all started laughing.
"Now we have our numbers back up, which is huge, particularly since we want to be able to go four wide at times."
During the spring Lynch had a difficult time finding four to put on the field, and now his challenge will be to pick those four from a position that's suddenly one of IU's deepest. In addition to the newcomers, Lynch has juniors Jahkeen Gilmore and Lance Bennett, senior Rhett Kleinschmidt and redshirt freshmen James Hardy, James Bailey and Marcus Thigpen all making plays this spring and making their case for playing time this fall.
Lynch's criteria is pretty simple for who will be on the field on Saturdays, and he'll continue evaluating along with the rest of the coaches this fall.
"I told all of them from the beginning that the best ones are going to play, no matter who they are," said Lynch. "No doubt about it, we're going to get our best players on the field. If we have two wide receivers in, then our two best are going to be in. If we're four wide, our four best are going to be in."
While there likely won't be a receiver that commands the majority of the throws in the way that Roby did for three years, early indications are that junior Jahkeen Gilmore will be a key to the passing attack. The second-leading receiver on the team a year ago with 23 catches for 308 yards and two touchdowns, Gilmore has moved out of the slot and gone out wide, where he combines excellent speed and strength.
"You look at Jah(keen), he kind of has a mix of (speed and size)," said Lynch. "He's not as tall as (James) Hardy, but he's a physical kid that can run."
During the first week of practice, Gilmore has been on the No. 1 unit along with Hardy and Thigpen. Hardy has been on the outside, while Thigpen has worked out of the slot, where he's been dangerous on short routes or on screens.
Hardy is a big target at 6-7 and 218 pounds, while Thigpen is arguably the fastest receiver on the roster, and one of the most elusive as well.
"I think they all complement each other really well," said Lynch.
Hardy is a player who has developed from a talented but raw athlete a year ago into a player brimming with potential.
"He's put on that weight, and he's developed a physical dimension to him," said Lynch. "He's a football player now.
"Instead of being a tall athlete with some skills, now he looks the part. He's physical off the line of scrimmage, and his footwork has gotten better. He's always had soft hands and had an ability to go up and win the jump ball, but he's added some new dimensions."
The 5-9, 178-pound Thigpen won't stand out on the field in the way that Hardy will, but he has a chance to be one of the team's biggest playmakers with his ability to make people miss after the catch.
"Marcus Thigpen is a pocket rocket – he is as fast as they come," said Lynch.
That trio will be pushed by a handful of newcomers from this year's recruiting class. Welcoming some impact players at the receiver position was a top priority for Hoeppner's staff in February, and early indications are that it was mission accomplished.
Means, Walker-Roby, Polk and Turner have all enjoyed big moments this fall, and each has had an opportunity to work with the No. 2 unit, and in some cases, the No. 1 offense, this fall.
"I think all four of those guys have a huge upside," said Lynch. "They've done some nice things, but they haven't totally grasped it mentally yet."
Means, a talented 6-0, 200-pounder from Ohio, isn't getting caught up in jockeying for a spot in the rotation, instead focusing on learning the offense and learning from his teammates. In his mind, whoever IU winds up putting on the field will be successful.
"I think we're great receivers, and whoever is going to be the best mentally and physically is going to be out there," said Means. "And whoever is out there, we're going to have a sick receiving corps."
The coming weeks will tell which of the newcomers are ready to contribute immediately, and who will form the stable of wideouts for Lynch and Hoeppner to use this fall. While Lynch is unsure who will make up that group right now, one thing he does know is that he'll need more than three or four to get the job done this season.
"As you go through the season, I think the course of history will show you that you'll need seven or eight guys to get through a season," said Lynch. "So we have to build some quality depth there."
The only thing that the unit lacks is experience. Gilmore (23 career receptions) and Kleinschmidt (four career receptions) are the only two wideouts on the roster who have ever caught a pass in college.
"The problem is we don't have a lot of experience," said Lynch. "We know that. So we have to do a great job with every rep in practice, because each one is crucial for us. Our experience is going to come on the practice field."
While experience is an issue, talent isn't, according to Lynch.
"There's no question we have the talent," said Lynch. "This is as talented a group as I've been around."
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