BLOOMINGTON-Safety Aaron Mitchell and cornerback Courtney Clency found themselves running back to the huddle during Tuesday afternoon's football practice shaking his heads.
The second-string defensive backs had just blanketed freshman Nick Polk on a deep ball throw from Graeme McFarland down the sidelines during 11-on-11 drills. The throw somehow found its way onto Polk's right hand, and the freshman from Milwaukee then pulled the ball down and cradled it to his body with the one hand, drawing praise from the offense and disbelief from the two members of the No. 2 defense.
"He caught that?" Mitchell asked.
Polk did haul in arguably the play of the day Tuesday, continuing a trend of different players shining on different days at a position that was one of the biggest questions heading into fall camp.
At the start of camp, it was redshirt freshman James Hardy who was turning heads with his larger frame and monumental jump from spring ball. Soon afterwards, it was Marcus Thigpen who was making big plays with his elusiveness after the catch. At Saturday's scrimmage it was Jahkeen Gilmore and James Bailey who starred.
"That's the beauty of this group – we're short on experience, we're a young football team from a wide receiver standpoint, but we have some talented guys," said wide receivers coach Billy Lynch.
Those talented players, meanwhile, have been involved in a 2 1/2–week battle for starting jobs and playing time this fall. There are as many as seven or eight wide receivers who have legitimate chances to contribute as the position this fall.
"When everyone has been healthy, there has been competition at every spot for every job," said Lynch. "Anytime you can build that depth to where your No. 2 is almost as good as your No. 1 or as good as your No. 1, then you've got something."
Lynch thinks he has that. Among the players who have legitimate chances to contribute this fall are Gilmore, Thigpen, Hardy, Bailey, Brandon Walker-Roby, Polk, Chris Banks and Andrew Means. Almost to a man, each has had their moment in the practice sun, looking like a player capable of making a big impact this fall.
Now that they've shown that ability, Lynch is hoping to see it from all of them on a little more consistent basis.
"What we have to get to is where all those guys that have stepped up here and there are doing it everyday," said Lynch.
The 6-2, 200-pound Bailey is someone who has come on strong in the last several days. After spending the majority of camp working with the No. 2 unit, he's now challenging to either start or be the team's No. 4 in four-receiver sets.
Bailey made a big impression in Saturday's scrimmage, when he caught three passes for 69 yards and a 32-yard touchdown. He was a weapon after the catch, turning short routes into big gains a couple of times.
While many expected Bailey to be an impact player in Bloomington, his status was very much up in the air after a serious car accident last spring left both he and IU women's basketball player Jamey Chapman in the hospital with serious injuries.
Bailey has since recovered, and is now living up to the promise that he exhibited as a standout prep wideout from Detroit.
"He really didn't surprise me – to be honest, it surprised me more that it took to Saturday for him to get to that point," said Lynch. "But he's been through a lot – for him to even be practicing and to not have missed a practice, that's a tribute to him and his toughness.
"We knew he had it in him. He joked with me a couple of times when I got on him for maybe not going as hard as he should have in practice, and he'd say, ‘coach, I'm a gamer, I'm a gamer.' Well, Saturday was our first game-like situation and he stepped up."
While Bailey has made a big push for playing time in the last couple of days, Hardy has been absent from practice, sidelined by a sore Achilles that the staff is being cautious with.
Lynch said Hardy has been frustrated to be out, but he's extremely pleased with the progress that the two-sport standout has made.
"When he's been out here, he's been phenomenal," said Lynch. "The improvement he made from the spring to the fall is unbelievable.
"He's playing like the player he can be, and he's a tough kid that wants to be out here. Obviously the injury has frustrated him a little bit but it's something he'll overcome, and mentally he's right where he needs to be. As soon as he gets back he'll take off running."
It's also clear from Tuesday's practice that no starting jobs, spots in the two-deep, or even seats on the bus as a member of the travel team are secure. Coach Terry Hoeppner said as much at the close of practice Tuesday, the 16th day of fall camp.
"We made some changeds after Saturday," said Hoeppner. "Some guys who were on the No. 1 and No. 2 units were on the scout team today, and some guys who were on the scout team were on the 1s and the 2s today."
PRACTICE NEWS AND NOTES:
- A handful of players remain sidelined, with all injuries listed as day-to-day: Kenny Love (foot), Brandon Hatcher (foot), Chris Mangiero (foot) and Russ Richardson (Achilles) and James Hardy (foot/Achilles).
- Freshman wide receiver Andrew Means, who had been sidelined with a shoulder injury, was back on the practice field Tuesday.
- Projected No. 1 quarterback Blake Powers was again limited in his practice time Tuesday, sitting out the majority of 11-on-11 drills to ice his right arm.
Hoosier Practice Report - Day 16
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