There's few that will dispute what the biggest question mark is for the IU football team this fall – the offensive line.
Offensively Indiana returns a record-setting quarterback, it has a wealth of talent at wide receiver led by James Hardy, and it boasts a plethora of intriguing possibilities at tailback. But up front, the loss of three senior starters from last year's unit has plenty around the program pointing to the front five as the single biggest key to this fall's success.
IU Coach Terry Hoeppner said the group has made plenty of progress this spring, but he qualified that success as well. "I think maybe it's the most improved position this spring," Hoeppner said last week. "That's probably the only direction we had to go."
By the time spring practice closed Saturday, the Indiana staff had identified seven linemen classified as the No. 1 unit that played together on the Crimson team during last weekend's spring game – Chris Mangiero, Justin Frye, Jonathan Sandberg, Ben Wyss, Chauncey Incarnato, Scott Anderson and Kyle Thomas. Their positions, though, still remain very much up in the air.
The anchor of the group is the 6-5, 296-pound Frye, who began spring drills at center before moving outside to tackle. Six-foot-two, 290-pound Jonathan Sandberg was a mainstay at a starting guard spot on the No. 1 unit in the spring, while 6-5, 283-pound Notre Dame transfer Chauncey Incarnato spent all of his time at right tackle. Thomas and Anderson, meanwhile, saw time at both tackle and guard during spring drills.
While the Hoosiers have a very talented of true freshman offensive linemen arriving this fall that will have an opportunity to compete for playing time right away, Hoeppner also has to prepare for the possibility that most if not all of them won't be ready as true freshmen. If that's the case, he knows he'll need to have a core of linemen that can play more than one position.
"That's part of our goal to develop guys," Hoeppner said. "Have 10 ready to play, but have them be guys who can play not just left guard, but maybe play a couple positions."
For a good portion of spring practice the line struggled to provide quarterbacks Blake Powers, Graeme McFarland and Kellen Lewis with time to throw. A new look Hoosier defense put consistent pressure on the Hoosier signal callers either from the front four or with a variety of blitz packages, creating plenty of concern about what would be in store in the fall.
But the unit finished the spring on a high note, having one of its best efforts in last weekend's spring game. Both the No. 1 and No. 2 units gave IU's quarterbacks time to work the ball downfield, and the end result was a combined 659 yards and five touchdowns passing for Powers, McFarland and Lewis.
"We pass protected," Hoeppner said after the game. "If we do that, we have some players, quarterbacks, receivers, running backs, who can make plays."
Biggest Surprise – After being unable to crack the two or three-deep at defensive end last fall as a redshirt freshman, Kyle Thomas was moved from defense to offensive line last fall. Since the end of the 2005 season, Thomas managed to put on 30-plus pounds to up his weight to 290, making him a legitimate possibility for playing time on the offensive line this fall. He went through his share of growing pains this spring while bouncing around from left tackle to guard as IU offensive line coach Bobby Johnson looks for the right spot for the Bloomington (Ind.) North H.S. product. But he has tremendous athleticism and now has the size to compete at the Big Ten level.
Biggest Disappointment – There was plenty of trial and error this spring from the offensive line, resulting in a unit that remains very much unsettled heading into the summer. IU started the spring with Thomas at left tackle, Anderson and left guard, Frye at center, Sandberg at right guard and Incarnato at right tackle. By the time spring practiced came to a close all of those players had been shuffled to other positions or dropped to the second unit at some point with the exception of Sandberg. That's what the IU staff has to do with an unproven and untested group, but it shows that the offensive line remains unsettled – and a big concern – for this fall.
Spring Position MVP – At a position that's virtually void of any experience, fifth-year senior Justin Frye is a player that Bobby Johnson has been able to plug in wherever he's needed most. During his IU career he's played just about every position on the offensive line, and he did that again this spring. It seems the preference would be to play him on the inside, but if Johnson isn't satisfied with what he's getting from his young tackles Frye is versatile enough to move back outside to either tackle position.
Post-Spring Analysis - Offensive Line
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