Will this finally be the year the IU football program gets its head above water?
It's been 13 years since the Hoosiers earned a bowl game invitation, a time span that has seen eight of the conference's 11 teams win at least a share of the conference title and every league team appear in at least three bowl games. Indiana, meanwhile, has strung together 11 straight losing seasons, the longest run of futility in the program's history.
Might that dubious streak come to a close this fall? Some seem to think so, due in large part to a talented group at the offensive skill positions and a favorable schedule that includes seven home games. But there are still plenty of questions facing Coach Terry Hoeppner and his staff as it gears up for the 2006 season.
What are the biggest issues, concerns and potential roadblocks to a successful season this fall? HoosierNation.com counts down the five biggest issues for IU football…
5. Can Tracy Porter Become an Elite Cover Corner – The Hoosiers are holding out hope junior Tracy Porter can emerge as an elite cover man who they can match up with the Big Ten's best wide receivers. Porter has always had all of the physical tools and plenty of big-play ability, evidenced by his six career interceptions and 233 interception return yards. But consistency has been an issue at times.
While the emergence of a newcomer at linebacker or a bona fide pass rusher is important, Porter could wind up being one of the most important players on the defensive side of the ball this fall.
4. Which Freshmen Can Contribute – Truth be told, if the Hoosiers are going to be able to emerge as bowl contenders, they are going to need some true freshmen to emerge as contributors this fall. That's a tall order for newcomers who will be getting their first taste of college football, but concerns at linebacker and along the offensive line make it a necessity that a couple of players are ready to step in from day one.
At linebacker, the loss of Vernon Smith means Matt Mayberry, Mandela Roberts and Will Patterson will also have the opportunity to work their way onto the field. Mayberry and Patterson are outside linebackers who fit in well with Hoeppner's defensive philosophy. Roberts, meanwhile, is a player to watch. He was a highly-productive middle linebacker at Texas High School powerhouse Lufkin H.S., and he has excellent speed as well.
Up front, Cody Faulkner, Pete Saxon and Mike Stark are probably the three linemen with the best chance of contributing quickly.
3. Who's Going to Play Linebacker - The Hoosiers have seen a pair of players who were supposed to be the answer at middle linebacker fall by the wayside in the last six months. Matt Lewis was arguably last year's biggest recruit, but the Daytona Beach, Fla., product showed up last fall out of shape, was injured, and then wound up transferring last December. Last week, IU officials announced that Vernon Smith, a 5-11, 235-pound junior college linebacker who signed in February, wouldn't be enrolling at IU this fall.
Those losses, coupled with the graduation of '05 starters Kyle Killion and John Pannozzo, leaves the linebacking corps as a huge question mark for the defense. It's a group that's undersized and lacking in experience. Other than senior Jake Powers (81 career tackles, 10 career starts) and sophomore Geno Johnson (22 tackles as a true freshman in '05, three starts) there's little for the IU football staff to feel easy about.
2. What is James Hardy's status – Indiana has plenty of skill at the skill positions, with the best of the bunch being 6'7", 215-pound wide receiver James Hardy. But an alleged mid-May altercation with his girlfriend in Ft. Wayne has the status of last year's leading receiver in limbo.
Hardy is scheduled to appear in court Aug. 23 to stand trial on a misdemeanor domestic battery charge and interference with reporting of a crime, a date that falls just 10 days before the Hoosiers' Sept. 2 season opener against Western Michigan.
IU Athletic Department officials have been quiet on the Hardy topic, so it remains unclear what sort of disciplinary action, if any, Hardy is facing from Hoeppner. Certainly the outcome of the case will have an impact on that, but the uncertainty of his availability will be a distraction once fall camp opens in August. While Indiana has plenty of depth at wideout, Hardy is the sort of difference maker that would be sorely missed from the passing attack.
1. How Good (or bad) will the Offensive Line Be – There's plenty of weapons at the disposal of quarterback Blake Powers, but that won't mean much if the offensive line can't keep the junior signal caller from winding up on his backside.
Spring practice served as an opportunity to experiment with new players at a variety of positions, but the offensive front is far from settled heading into the fall. Early on during spring drills the defensive line consistently whipped the Hoosiers' offensive front, forcing Powers, Graeme McFarland and Kellen Lewis to consistently tuck the ball and run or throw under duress.
The play was much better by the time the spring game rolled around, but the play of the front five likely remains as the biggest key to a successful season this fall. The hope is that senior Justin Frye and sophomore Chauncey Incarnato can anchor the unit, and that a favorable early season schedule can help the group develop some confidence by the time Big Ten play opens in late September.
Counting Down the Concerns
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