The Hoosiers haven't been on the receiving end of a whole lot of positive pre-season publicity, but there's one person who isn't about to sell the Hoosiers' crop of receivers short.
That person is quarterback Blake Powers, the 6-4, 235-pound junior who will be entrusted with getting the ball to the likes of James Hardy, James Bailey, Jahkeen Gilmore, and a handful of other talented wideouts who all look to contribute this fall.
"They are extremely talented," Powers said. "I'd put our skill positions, myself and our receivers, up against anyone in the country."
Over the last 20 years, Indiana has had a handful of elite wideouts, including the likes of 1987 Big Ten MVP Ernie Jones, 1993 first-round NFL draft pick Thomas Lewis and 2004 graduate Courtney Roby. But a case can be made that this is the deepest, most talented group of wideouts IU fans have seen in recent memory, one that is arguably the best in the Big Ten – no matter what the preseason publications suggest.
Headlining the list is James Hardy, the 6-7, 216-pound sophomore who caught 61 passes for 893 yards and 10 touchdowns as a redshirt freshman. A second-team All-Big Ten pick a year ago, Hardy not only put up big numbers, but he also has a flair for the dramatic. Hardy came up with big plays at critical times during a handful of games a year ago.
Assuming Hardy isn't kept off the field by either injuries or the aftermath of his domestic battery charge that should be resolved later this month, the Ft. Wayne native has a chance to have the most productive season for an IU receiver since Ernie Jones' 66-catch, 1,235-yard, 13 touchdown season in 1987.
While Hardy is the team's top target, Powers will have plenty of other options as well. Senior Jahkeen Gilmore has 53 receptions and five touchdowns over the past two years and is the team's most experienced and physical wide receiver.
James Bailey, meanwhile, is a 6-2, 205-pound sophomore who could be primed to put up big numbers if teams devote too much time trying to contain Hardy. Bailey had 27 receptions for 335 yards and three touchdowns in nine games as a redshirt freshman before he was suspended for the team's final two games. He's since been re-instated and turned in a four-catch, 165-yard, two-touchdown effort in the Cream and Crimson spring game. He's dangerous in the open field when he catches the ball underneath, and is also capable of getting behind corners who play press coverage.
"We have, what we think, are some really quality (receivers) that have played football," said IU Assistant Head Coach Bill Lynch. "James (Hardy) and James (Bailey) haven't played a whole lot, but played last year and performed pretty darned well. Jahkeen has played quite a bit and performed well. Brandon (Walker-Roby) got to play as a freshman, and then you add to that mix some guys that are pretty talented."
Walker-Roby was one of five receivers who signed with IU's 2005 recruiting class, but was the only one of the five to play a year ago. A player with sub-4.4 speed, Walker-Roby has put on nearly 20 pounds from where he was a year ago.
His classmates, meanwhile, will all have a chance to be in the mix as well this fall. Redshirt freshmen Nick Polk, Andrew Means and Chris Banks will challenge for playing time, as could Terrance Turner. Another big, physical wideout at 6-1 and 201 pounds, Turner greyshirted last fall (he enrolled at IU in January and participated in the team's spring practice) and could be a candidate for a redshirt season thanks to the Hoosiers' depth at wideout.
The redshirt freshman who likely has the best chance to make a big impact this season is the 6-0, 200-pound Polk. A native of Milwaukee, Wis., Polk was one of last year's freshmen who likely could have played a year ago if it wasn't for the Hoosiers' depth at the position. He's an excellent athlete who has good size, excellent hands, and is a reliable target over the middle.
Add in seniors Ryan Skelton and Lance Bennett, plus true freshman Ray Fisher, and IU wide receivers coach Billy Lynch has 10 or 11 wideouts who will be challenging for playing time when camp opens Monday, all of whom are good enough to contribute this fall.
After an off-season spent working with the Hoosiers' quarterbacks, Powers expects even better production this season from the group than last year.
"There were a lot of times last year when we had turnovers, where myself and the receiver weren't on the same page," Powers said. "It was kind of both of our faults. So we're getting better at it. They're learning how I think, and learning the importance of running the right yardage, being there on time, getting off press coverage."
All of this adds up to a position that is undoubtedly the strength of this year's IU football team.
"From a depth standpoint and a competitive standpoint, offensively, that's our strong point," Lynch said.
IU Position Rank #1 - Wide Receiver
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