Bloomington, Ind. – Terry Hoeppner might not be getting exactly what he expected from freshman linebackers Mandela Roberts and Will Patterson.
He might get a little bit more.
The 6-0, 220-pound Roberts and the 6-1, 221-pound Patterson were both big gets for IU's staff on signing day in February. Roberts was a standout middle linebacker at Texas prep powerhouse Lufkin H.S., while Patterson starred on an Indianapolis Lawrence North team that was among the state's best a year ago.
On paper, both appeared to have bright futures in IU uniforms. But now that Hoeppner has had a chance to see them in person for more than a week in practice, their futures don't appear to be too far away.
"Both of them, we thought they were going to be really good football players, good guys, good people," Hoeppner said. "They might be a little better than we thought. They are picking up things right away, they're really into it.
"We're not going to play them too soon, but they may have a role this year."
If fall camp is any indication, a role for both appears likely. No freshmen on the IU roster have spent more time working with the No. 2s than this linebacking duo. Both have had looks at the traditional outside linebacker as well as the new "Buck" position. Indiana only has eight linebackers on its roster, adding further credence to the suggestion they'll be on the field this fall.
Linebackers coach George Ricumstrict has been pleased with what he's seen.
"Both of those kids come in from good football programs, they're football savvy, and they are ahead of some young guys I've had in the past," Ricumstrict said. "Right now, I'm encouraged. We have a ways to go with them, but it's encouraging."
The biggest challenge for the newcomers is learning a defensive scheme that was foreign to them before camp opened eight days ago. Both say they've been helped by the fact Ricumstrict has been patient with them as he continues to add new wrinkles and responsibilities to what they're doing on the field.
"It's a big difference form high school," Patterson said. "The speed of the game and the intensity is at a whole new level."
While there's a learning curve with any true freshman, one of the things that accelerated their development is the fact they've both been able to get plenty of reps with the No. 2 unit during 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 work this fall. Instead of trying to learn from the sidelines, they're doing it on the practice fields.
"That's all we need – some reps," Roberts said. "Get the speed of the game going, get adapted to it. As long as we keep getting reps, I'm pretty sure we'll come in and do what we need to do. It's all for the betterment of the team. If we don't play that much, it's still good."
Both Patterson and Roberts were attracted to IU in large part because of the opportunity to play early. Indiana lost a trio of starters from a year ago in Kyle Killion, John Pannozzo and Josh Moore, creating a golden opportunity for both veterans and newcomers to work their way onto the field this season. Ricumstrict says it's not the easiest of positions for a true freshman to play, but thus far both have been up to the task.
"(Playing linebacker as a true freshman) is challenging from the standpoint that you're heavily involved with the pass, you're heavily involved with the run," Ricumstrict said. "And then obviously in a conference like this, you're playing against such physical people. So it's pretty tough."
Currently, Roberts and Patterson are in a group of six linebackers who appear to be potential contributors this season. Adam McClurg and Geno Johnson are with the No. 1 unit at middle linebacker and outside linebacker, respectively, while Jake Powers has been the No. 2 middle linebacker and Josh Bailey has been getting reps at both outside linebacker at the Buck position.
While the first week of practice was primarily about picking up technique and learning schemes for the freshman duo, the final two weeks of practice will include a great deal more contact, which will give Ricumstrict and Hoeppner a good sense about their ability to not only understand what they're doing, but to execute it as well.
"They're doing a good job of grasping our defense and what we're doing," Ricumstrict said. "The next part, now that we have the pads on, can they execute, can they tackle, can they do those things. So it's more the physical now. Mentally I think they are a little ahead of the curve, now we have to see how they are physically."
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