Everyone agrees that adversity makes us stronger. If that's true than you can certainly expect a greatly strengthened IU football team to emerge next fall. The Hoosiers, and especially their Head Coach Terry Hoeppner, have had more than their fair share of adversity over the last 12 months. Anything and everything has seemingly tested the Hoosier program in that time span, including a test that no college football player can ever expect to endure.
When Hoeppner had emergency brain surgery performed last December, his program was shocked and concerned. When it was learned that he needed a second brain surgery just two weeks into the 2006 season, his program was shaken to its core. The thought that Hoeppner's tumor had returned was something that no one wanted to consider. While Hoeppner put on a remarkably brace face and told his team that he would back in two weeks, there were undoubtedly those that wondered. The coach told his team that his absence wasn't to be used as an excuse or allowed to become a mid-season distraction. It was a wise directive from the Hoosier CEO, but nearly impossible to follow.
Keeping with Hoeppner's wishes, the Hoosiers offered no excuses for losing their next two games after Hoeppner's surgery. Although, it doesn't take much imagination to suggest that his absence played a major role in the Hoosiers sub-par efforts against Southern Illinois and Connecticut. Both games were there for the taking, but for some reason the Hoosiers couldn't get over the top. Distracted minds, uncertainty, and loss of sleep could have easily been the culprits. It was a tough break for the Hoosiers, but certainly not their only one.
This was also a team that saw their starting quarterback go down with an injury in the season's very first game. Junior Blake Powers, who set a Hoosier touchdown passing record in 2005, was forced out of the line-up and that threw the Hoosiers off-kilter offensively for weeks as they scrambled to adjust. It certainly affected star receiver James Hardy, who had built a solid connection with his good friend.
That may have played a role in Hardy's mid-season suspension, another huge mitigating factor in the Hoosier losses to Southern Illinois and Connecticut. Hardy didn't immediately mesh with new quarterback Kellen Lewis and his frustration boiled over at times. His suspension led to his absence in two critical non-conference games, two very winnable games. As he has proved thus far in his career by scoring 20 touchdowns in 20 career games, he's usually good for at least seven points a game. Indiana lost the two aforementioned games each by a touchdown. Who knows what could have been?
Adversity, though, strikes every program. Some years you get in by the teaspoon and some years by the truckload. Indiana received the latter this year, but in the end it made them a stronger team. There were several silver linings that came out of this season that may not have materialized if events didn't unfold like they did. Today we take a look at some of those positives.
The emergence of Kellen Lewis
It seems absurd to consider, but if all of the above setbacks never occurred we might still be waiting to see Lewis make his first career start. It doesn't take a big stretch of the imagination to envision this scenario: Powers doesn't get hurt in his first game, goes to Ball State healthy, finds his rhythm, connects with Hardy several times in a big win, and leads the Hoosiers to a 4-0 non-conference record, cementing his status as year-long starter. That's certainly how the IU coaching staff envisioned 2006 playing out or they wouldn't have made Lewis their third-string quarterback entering this season. After completing a record-setting 22 touchdown passes in 2005, Powers proved he is a worthy college quarterback. His close bond with Hardy was something the Hoosiers were looking to exploit, but circumstances changed the game plan and thank goodness they did.
By being forced into action in the season's second game, the Hoosiers found out that Lewis was even farther along the learning curve than they knew. The poise and composure the redshirt freshman showed on the field at Ball State came as a surprise to his coaching staff. They envisioned using Lewis only in special packages and in certain situations this past season. At best in he would become a Tim Tebow (Florida QB) like compliment to Powers in 2006 they thought, but Lewis surprised them all.
This season the Florida native showed that he's one of the Big Ten's most promising young players and the future of IU football. He was awarded the Anthony Thompson MVP award after this season, illustrating just how much he meant to this team. Lewis passed for 2,221 yards and 14 touchdowns, while rushing for 441 yards and five scores. He led the team in both categories. Before he took the field some wanted to compare him to Hoosier great Antwaan Randle El. While he may not have the same playing style, his impact at IU could be even greater before he's done. Lewis is that special and the Hoosiers are lucky they found that out sooner rather than later.
The ‘Seven Blocks of Limestone' start a foundation
Hoeppner certainly didn't underplay his hand when he announced the signing of seven quality offensive linemen this past February, but it appears he wasn't just blowing smoke. These freshmen proved this fall that they are the real deal. By season's end four linemen (Rodger Saffold, Pete Saxon, James Brewer, and Mike Stark) had worked their way into the two-deep during at least one point in the season. All seven have been continuously praised by Offensive Line Coach Bobby Johnson. Cody Faulkner was hampered with injuries this year, but should see extended playing time next year. Jarrod Smith is also a promising candidate that could be switched to center to fill a need there. Alex Perry, at 6-foot-6, will be a special athlete on the line when he finishes growing into his body.
By far the most praise, though, belongs to Saffold and Saxon. The duo combined for eleven starts this season. The most you can ask of any true freshman lineman is to work their way into the rotation by season's end. The fact that these players claimed starting jobs early in the Big Ten season shows their special skill and maturity. They, like their classmates, will be key building blocks in the coming renaissance of Hoosier football.
Youth was served
It's one thing to suffer a tough losing season when your roster is predominantly filled with seniors, but another when you return most players on that roster. The Hoosiers will lose some quality seniors this off-season, there's no debating that, but they return a boatload of talented youngsters who will be much better in 2007. When completely healthy, the Hoosiers started just six seniors, three on each side of the ball.
Players like Will Meyers, Justin Frye, and Jahkeen Gilmore will certainly be missed, but the talent is there to replace them. The offensive line loses a quality starter in Frye, but we've already discussed the depth the Hoosiers are building there. Safeties Will Meyers and Troy Grosfield are gone, but Austin Thomas is a tested and talented replacement and youngsters like Brandon Mosley and incoming true frosh Sidney Glover are intriguing replacements as well. Gilmore leaves a receiving stable filled with experienced and promising youngsters. Indiana's passing game will once again thrive next year thanks to Lewis and a slew of game-breaking receivers.
The Hoosiers threw several youngsters into the fire this year as 13 true or redshirt freshman started for the Hoosiers this year. Many more got at least a taste of action as 26 players saw their first collegiate action this year and 38 underclassmen took the field. Indiana will undoubtedly reap the rewards of those moves next year.
Silver Linings From a Cloudy Season
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