Plenty of Questions Surrounding IU Football

Bloomington, Ind. – Hoosier football is once again set to spring to life. That's because at 4 p.m. today, IU Coach Terry Hoeppner's team will be on the IU practice fields for the first of 15 spring practice sessions. The 3 ½ week schedule concludes April 14 when IU hosts the annual Cream ‘n Crimson spring game at Memorial Stadium. While Hoeppner's team will be on hand Tuesday, Hoeppner won't...

Bloomington, Ind. – Hoosier football is once again set to spring to life.

That's because at 4 p.m. Tuesday afternoon, IU Coach Terry Hoeppner's team will be on the IU practice fields north of Memorial Stadium for the first of 15 spring practice sessions. The 3 ½ week schedule concludes April 14 when IU hosts the annual Cream ‘n Crimson spring game at Memorial Stadium.

While Hoeppner's team will be on hand Tuesday, Hoeppner won't. IU officials announced Sunday night that third-year IU coach would miss spring practice to tend to some "personal health issues." While no further details were released about the reasons for his absence, speculation – and common sense – suggests it relates to the brain tumor that has forced Hoeppner to undergo surgery twice in the last 15 months.

In Hoeppner's place will be assistant head coach Bill Lynch, who also took the reins of the program during a two-week stretch last fall when his boss was sidelined following his second brain surgery. Lynch will address the media before the start of practice this afternoon.

So what are some of the biggest questions facing the Hoosiers this spring? HoosierNation.com takes a look:

1. Hoeppner's Health – You can forget about personnel or schemes or position changes – the biggest cloud that's hanging over the Hoosier program is the health of its head coach. His absence figures to be the dominant topic of conversation throughout spring ball, and it will weigh heavily on the Hoosier players and coaches as well.

While there have been some who have speculated Hoeppner's absence is related to a hip ailment, such a scenario makes little sense. IU officials could have put many people's minds at ease and squashed the brain tumor speculation if it was in fact Hoeppner's hip that was forcing him to miss spring football – just release that information. So, barring a colossal public relations gaffe on IU's part, logic suggests Hoeppner's absence is in fact related to the tumor.

What kind of bearing will that have on spring practice? Will Hoeppner be able to return to the IU sidelines this fall? What sort of long-term impact could this wind up having on the football program? Some of those questions will be answered this spring.

2. Will a running back run away with the job?
Indiana had a handful of candidates for the starting tailback job last spring, and little has changed since then. As IU gets its 2007 spring season underway, Marcus Thigpen, Demetrius McCray, Bryan Payton, Josiah Sears and Justin Carrington all have a chance to separate themselves from a muddied field.

A year ago it was the fleet-footed Thigpen and the elusive McCray who received the majority of the carries, but neither was particularly impressive. Thigpen was the leading rusher among running backs with 98 carries for 387 yards and two touchdowns, while McCray added another 88 totes for 320 yards and two scores. While both had their moments, when your quarterback, Kellen Lewis, is the team's leading rusher in terms of carries (124), yards (441) and touchdowns (5), you know you need better production out of someone at tailback.

3. How will the redshirt freshmen linemen figure in? – It might be more entertaining to see which of the redshirted freshmen at the skill positions appear ready to make a dent in the two-deep, it's the Hoosier rookies on the offensive line who could wind up having the biggest impact on the 2007 team's success.

While tackle Rodger Saffold and guard Pete Saxon both played as true freshmen, there are a trio of other newcomers who will compete for starting jobs. The IU coaching staff has raved about the progress of tackle James Brewer, the 6-8, 315-pound Indianapolis product who has improved his conditioning by leaps and bounds from the fall. Fellow tackle Mike Stark, meanwhile, is bigger and stronger than he was a year ago and was someone the staff toyed with playing as a true freshman.

Finally, there's Cody Faulkner, a player many were sure would play as a true freshman. But injuries slowed his progress early on, and ultimately Saxon was better prepared to contribute right away. But Faulkner is back to full strength and will challege for a starting spot at guard.

4. Can Greg Brown and Will Patterson go from good to dominant? – Indiana's defense needs a couple of players in the front seven to emerge as bona fide difference makers, and the two most likely candidates are probably defensive tackle Greg Brown and outside linebacker Will Patterson.

The 6-2, 303-pound Brown had a couple of huge games in the fall, including an eight-tackle, 1 ½ tackle-for-loss effort against UConn. But he finished the season with relatively modest totals of 42 tackles, 5 ½ tackles for loss and 1 ½ sacks. The IU staff needs him to be dominant on a weekly basis to anchor the defensive line, attract double teams, and free up others to make players.

Patterson, meanwhile, is a 6-1, 222-pound sophomore who played in all 12 games as a true freshman and finished with 41 tackles, 4 ½ tackles for loss, three passes broken up, one interception and a sack. He has the speed the drop back into pass coverage when need be, but he can also get into an opposing team's backfield and make a stop as well.

5. Just how good is Chris Hagerup? – In addition to the redshirted freshmen, IU also has a couple of other newcomers to keep an eye on in early enrollees Chris Hagerup and Kevin Burrus. Burrus is defensive tackle who transferred from Coffeyville JC, while Hagerup is a punter/quarterback from Whitefish Bay, Wis.

While Hagerup will get snaps with the quarterbacks during position drills, it's as a punter where he's expect to make an immediate impact. Indiana lost Tyson Beattie to graduation, leaving the punting job there for the taking. And that's why IU signed the 6-4, 197-pound Hagerup. He earned first-team All-State honors as a senior after averaging 44.5 yards per punt.

Hagerup has yet to attempt a punt in a Hoosier practice, but there's little question the punting job is his to lose. If someone else is handling the duties come fall, that's not a good sign for the IU special teams.

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