Indiana's 2007 'M.I.P's'

HoosierNation.com's John Decker takes an in-depth look at the 10 players the Hoosier football team can most ill-afford to lose this fall and the reasons why they are so imperative to IU's success...

1. Kellen Lewis, QB – The Hoosiers' sophomore quarterback threw for more than 2,200 yards, rushed for another 441, and had a hand in 19 of Indiana's 29 offensive touchdowns a season ago. With a year of experience under his belt, even bigger things are expected of the Jacksonville, Fla., native.

The offense is built around his abilities, along with those of a talented group of wideouts. If he were to go down, the Hoosiers would need to turn to redshirt freshman Ben Chappell. The 6-3, 233-pound Chappell has a strong arm and a bright future, but the team's chances of making it to the postseason would take a big nosedive if Lewis wasn't available.

2. Tracy Porter, CB – The senior cornerback is arguably the team's best defensive player, and co-defensive coordinator Joe Palcic said Porter has the ability to be a first-day NFL Draft pick in the spring of 2008. But whether you think he's the best on the defensive side of the ball or not, he's unquestionably the best player at a position that is lacking terribly in depth.

Indiana heads into the fall feeling very good about Porter, pretty good about fellow senior cornerback Leslie Majors, and very unsure of just about everyone else. Porter is coming off a junior season where he had four interceptions and ranked third on the team with 59 tackles, and he has 10 career interceptions to make him among the best in school history. He also averaged 18.6 yards on punt returns, making him a special teams threat as well.

With more teams utilizing spread formations that force defenses to go with nickel and dime alignments, it puts a premium on quality covermen. Porter is easily the best the Hoosiers' bunch, and he has to stay healthy for IU to be successful.

3. James Hardy, WR – In the eyes of NFL personnel, the 6-6 Hardy is the biggest name on the Hoosiers' roster. A two-time second-team All-Big Ten pick, Hardy has caught 10 touchdown passes in each of his first two seasons, putting him on pace to catch Jade Butcher for the school record (30). He's a big target around the goal line, has a flair for the dramatic, and is a one-on-one mismatch against whomever he lines up against due to his size.

The reason Hardy isn't ranked No. 1 or No. 2 on this list is because of the depth Indiana has at wide receiver. While losing Hardy would be a huge blow, IU has capable wideouts such as James Bailey, Terrance Turner, Andrew Means, Ray Fisher and Brandon Walker-Roby that it can turn to if Hardy goes down.

4. Adam McClurg, LB – The senior middle linebacker doesn't get the attention that some of his teammates do, but he's the quarterback of the defense from his position in the middle of the field. He ranked fourth on the team with 58 tackles and was second with 5 ½ tackles for loss a season ago, and always grades out extremely high when the coaching staff evaluates postgame tape.

McClurg is also playing in front of an unproven player on the Hoosiers' depth chart. Matt Mayberry is expected to be the team's No. 2 middle linebacker this year, having made the move from outside linebacker. While big things are expected from Mayberry in the not-too-distant future, it's still a new position for him and the staff would like to work him in slowly.

5. Greg Brown, DT – There's plenty of depth at defensive tackle with Brown, Joe Kremer, Emile Bass, Keith Burrus and Kevin Burrus, but Brown is the most proven commodity of the bunch. At 6-2 and 299 pounds, Brown has the size to stuff the run and is athletic enough to give the team a pass rushing threat from the interior of the defensive line.

Brown had moments a year ago where he showed how dominant he can be, in particular an eight-tackle effort in the Hoosiers' loss to Connecticut. If he can turn that sort of effort on a consistent basis, he'll be worthy of some sort of All-Big Ten accolades this fall.

6. Rodger Saffold, OT – The Hoosiers feel much better about the depth that they have on the offensive line thanks to a very good recruiting effort at the position two years ago. Indiana brought in seven offensive linemen in the 2006 class, two of whom wound up playing and starting last season – Safford and left guard Pete Saxon.

Saffold was probably the least heralded of the seven '06 offensive line recruits, and was thus a big surprise when he wound up in the starting lineup when conference play opened. But his arrival helped contribute to a much better ground game and thus much more balance offensively. Now, he becomes one of the best players on the offense and also one of its most important. IU is very high on Saffold's back-up – redshirt freshman James Brewer – but the staff will feel better if the mobile Saffold is on the field opening holes for the ground game and protecting Lewis' backside.

7. Marcus Thigpen, RB/KR – Thigpen is the likely starter at tailback, where he's the team's best big-play threat in the ground game. While Josiah Sears might be the hardest runner and Demetrius McCray might be the most elusive, Thigpen is the player who can bust a big play and run away defenders thanks to his track-caliber speed.

It's not his play at tailback, though, that makes him among the team's 10 most indispensable players. Instead, it's his special teams work as well. A year ago Thigpen averaged an NCAA-best 30.1 yards/kickoff return and had three returns for scores. With the NCAA moving the kickoff back five yards to the 30-yard line this season, Thigpen figures to get even more opportunities to make big plays on special teams.

8. Nick Polk, S/WR – Polk was a very good slot receiver for the Hoosiers a year ago, but was moved to free safety during the spring. The IU staff's policy is they won't move a starter from his position unless he's going to be a starter at the new position, so you can expect to see Polk as the team's No. 1 free safety when the season kicks off Sept. 1.

The 6-0, 205-pound Polk will also be a factor on offense. The IU coaching staff has decided to keep Polk off of IU's special teams units and instead plan to utilize him for 15-20 snaps per game on offense. That's a role he filled during the spring game, when he had 113 receiving yards to go along with a handful of tackles on defense. Defense is where Polk's contributions will be most important, but he'll have his moments on offense as well.

9. Will Patterson, OLB – Big things could be on the horizon for the 6-0, 233-pound sophomore from Indianapolis. As a true freshman, Patterson played in all 12 games, made five starts, and earned Freshman All-America honors after totaling 41 tackles and 4 ½ tackles for loss. He has sideline-to-sideline speed and was at his best against some of the Hoosiers' toughest foes, evidenced by his 10-tackle, 1 1/2-tackle for loss effort against No. 2 Michigan.

As is the case with a couple of other players on this list, Patterson's importance is magnified by some depth concerns at his position. Geno Johnson is expected to start at the other spot, and Patterson's back-up is going to be Justin Carrington head the team opens camp in a couple of weeks. Carrington turned plenty of heads with his play on defense, but he's still a player who has less than a year of experience at his position after switching from tailback.

10. Austin Starr, PK – Of all the things that concerned the staff a year ago when camp opened, the team's placekicking might have been No. 1 on the list. Often times, placekicking drills deteriorated into a comedy of errors for a handful of kickers, which wasn't very fun to the IU staff.

But Austin Starr emerged as the team's starter when the season opened and wound up being one of the team's biggest surprises. He was 12-of-15 on field goals for the year – including 8-of-9 from 30 yards and out – and kicked the game-winners in the Hoosiers' come-from-behind wins at Ball State and Illinois. He also had a season-best 46-yarder in the Hoosiers' three-point upset win over Iowa.

For the first time in years the staff feels good about its situation at kicker, and Starr also figures to be a special teams weapon as well. He has a big leg on kickoffs, which becomes more of a factor this year with team's kicking off from the 30.

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