Bloomington, Ind. – The names remain the same, but Billy Lynch thinks he's working with a different crop of wideouts this fall.
After back-to-back seasons of coaching a group loaded with talent but light on experience and in some cases maturity, Lynch has a stable of receivers that has ripened on the field and off.
"These aren't the same guys that were playing as true freshmen, redshirt freshmen two years ago," Lynch said. "Talent wise they were ready back then, but they weren't ready to play in the Big Ten. But now, this group has become a mature group with quite a bit of experience."
It's a collection anchored by juniors James Hardy and James Bailey. Both played extensively during each of the past two seasons, with the 6'7", 216-pound junior catching 10 touchdown passes in both campaigns and the 6'2", 205-pound Bailey catching a combined 67 passes during his first two years.
While the talent from the duo was obvious when they played in 2005 as redshirt freshmen, both have grown off the field, which has in turn has made them more complete players and better teammates.
"Both of them are so physically gifted," Lynch said. "They both have a lot of natural ability. Sometimes when you get thrown in the fire before you're ready mentally, it is a longer process because they've relied on their physical talent so much.
"Both have matured so much – they are junior now – and have played a lot of football. They've learned what they have to do to bring it every day to truly be the kind of consistent players they want to be. They look like different guys out here."
The Hoosiers won't rely exclusively on their split ends, though, this fall. Indiana will utilize plenty of three and four wide receiver sets, and Lynch has a couple of inside receivers in Andrew Means and Ray Fisher who can be big playmakers as well.
Fisher caught 24 passes a true freshman last fall and can make defenders miss. Means, meanwhile, is a player who came up with a handful of critical catches at critical times in some key games last fall and was a big reason why the staff felt comfortable moving Nick Polk to safety last spring.
"I studied extensively in the off-season, and per touch, (Means) was the most explosive of the whole group," Lynch said. "You look at that and you say ‘wow, he kind of got lost in the shuffle there.' But in the games, he made a lot of plays."
Means finished with 20 catches for 263 yards and a touchdown a year ago, and it's a good bet those numbers will be on the rise this season.
"We've done some things offensively to get the inside receivers more involved," Lynch said. "(Means is) fast and strong. He plays fast and strong, and anytime you can get him the ball, he can get up the field in a hurry and he can break a tackle, and if he does, then he's fast enough to take it the distance. He's certainly a guy we have to get involved and get the ball in his hands."
That quartet of receivers figure to get most of the touches this fall, but there are a couple of others who have a chance be factors as well. Out wide, Terrance Turner and Chris Banks have both done enough good things on the practice field to warrant some opportunities this fall as well.
"The strength of Terrance is the fact he's a complete player," Lynch said. "He doesn't have too many weaknesses. He's a strong, physical kid, he runs well, he can jump, he can block, he catches it well, runs good routes, makes you miss in the open field, he's a pretty polished receiver. He's still young and doesn't have maybe the superb in any one area, but is very solid and does a good job at all things. He's a good solid player that way.
"Banks, he's long and can make a play on the ball in the air. He has good timing for winning the jump ball. The biggest thing with him is he has to catch it more consistently on a daily basis. That's what I challenged him to do – he has to put practices back to back or plays back to back. He has to bring it consistently."
While it will be a challenge to figure out a way to create enough game-day opportunities for those six as well as Brandon Walker-Roby, it's a good problem for Lynch to have, and a good way to keep everyone motivated on the practice field.
"Any time you can get that type of depth, that's what the really good teams or really good position groups have," Lynch said. "Every day, someone is pushing the next guy.
"The key is you have to bring it every day. Like (Coach Bill Lynch) preaches every night, when called upon you have to be ready. Who knows, that chance might be in the second half of the first game or it might be the third game. But when called upon, it's all about how you respond."
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