Bloomington, Ind. – You haven't heard a great deal about Fred Jones and Eric Thomas yet, but those close to the IU football program think you will soon enough.
Thomas and Jones are a pair of freshman defensive ends who've dropped off most people's radar ever since the fall. Since that time they've both have been tabbed as redshirt candidates, which in turn has relegated them to the sideline for games and the scout team during practices. Both have been spending the last several months helping the starters prepare for each week's opponent.
But for those who have kept a close eye on each players' progress, big things appear to be ahead for both.
"They're both big, athletic kids," said their position coach, IU's co-defensive coordinator Brian George. "They're coming along nicely. They're both very physical players, and there's a great upside for both."
One of the first things that jumps out about both the 6-4, 239-pound Jones and the 6-4, 248-pound Thomas is their size. Each has the height any defensive coach covets, and they've continued to get bigger throughout the fall as well as they've worked in the weight room.
They've spent their time this fall matched up against the Hoosiers' first-strong offensive line as members of the scout team, something both say has helped them get acclimated to the college game.
"(Going against the first string) will make you 10 times better than when you first came in," said Thomas, who played at Cleveland's Glenville H.S. last fall.
While each has enjoyed the chance to test themselves against the starters, it's been a new experience to not be playing on gamedays. Both might have expected to redshirt this fall, but it's still an adjustment for players who are used to be the stars of their high school teams.
They've tried to make the best of it, though, according to Jones.
"Going through the season, practice is like our game day," said Jones, who starred at Sandy Creek H.S. in Georgia last year.
Both know that they'll soon get a chance to shine on gamedays instead of only on the practice field, but George said he knows it can be tough on newcomers who suddenly find themselves out of the spotlight.
"They go from being the start to the bottom of the totem pole, and they have to work their way back up," George said. "But they've handled it well and really taking it upon themselves to do a great job playing the role of the other team.
"Their opportunities will come."
Currently, both are getting the sort of opportunity that no IU redshirts have had for the last 14 years. With the Hoosiers preparing for a bowl game, Jones and Thomas are not only getting some extra practice time, but also an extended opportunity to work with the IU coaching staff.
Once fall camp comes to a close, most coaches have to spend the majority of their time with the first and second-stringers as they prepare for the next game. But with six weeks between the Purdue game and IU's Insight Bowl match-up with Oklahoma State, the redshirts have been a focal point of the IU staff during the last several weeks of practice.
That's a valuable opportunity for both, and an important tool for the IU staff.
"Next year is right now for us," Thomas said. "We're getting reps, and it's now right there in front of us. We're working to get into the rotation for next year, and we know it's there for the taking."
The person who will make that decision is George, who knows how important these practice weeks are when he looks ahead to next year.
"We would be into our winter strength and conditioning program right now," said George. "But being able to work with them on football skills and having some time where we're working with the younger guys is huge – the carryover should be really big to the spring and then to the fall.
"It's never as good as playing in a game, but the opportunity for these guys to practice and to be coached on every rep, that's learning football skill development that they wouldn't otherwise have."
Both are taking advantage of that opportunity, and George sees it paying off for both before too long on football field.
"Are they there yet? By no means," George said. "Like I said, there's no replacement for game experience, and they aren't close to the guys that are playing right now. But I can see where they will be in the next year or so."
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