1. Kellen Lewis, QB – Quarterback competition or not, Indiana hasn't had a more important player on its roster since Antwaan Randle El was under center. While his first task is to out-duel Ben Chappell during fall camp to reclaim the starting job following his four-month suspension, it's hard to imagine someone who accounted for nearly 3,800 yards and 37 touchdowns won't be under center for the Aug. 30 season opener.
Part of what makes the players on our list "Most Important Players" is who would be on the field in their place if they were unavailable. With Lewis, Indiana's offense is under the leadership of a third-year starter who is the most dangerous offensive weapon in the Big Ten. Without him, IU would be relying on an unproven commodity in Chappell who's style is very different from Lewis'. While Indiana can win games with Chappell, it will win a lot more with Lewis.
2. Greg Middleton, DE – What a difference a year makes. In 2006, the Hoosiers were among the nation's worst at applying pressure on the quarterback, totaling only 14 sacks. In 2007 they ranked third in the conference with 42 sacks, three times as many as the year before. The biggest reason for that change was the emergence of Middleton.
Middleton led the nation 16 sacks, a total that exceeded IU's team total from 2006 while also establishing a new school record in the category. He was at his best during the season's biggest moments, recording 2 ½ sacks in the Hoosiers' win at Iowa and then another 2 ½ in the regular season finale against Purdue to help IU to the Insight Bowl. While the Hoosiers have quality depth at defensive end, Middleton is a difference maker that should be on his way to another double-digit sack total this season.
3. Chris Phillips, CB – The biggest question mark about the Hoosiers is at cornerback, where they must replace a pair of four-year starters in Tracy Porter and Leslie Majors. As IU prepares for the start of fall camp the only certainty about the position is that Phillips will be one of the starters.
Phillips will be the one familiar face at a position that is made up of talented but unproven commodities. He ranked second on the team with three interceptions last season and saw plenty of action against teams that lined up in spread formations. He's a big, physical corner who has big-play capabilities, but he'll have to prove he's now capable of handling No. 1 wideouts.
4. Will Patterson, OLB - Patterson established himself as one of the Hoosiers' better defenders a year ago with 104 tackles, eight tackles for loss and a team-high three forced fumbles. Now, he has a chance to take the next step and become the sort of player that opposing defenses have to account for on every play.
With Adam McClurg gone and Matt Mayberry replacing him in the middle, Patterson becomes the leader of a veteran linebacker group. He has the skills and potential to be an All-Big Ten caliber linebacker, someone who can be a force against the run as well as the pass. The Hoosiers have capable linebackers on the second unit with Darius Johnson, Tyler Replogle and Ian Reeves, but Patterson's presence is critical.
5. Rodger Saffold, OT - The "Seven Blocks of Limestone" is finally going to get its chance this fall, when all five starters figure to be from that group of 2006 recruits that earned the moniker from Terry Hoeppner. The leader of the unit should be Saffold, who was the first to earn a starting spot back in 2006 as a true freshman.
Saffold not only has two years of starting experience under his belt, but he also plays the critical left tackle position where he'll protect Kellen Lewis' blindside. After getting by in large part to his athleticism early in his career, Saffold has added significant weight in the off-season (listed at 6-5, 306) and is now up to Big Ten size standards. He'll lead an offensive line that the staff believes will be much improved despite the loss of three starters.
6. Ray Fisher, WR - Now's the time for "Big Play Ray" to live up to his nickname. While he's been a very nice complement to IU's other talented wideouts the last two seasons, Fisher will be counted on to provide more big plays in the passing game. He'll likely continue to work out of the slot, but with the loss of James Hardy the staff will be looking for much bigger numbers from him than a year ago. Fisher's 52 catches were solid, but the staff would like to see him do more after the catch so that his yards/catch (9.3 a year ago) and touchdowns (4) go up dramatically.
Fisher can also be a force to be reckoned with on special teams. With Tracy Porter and James Bailey gone, Fisher will get a long look as the team's primary punt returner as well as one of the kick returners.
7. Austin Starr, PK - A second-team All-American a year ago, it's not a stretch to call Starr one of the most important players on the team. After all, he has won three games with last minute kicks in the last two years, including last season's 49-yarder against Purdue that sent the Hoosiers to their first bowl game in 14 seasons.
It's virtually impossible to ask someone who made 21-of-23 field goal attempts and all 48 of his extra point efforts to be any better, but IU does need Starr to continue to be a weapon on special teams. It's an area of the game that has been critical to IU's success in recent years, and it needs to continue to be that way.
< b>8. Greg Brown, DT - When it comes to IU's front four, much of the attention goes to Greg Middleton and even Jammie Kirlew to an extent. But the Hoosiers must be stout on the interior of the defensive front, and that starts with this 6-2, 300-pound fifth-year senior. Brown is coming off a 50-tackle, 3 ½ tackle-for-loss junior season, but the belief is he can do much more in his final go around with the Hoosiers.
The hope is also that Brown will be healthier this season as well. Brown suffered a shoulder injury in fall camp last year and ended up playing the whole season with it still ailing. He had off-season shoulder surgery that sidelined him for spring ball, and he's expected to be at full strength for fall camp. When healthy and at his best, Brown is equally adept at clogging the middle as well as providing a pass rushing threat from his defensive tackle position.
9. Mike Stark, OT - One of the reasons the IU staff thinks the offensive line has a chance to be better this fall despite the loss of three starters is the presence of Stark in the starting line-up. Stark gained some valuable experience last season when he started five games due to an injury to Charlie Emerson, and now Stark steps in as the full-time starter at right tackle. The redshirt sophomore from Platteville, Wis., brings great size (6-7, 300), good feet, and great potential to the line-up. He's someone the staff actually considered playing back in 2006 midway through his redshirt season, but they instead opted to save it so he could be a three-year starter. The belief is that Stark will be a mainstay up front for the next three seasons.
10. Nick Polk, FS - After moving from wide receiver to safety in the spring of 2007, Polk responded with 74 tackles and five passes broken up last season while starting in all 13 games. He'll once again be counted on to be a big-play specialist in the secondary, someone whose role becomes even more valuable with the level of inexperience IU has at the cornerback position.
While Polk's role at free safety is his primary responsibility, the staff will look to get him involved in other ways as well. That could come on special teams, where he'll be a candidate to return kicks. He also remains a viable option as a part-time wideout. Polk has proven himself to be a playmaker whenever and wherever he is on the field, and Bill Lynch's staff will try to come up with a way to put that to good use.
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