Bloomington – While position switches and new offensive schemes have highlighted the talk during the first week of IU football's spring practice, there's another topic that is more critical to the team's success or failure next fall.
"It all starts up front," says sophomore first-string right tackle James Brewer.
It's an old football cliché, but one that rings true. As Indiana looks to rebound from last season's 3-9 campaign, everyone in the Memorial Stadium locker room knows that improved play along the offensive line is imperative.
The combination of injuries and sub-par play up front played as big a part as anything in last season's slide from bowl participant to Big Ten cellar. IU quarterbacks Kellen Lewis and Ben Chappell were constantly harassed by opposing linemen on passing downs. While the Hoosiers did hit foes with plenty of big gainers in the ground game, they struggled badly in 3rd-and-short situations and were often unable to move the chains.
As Indiana goes about trying to remedy that problem this spring, it will have to do it without a couple of last season's contributors. The playing career of starting right tackle Mike Stark is likely over due to a back problem. Back-up Dennis Ziegler, meanwhile, was dismissed in the off-season for his involvement in an off-campus home invasion and burglary in December.
While their departures weren't necessarily expected, they have created an opportunity for a player that many have been waiting for – James Brewer. The 6'7", 335-pound redshirt junior from Indianapolis' Arlington H.S. has gone from project to projected starter at right tackle.
Brewer arrived at IU in 2006 as one of the "Seven Blocks of Limestone." While the other six incoming linemen had shown off their abilities throughout their prep careers, Brewer had more promise than anything else. A high school basketball player at Arlington, Brewer didn't go out for football until his senior season, and did so only at the urging of first-year coach Rob Patchett.
When he arrived at IU, he first faced a steep learning curve.
"I was trying to learn what the coaches wanted me to do," Brewer said. "For those who have been playing for a while, they kind of know what to do. I was pretty much like, ‘okay, coach, what do you want me to do?'"
The responsibility of developing Brewer has fallen to offensive line coach Bobby Johnson, who admits that Brewer was pretty much a clean slate when he first arrived.
"He is a kid that wants to please you, he wants to do things right, he's motivated to do things right," Johnson said. "It's good because he doesn't have bad habits, he wants to do good so he'll listen, and he's going to try to do what you want.
"But he might not always understand the concepts, and that has made me a better coach because I can't take certain things for granted, I can't just use coach speak and think he knows what I'm talking about. It makes me a better teacher."
In addition to having plenty to learn, Brewer also had plenty to overcome. Injuries have been a big part of his first couple of years on campus, most notably a foot injury that kept him sidelined for an extended period of time. That injury didn't keep him out of the weight room (where he's gone from benching 185 pounds as a freshman to 415 pounds before the start of spring ball), but it did limit his time on the practice field and subsequently in games.
Brewer now appears to be not only 100 percent healthy, but up-to-speed on what Johnson is looking for him to do out on the football field.
"I'm excited to be out here again and be healthy," Brewer said. "It's frustrating when you're not able to be out there helping, but it's also motivation. Now, I feel I have something to prove that I'm an asset to them team."
Johnson clearly thinks Brewer has to be just that. It's the reason why Indiana offered him a scholarship on nothing more than potential, and it's why the losses of Stark and Ziegler aren't as big of a deal as some might expect.
"He's improved by leaps and bounds," Johnson said. "People don't realize it because he hasn't played a bunch, but if you saw him the day he walked in and where he is now, he's changed – physically and mentally."
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