Written by: TJ Inman (@TJHoosierHuddle)
(Author's note: A previous version of this story mistakenly listed Simon Stepaniak as a "sophomore-to-be" and forgot to mention Brandon Knight. Both of those errors have been amended.)
Perhaps the most indispensable member of Indiana’s explosive offense has decided to return for his senior season. First team All-American offensive lineman Dan Feeney, a native of Orland Park, Illinois, has been dominant as a right guard and he was an integral part of turning IU’s offense in the best in the B1G. The Hoosiers were first in total offense, passing offense and scoring offense and finished second in rushing offense. For the first time in program history, IU finished the season as the league’s top statistical offense.
Feeney has played more than 2,700 snaps at right guard. That’s a ton of plays over the course of 37 career starts. In all that time, he’s allowed only one sack (including zero allowed in 2015). His proficiency as a run blocker and as a pass blocker earned him the aforementioned All-America honor as well as first team All-B1G honor and a place on the watch lists for the Outland Trophy and the Lombardi Award.
“Coach Wilson and Coach Frey were extremely valuable during this process and I thank them for their assistance. We are not satisfied and are looking to finish what all the coaches and players have started,” Feeney said in a media release on Monday.
“Dan is one of the best players I have ever been around. He is the total package, not only on the field but in the way he approaches the game and who he is as a person. By the time he is done, Dan will be one of the best to ever wear an Indiana uniform,” Kevin Wilson said.
That final line really jumps out to me and it’s absolutely accurate. Look at the legacy that Dan Feeney could potentially leave in Bloomington after the 2016 season is complete. If all goes according to plan, Feeney will have started 49 games (50 if the Hoosiers reach a bowl game) as a member of one of the top offensive lines in the B1G. He could end up as a two-time All-American and it’s entirely possible (although unlikely since he doesn’t play for a traditional power) that he could end up winning the Outland Trophy as the nation’s top offensive lineman. Perhaps most importantly, Feeney could help lead the Hoosiers to back-to-back bowl games for the first time since 1990-1991 and re-establish IU as a consistently solid program. Kevin Wilson is right, Feeney may end up being one of the best to ever wear the Cream and Crimson.
Now that we know Dan Feeney is returning, how does his presence help shape the rest of the offensive line? Fellow award winner Jason Spriggs will now ply his trade in the NFL and last season’s center, Jake Reed, is out of eligibility. Those losses will hurt but Feeney’s return ensures that the line will be a strength once again. In my opinion, a strong offensive line is one of the two key ingredients (with the other being QB) to a great offense.
Dimitri Camiel is likely to handle the right tackle duties once again. Camiel, a 6’7” senior-to-be from Houston, Texas, had a solid 2015 (a few too many penalties but he’s a solid starter). That’s not to say that Camiel’s spot is written in permanent marker because the IU coaching staff has put an emphasis on building depth along the offensive line. DaVondre Love, a 6’7” sophomore-to-be from St. Louis, is probably a year or two away from challenging for a starting spot but he has the physical tools to eventually be a very good RT (if he develops) once Camiel leaves.
The departure of Jake Reed leaves a hole at center and I believe a returning player is set to fill that spot. Wes Rogers announced during the season that he would be foregoing his senior season. In fact, he actually went through Senior Day festivities and believed that he had played his final home game. However, sometime between Senior Day and the Pinstripe Bowl, the 6’4” Indianapolis native changed his mind and decided to play out the remainder of his IU career. He started the first part of the 2015 season at left guard but was eventually displaced. His natural position is center and I think he’ll be much more comfortable snapping the ball than he was to the left of center. Rogers started games at center in both the 2013 and 2014 seasons and I’m penciling him in for a return to that spot in 2016. Hunter Littlejohn, an Ohio native that will be a 6’3” sophomore in 2016, is likely to shift from guard to center and he may end up beating out Rogers but I think the best bet is that he’ll back up Rogers in 2016 before starting in 2017.
So if Rogers is starting at center, who will be starting at left guard? I believe the Hoosiers are hoping it is Jacob Bailey. Bailey, a senior-to-be from Cathedral High School in Indianapolis, has struggled with knee issues but he started the final seven games at left guard and is considered an excellent run blocker. Bailey has also started games in the 2014 and 2013 seasons. Other candidates for this position include Delroy Baker, a 6’6” redshirt sophomore from Florida that may shift inside to guard, Simon Stepaniak, a 6’4” redshirt freshman from Ohio with a lot of potential and Wes Martin, a very strong redshirt sophomore.
That leaves us with one open spot, left tackle. It is certainly possible that Feeney has returned so that he can develop as a tackle. “They’re talking about moving me around (center or tackle) and seeing what I could do. It couldn’t hurt,” Feeney told reporters on Tuesday evening.
Once the season kicks off though, I think it’s likely that he will continue to lock down right guard. Which player will fill the large and important void at left tackle then? The three likely candidates are Brandon Knight, Tim Gardner and DeAndre Herron. Gardner, a 6’5” Indianapolis native, will be a redshirt sophomore when the 2016 season kicks off. He was highly-touted coming out of high school and he has the build to eventually be a good tackle. Finally, DeAndre Herron, a JUCO transfer originally from Avon, Indiana, is a grown man that has waited his time to make an impact. There are concerns about whether or not he has the quickness and athleticism to play left tackle but he'll have a chance to earn some time in 2016. The final, and most likely candidate, is Brandon Knight. Knight, a 6'5" sophomore-to-be from Noblesville, Indiana, is a name familiar to those that follow the program closely. He was a well-regarded high school prospect that the Indiana coaches were very excited to keep in-state and he made an impact during his freshman season as a blocking tight end. He even showed off his athleticism with a touchdown catch! Knight has the frame and skill set to be a very good left tackle in the future and Kevin Wilson has favorably compared him to Jason Spriggs. If he can develop during this offseason, the Hoosiers' "left tackle of the future" may arrive in the starting lineup in 2016.
There are a couple of question marks along the line but I believe the return of Dan Feeney, along with three other returning starters and a slew of talented and developing depth pieces, ensures the Hoosiers will once again have a very strong offensive line. We’ll preview the offensive line more in the coming weeks and months but for now, enjoy that we all get to watch one of the best Hoosiers ever for one more season.