Written By: TJ Inman
Our “Top 5” series continues! Today, we take a look at a position in which elite players have consistently terrorized the Indiana Hoosiers secondary: wide receivers. New defensive coordinator Tom Allen brings a 4-2-5 alignment that will attempt to cut down on some of the big pass plays that victimized the Hoosiers last season. In total, IU surrendered 100 yards or more to nine different pass catchers. The five guys on this list are our pick for the toughest wide receivers IU’s secondary will face and they’ll need to improve their ability to limit these top targets if the Hoosiers are to find more success on defense in 2016.
Chris Godwin, Penn State
2015 stats: 70 catches – 1,103 yards – 5 TDs – 15.8 yards per catch (ypc) – 59.3% catch rate
The Hoosiers actually contained Chris Godwin very well in their 2015 defeat to the Nittany Lions. That being said, IU was crippled on offense due to injuries and Penn State was able to execute an extremely conservative game plan as they coasted to the win. Godwin only caught four passes for 41 yards (a season low) during that game. That game aside, the extremely consistent #1 target for PSU reached or exceeded 75 yards in nine of the Nittany Lions 13 contests. He went over 100 yards in five games and had catches of 20 or more yards in all but two games. He accomplished this in a conservative offense that was plagued by bad offensive line play, inconsistent and often inaccurate quarterback play and play-calling that eventually cost the offensive coordinator his job. Under a new offensive coordinator that has promised to open the offense up a bit, I expect a first-team All-B1G season for Godwin.
Jehu Chesson, Michigan
2015 stats: 50 catches - 764 yards - 9 TDs - 15.3 ypc - 62.5% catch rate
I haven’t completely recovered from the scalding Jehu Chesson gave the Hoosiers secondary during last season’s heartbreaking defeat to the Michigan Wolverines and my ranking may be slightly biased as a result of that performance. Chesson exploded for 207 yards on catches and a mind-boggling four touchdowns as UM topped the Hoosiers in two overtimes. While that was certainly the standout performance of his season, he really came on during the back-half of his junior season and I believe he’s set for a strong senior year. Chesson had 58 yards against Michigan State, 69 yards at Penn State, 111 yards with a touchdown against Ohio State and an impressive 118 yards and a touchdown in Michigan’s blowout Citrus Bowl win over Florida.
The 6’3” senior is the kind of big target the Hoosiers have really struggled with in recent years as top corner Rashard Fant is at a severe disadvantage. Having an additional player in the secondary could help but their ability to slow someone like Chesson (or UM’s other target, Amara Darboh) better than they previously have will likely come down to the development of a bigger corner like Tyler Green.
Jordan Westerkamp, Nebraska
2015 stats: 66 catches - 926 yards - 7 TDs - 14 ypc - 66% catch rate
Nebraska has one of the best receiving corps in the B1G and many Big Red fans believe this could be the strongest group of pass catchers they’ve ever had in Lincoln. It’s a deep group that provides Tommy Armstrong with a bevy of options but the lead target is senior Jordan Westerkamp. He was a team captain in 2015 and his performance on the field earned him Second-Team All-B1G honors as he set the school record for catches in a season by a wide receiver. The 6’0”, 200-pounder had four games of more than 100 yards (BYU, Southern Miss, Purdue and Michigan State) and he caught touchdowns in seven different contests.
Players like Brandon Reilly, Alonzo Moore, Stanley Morgan Jr. and the explosive De’Mornay Pierson-El may be more explosive but Westerkamp’s 66% catch rate on a team-high 100 targets make him the guy from Nebraska to put on this list. The Hoosiers and Huskers will meet in Bloomington for the first time since 1978 and this will be a potentially crucial Homecoming matchup. Containing Westerkamp will be a key to getting Nebraska’s explosive offense off the field on third downs as Armstrong often looks to his favorite target to move the chains.
Amara Darboh, Michigan
2015 stats: 58 catches - 727 yards - 5 TDs - 12.5 ypc - 60.4% catch rate
The other half of Michigan’s senior wide receiver duo also roasted the IU secondary but his 109 yard and one touchdown performance was understandably overshadowed by the eruption of Jehu Chesson. Still, Darboh is a formidable matchup and another large and physical target at 6’2”, 216 pounds in his own right. He only had two games (Utah and IU) of more than 100 yards but he led the Wolverines in catches and his catch rate of 60.4% is a plus for a guy of his size.
Darboh had catches of more than 20 yards in eight different games so he’s clearly more than just a big body. As was mentioned earlier, the progression of Tyler Green is critical for Indiana’s secondary because they need a large defensive back to help slow down guys like Chesson and Darboh (and Westerkamp, to an extent). What makes Michigan’s passing game so dangerous for IU (and other teams), particularly if they have an accurate quarterback, is their trio of very sizeable targets. Darboh, Jehu Chesson and terrific tight end Jake Butt are all large guys that wreaked havoc on the Hoosiers last season. It will be very interesting how new defensive coordinator Tom Allen approaches that matchup.
Thomas Owens, Florida International
2015 stats: 51 catches - 638 yards - 8 TDs - 12.5 ypc - 58% catch rate
The Hoosiers handled the Golden Panthers fairly comfortably in 2015 but Thomas Owens jumped off the screen and left an impression on many IU fans. He wouldn’t duplicate the game he had against IU (9 catches, 166 yards with two touchdowns) but he was very solid the remainder of the season and the 6’1” junior will be a handful for IU in the 2016 opener. Owens opened the season with a solid 78-yard outing as FIU upset Central Florida before he dominated IU’s secondary in Bloomington. He continued to impress, scoring a touchdown in five straight games and catching ten passes for 118 yards against Middle Tennessee.
Owens should be producing more big plays (he only had four games with receptions of more than 20 yards) but he’s a physical target that showed he was capable of having monster games. How IU deals with him on September 1 will be our first indication of how much improvement we can expect from Tom Allen’s re-tooled defense and the 5-man secondary.
Just Missed the Cut
-R.J. Shelton, Michigan State: 43 catches, 503 yards, 4 TDs, 11.7 ypc, 67.2% catch (two TDs last season against IU)
-DeAngelo Yancey – 48 catches, 700 yards, 5 TDs, 14.6 ypc, 49%
-A note on the lack of an Ohio State receiver: In short, I fully expect one of the Ohio State wide receivers to be one of the five toughest match-ups the IU defense faces. That being said, I have no clue which player will emerge as the top target for the Buckeyes and I have zero previous evidence to place an Ohio State receiver on this list. It’s very possible that someone like Corey Smith or Noah Brown or a Buckeye we have yet to see on the field will become a star but at this time, I’ve chosen to take a “wait and see” approach.