Written By Dustin Schutte (@SchutteCFB)
Football is returning to Bloomington.
Indiana kicks off its spring practice on Saturday, as it prepares for the 2018 season following a 5-7 (2-7) campaign last fall, coming just one win shy of a third consecutive bowl appearance.
The Hoosiers lose a plethora of talent from its 2017 squad, primarily on the defensive side of the football. As head coach Tom Allen enters his second spring practice, he'll be coaching an IU team with a little more youth and inexperience than he's had in two seasons (one as defensive coordinator) with the program.
With offseason football right around the corner for the Hoosiers, here are five things to watch heading into spring practice.
Will any quarterback separate himself from the pack?
Now that Richard Lagow is out of the picture, the Hoosiers are going through a bit of a youth movement under center. Peyton Ramsey is the favorite, having thrown for 1,252 yards and 10 touchdowns and adding over 200 yards and a pair of scores with his legs in nine games in 2017. But redshirt freshman Nick Tronti and incoming freshman Michael Penix Jr. will likely give Ramsey a run for his money for the starting job.
Ramsey provided a spark for Indiana last year immediately after being inserted for a struggling Lagow against Virginia. Since then, he's been seen as the long-term solution for IU under center. But with talented and capable quarterbacks in Tronti and Penix breathing down his neck, Ramsey will have to earn his keep in the spring.
Though Ramsey is the likely candidate to be on the field for the Hoosiers to open the 2018 season, don't be too surprised if Tronti and Penix give the incumbent a run for his money.
How will Nick Westbrook look after missing all of 2017?
It's always hard to know how a player will respond after suffering a season-ending injury. The Hoosiers would love to have Nick Westbrook return to his 2016 self -- that version caught 54 passes for 995 yards and six touchdowns -- but ACL injuries can be problematic moving forward.
With Simmie Cobbs Jr. declaring for the NFL Draft, Westbrook would become the No. 1 option in the passing attack if healthy. The 6-foot-3, 215-pound receiver has already proven he can be the top target in a high-powered offense. It's just a matter of recovery and whether Westbrook has any trouble with his knee.
Who will fill the big shoes left on defense?
Several of Indiana's key defenders have left Bloomington: Tegray Scales, Rashad Fant, Chris Covington, Chase Dutra, etc.
A good chunk of Indiana's talent and experience is gone, leaving the program relatively young on the defensive side of the ball. In other words, don't expect the Hoosiers to be as dominant on that side o the football as they have been the last two years.
But to ensure Indiana isn't getting trampled every weekend, several guys are going to have to pick up the slack. Players like Marcelino Ball, Juwan Burgess, A'Shon Riggins and Juan Harris and others are all capable of pulling a little more weight. Will anyone else emerge as a menace for the Cream and Crimson this spring?
Will the offensive line show improvement?
The offensive line was one of the weakest areas for the Hoosiers in 2017. Last season, IU averaged just 130.1 rushing yards per game (12th in the Big Ten) and 3.48 yards per carry (13th in the Big Ten). The offensive line also surrendered 29 sacks and 74 tackles for loss, ranking 75th and 65th in the nation respectively.
It's awfully difficult to win in the Big Ten consistently without strong play along the front line.
Fortunately for Indiana, the starting offensive line returns hoping to be a much improved unit. Coy Cronk, Wes Martin, Hunter Littlejohn, Stephen Stepaniak and Brandon Knight are all back in the trenches, giving the Hoosiers the experience and continuity they need. IU also adds graduate transfer center Nick Linder. If IU does its job in the trenches, it has two pretty good ball-carriers in the backfield -- Morgan Ellison and Cole Gest -- who can handle the rest. Don't forget that four-star running back recruit Ronnie Walker will be participating in spring practice as well.
Will Indiana get back to forcing turnovers?
When Tom Allen came to Indiana to run the defense prior to the start of the 2016 season, he placed a heavy emphasis on "takeaways." That year, the Hoosiers forced 23 turnovers, ranking fifth in the Big Ten and 38th nationally.
Last fall, things didn't go quite as swimmingly. Indiana had just 13 takeaways, ranking 13th in the conference and 111th nationally. The Hoosiers don't have to lead the Big Ten in turnovers to be successful, but they certainly need to be more opportunistic.
It'll be interesting to see if Allen reverts back to placing a high emphasis on those takeaways and if Indiana looks a little more aggressive defensively this spring.
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