Life Without Howard

Written by: TJ Inman

After a couple of weeks of speculation, Jordan Howard has made it official. The standout running back that transferred to Indiana from UAB is foregoing his senior season and has declared for the 2016 NFL Draft. Howard was tremendous while on the field in Bloomington but his season was stagnated by injuries. He ended up with 196 carries for 1,213 yards and nine touchdowns. Much of Howard’s damage was done in the non-conference slate before he was injured in the Ohio State contest but he was able to return to run wild against Michigan in an overtime defeat before leaving early in the game against Maryland. His time on the sideline was frustrating for all involved but it did allow us to witness the emergence of Devine Redding and see the continued excellent work of the offensive line as IU’s running game barely missed a beat.

Now that Howard is officially out of the picture for 2016, what does the IU running game look like for next season? We will certainly preview the running back position in more depth once we get further into the offseason and Spring ball but this should serve as a good first look at “life without Howard” for the Hoosiers.

The Most Important Thing

I think the best way to begin thinking about next year’s running game, or even the offense in general, is to consider one of the main reasons the Hoosiers are consistently successful on the ground: the offensive line. Kevin Wilson has made the O-Line a priority and Greg Frey has done a tremendous job of helping turn this into a position of strength for this program. We aren’t sure what the line will look like as Jake Reed and Jason Spriggs move on (Spriggs will likely be selected in the first round of the NFL Draft) but I am confident in saying that the line will be quite good once again. Wilson, Frey and this group of players have earned the benefit of the doubt, in my opinion. Dan Feeney should return as a preseason All-American to anchor this group and there are a lot of very talented options with varying levels of playing experience that can join him to help offset the loss of Jordan Howard and Nate Sudfeld and keep this offense humming.

 Devine Intervention (See What I Did There?)

Dear loyal reader, if nothing else, I attempt to be as honest and transparent with you as possible. When I am proven wrong about something, I think it’s important to recognize it. There is perhaps no player that I was more incorrect about than Devine Redding. I thought the 5’10” sophomore back from Youngstown, Ohio was a bit slow, lacked elusiveness and explosiveness and would be unable to be anything more than an occasionally used role player. I am pleased to say that I was very, very wrong. No player on this team changed my opinion of them during this season more than Redding. I wasn’t alone in my opinion. After all, Redding only had one major college offer coming out of high school. Now, heading into his junior season, he’s clearly worked very hard to earn his spot on the field and excel once he’s there.

Howard’s absence allowed him to emerge as a legitimate weapon in the Indiana offense and a running back they can feel comfortable about building around in 2016. Redding began the season on a high-note as he gained 57 yards and pounded in two touchdowns against Southern Illinois. He then played second-fiddle to Howard (but still managed 79 important yards against Western Kentucky) for the remainder of the non-conference season. He struggled against Ohio State and Penn State in the Hoosiers two most discouraging offensive performances as the squad sputtered without Nate Sudfeld. However, he had a good showing against Rutgers, gaining 99 yards on 15 carries (6.6 ypc) and scoring twice. Howard returned and relegated Redding to a back-up role but he stepped up in a huge way to close the season. When Howard left the Maryland game, Redding filled in and gained a career-high 130 yards on 24 carries (5.4 ypc). He then upped his career-high as he pounded Purdue for 144 yards on 22 carries (6.5 ypc). The Hoosiers gave Redding the ball 35 times in the Pinstripe Bowl and he looked incredibly impressive as he gained 227 yards (6.5 ypc) with a touchdown.

Redding is still not the most explosive back but he is a decisive runner that can run through arm tackles and get some yards after contact. He also appears to have more of a burst than I thought he did before this season as evidenced by runs of 45, 57 and 39 yards in the final three games of the season. I doubt the coaching staff wants him carrying the ball 30+ times every game next season but there’s no doubt he is capable of reproducing his 226 carry/1,012 yard season as a large part of the 2016 backfield.

The Wild-Card – Camion Patrick

If you’ve read this site for a while, you’ll know that we are quite excited about Camion Patrick. He transferred to IU after a wonderful season at East Mississippi Community College and redshirted the 2015 season in Bloomington. During 2014, Patrick caught 42 passes for 631 yards with 12 touchdowns. He also returned 17 punts for an average of 13.4 yards with one score. Patrick is originally from Knoxville, Tennessee and he previously committed to Derek Dooley at the University of Tennessee. He was unable to gain academic clearance after coming up one credit short following summer school. That meant he was forced to sit out the season and learn the Hoosiers offensive system. He’s impressed Kevin Wilson, that’s for sure.

“The best player on the football team is Camion Patrick,” Wilson said after IU’s win over Purdue. “You haven’t seen him yet. He’s really good. We got some guys coming”

Patrick has spent some time at running back and worked some with IU running back coach Deland McCullough. It’s yet to be seen how the Hoosiers plan to use him but it’s very possible that he ends up getting some carries in 2016.

“He’s got some size, some strength, and he’s got some juice,” McCullough said. “He’s got great hands and he’s very excited about that possibility, which hasn’t been finalized yet. I just want some more time with him.”

If Patrick can understand the offense and what is required of playing this new position, I think he will end up being a breakout star at running back and it’s possible that IU could, once again, have a pair of 1,000 yard rushers.

One thing that makes a switch to running back so intriguing is the strength the Hoosiers return at wide receiver (Patrick’s initial position). Ricky Jones, Simmie Cobbs and Mitchell Paige all return and I’d expect a lot of growth and improvement from Nick Westbrook. In addition, J’Shun Harris returns from injury and a true freshman like Cole Gest could emerge. In short, there are a lot of options at wide receiver with or without Patrick. It could be best for the team, and for Patrick, to get this explosive athlete on the field and to get the ball into his hands.

The Other Candidates – Mike Majette, Ricky Brookins, Andrew Wilson, Alex Rodriguez

There are quite a few guys that saw some game action that should return in 2016. Of course, when you are dealing with players a bit lower in the depth chart (although still very important), positions could be switched or players could transfer for better opportunities. As of now though, these four guys will battle for playing time in 2016. Mike Majette is the most intriguing of the bunch (in my opinion). He made his debut against Penn State with one carry for four yards and then exploded onto the scene against Rutgers. He carries the ball 11 times for 83 yards and scored a receiving touchdown. Majette chipped in with 32 yards against Maryland and 31 yards against Purdue. He was curiously absent from bowl game against Duke and I’m not entirely sure where the coaches think he fits in. This will be a crucial offseason of development for him. He offers good hands, burst and some shiftiness that could be an asset for this team so I hope he gets a chance in 2016.

Ricky Brookins struggled with some nagging injuries but was able to contribute as a kick returner and eventually had seven carries for 64 yards against Purdue. He carried the ball three times for 8 yards against Duke in the Pinstripe Bowl. Andrew Wilson, a Columbus native that will be a senior, had his best game of his career against Purdue as he made a couple of key plays and ended up with 15 carries for 52 yards and a touchdown. Finally, Alex Rodriguez, a sophomore-to-be from Indianapolis, totaled 12 carries in 2015 and scored a touchdown in the bowl game. I have absolutely no clue which one of these guys, if any, will emerge to become factors in 2016 but they each will have a chance to earn their spot during the offseason.

2016 Commitments

The Hoosiers currently only have one player committed that may end up at running back and that’s Cole Gest, a 5’8” prospect from St. Edward in Ohio. I think it’s likely that Gest ends up as a slot receiver but, for now, he’s listed as a running back. I fully expect the Hoosiers to wind up with at least one more running back commit and perhaps one more. Trey Ragas, a 5’11” Louisiana native is the name most commonly tossed around. The Hoosiers still may be pursuing athletes like Kiante Enis and Chris Evans (currently both Michigan commits) and a hybrid prospect from Texas named Tyler Natee. Natee, a 255-pound former quarterback, could play at multiple spots and it would be interesting to see how he’d be deployed if he ends up in Bloomington. Do any of the players I mentioned factor into the 2016 backfield? I don’t think that’s likely but who thought Alex Rodriguez would score a touchdown in the Pinstripe Bowl?

Jordan Howard declaring for the NFL Draft is a loss for the Hoosiers but I am confident that the running game will remain strong in 2016. How strong? That depends on the progression of the young offensive linemen and on how well the current cadre of running backs adjust to new roles as “leading men” and not just back players to Tevin Coleman or Jordan Howard.