Written By Alex Compton (@alexncompton)
This is one of the most interesting position groups on the team. There are some anchors that have been through the ringer so far in their careers, coupled with some unknowns. That type of combination can be worrisome, or exciting, depending on how you look at the situation. IU isn’t losing much personnel wise for 2018, so the battles for starting spot this year will be very, very interesting. Certain spots on the line (cough, cough, left side) are already locked down, so essentially it’s a three spot position battle for this upcoming season. Second year offensive line coach Darren Hiller has some options to work with, and Coach Allen’s philosophy of having a multitude of bodies up front to rotate in is starting to take shape.
IU brought in two freshman offensive linemen that are both projected to play tackle for the Hoosiers, and a graduate transfer from Miami. The incoming freshmen aren’t on campus yet, and that really hinders their shot at playing right away in 2018. Last year’s line was really young anyways, so guys with real experience coming back probably dampened their shot as being big time contributors this year regardless. Let’s take a look at the guys who are in the mix to start.
Left Tackle - Coy Cronk – 6’5”/305 – JR – Cronk is one of the anchors I talked about briefly above. He has started 25 straight games at left tackle since he arrived on campus two years ago, and that itself is a testament to how valuable he is for the Hoosiers. People often say the best ability is availability, and Cronk certainly fits the bill. Since his freshman season, Cronk has made steady improvements as a pass blocker, and that improvement has made him one of Indiana’s most valuable players. No matter who the quarterback is for the start of the season, having Cronk protecting that left side is a huge luxury for Mike DeBord’s offense.
Left Guard - Wes Martin – 6’3”/310 – RS SR – Wes Martin is Indiana’s best lineman, and you could argue that he’s IU’s best player on offense heading in to 2018. He went ALL of the 2017 season without allowing a sack in pass protection. He took 569 snaps in pass protection last year, the most in the nation by far. Sam Jones from Arizona State came in second with 510 snaps. Wes Martin is a baaaaad man, and it will be on him and Cronk to his left to anchor this O-Line.
Center – Nick Linder – 6’3”/300 – GRAD TRANSFER (University of Miami) – Nick Linder had his eyes on the Hoosiers for a while, and luckily for Tom Allen, they were finally able to bring him aboard this winter. He was a three-year starter at Miami, and sat out last season to be able to transfer and play right away for his final year of eligibility. When healthy, Linder projects as one of the better 4 or 5 centers in the Big Ten, which would be a huge addition to an overall strong line. He played a little bit of left guard at the U as well, but barring something really unfortunate, Wes Martin has that spot beyond locked down. A healthy Linder bring two things to the table for IU. One, he is an experienced, talented body in the middle. Two, and perhaps more important, is he would allow Harry Crider the chance to redshirt. He came in as a true freshman last year and got some real game action, but got burned out towards the end of the year. A season spent getting his body right could pay off for IU in the next couple of seasons for sure.
Center – Hunter Littlejohn – 6’3”/305 – RS JR – Littlejohn started all 12 games at center last season, but still could lose his job to the aforementioned Linder. Littlejohn was solid in 2017, but did not take the jump many of us expected in his second full season. He really came on strong after not playing much in his redshirt freshman season, but seemed to have really volatile play overall as the season went on. It was his first consistent action in the Big Ten, and that takes time to adjust to, but overall, having Linder here this year will help Littlejohn out tremendously.
Right Guard – Mackenzie Nworah – 6’4”/305 – RS SO – Back when IU signed Nworah as part of the 2016 class, I immediately labeled him as one of the best “gets” of the entire group. His combination of strength with raw athleticism made him just a joy to watch on tape, and I figured he would be a quick study at the next level as well. After redshirting his first year on campus in 2016, the Texan came on strong in 2017 by starting in 6 games and playing in 10 at right guard. He still has a ways to go overall, but he is already a solid asset in the run game. Shoring up his pass protection and his conditioning will help him tremendously, but Nworah is a great, young player that will play large amounts of snaps for IU in 2018.
Right Guard – Simon Stepaniak – 6’4”/305 – RS JR – Stepaniak actually split starts with Nworah last year, before going down with an injury and missing the rest of the year. His six starts came off of playing in 12 games in 2016 during his redshirt freshman season, and coming into the season as a clear starter was a nice development. His injury has left the position battle wide open, as Mackenzie Nworah did look really solid in his first action. Simon is a much better pass blocker at this point before spring ball, so the starts between the two of them may honestly depend on the matchup that week. Either way, a rotation of Nworah and Stepaniak should suffice in 2018.
Right Tackle – Brandon Knight – 6’5”/305 – SR – Right tackle is where things get really interesting, and whoever is the starter here really will determine who starts at right guard. If Brandon Knight can stay healthy for a large chunk of the season, the offense gets a huge boost. He has been a mainstay on the O-Line since his freshman season, and looks to end his career in his home state on a high note. He played in the last 10 games of 2017 (8 starts), and looks to showcase his legitimate NFL potential in his final collegiate season. Knight has the versatility to shift inside to guard as well, so that’s a definite storyline to watch this offseason.
Right Tackle – Caleb Jones – 6’8”/370 – RS FR – Yes, Caleb Jones is really six foot eight. I’ve talked about it before on the site, but it’s worth repeating. This dude is massive. That size is a major reason why he has great potential, and coaches are apparently optimistic that he can be a possible starter this season. If Jones can start at right tackle, Brandon Knight would then move inside to right guard, which would add so much depth and flexibility up front. Watch out for Jones to play even if he doesn’t start.
This is the hard part of it all, deciding where all of these guys fit in to the puzzle for 2018. Assuming everyone stays healthy through spring and summer ball, I see a great mix of young guys and veteran anchors that should combine to offer, depth, flexibility, and game experience at every spot. Here are my projected starters at each position.
LT- Coy Cronk #54
Will be his third consecutive season starting at left tackle, and he is only getting better. Look out for All-Conference recognition this year.
LG- Wes Martin #76
IU’s best lineman is a no-brainer to start. Another season of not giving up a sack in pass protection would be remarkable.
C- Nick Linder #50
The fifth-year senior is hungry to prove he has some quality football left in the tank, and he should serve as a valuable stopgap this year while two young, promising centers learn and improve behind him.
RG- Mackenzie Nworah #51
A strong close to the 2017 campaign should give him the upper hand heading in to this season. Watch this battle closely during the offseason, as it is the most tightly contested position on the line.
RT- Brandon Knight #62
The senior from Noblesville could prove to be one of the most important players for IU this year. Health is the key.
RT/RG- Delroy Baker #71
The redshirt senior has been a solid rotation guy at both tackle and guard spots. He could play up to four positions for IU this year.
C- Hunter Littlejohn #68
A year behind Linder should do him wonders. Will definitely play one way or another this season.
RG- Simon Stepaniak #72
Could very well win the job at RG, but will be a huge asset to have rotating in regardless.
RT- Caleb Jones #77
A season spelling Brandon Knight in some spurts should pave the way for a big time final three seasons for Jones starting in 2019.
C- Harry Crider #57
Like I said earlier, a year to develop will pay massive dividends in the years to come.
T- Nick Marozas
The highly rated three-star out of Illinois will be a solid player for IU starting in 2019.
T- Aidan Rafferty
Another big time three star, the DC area tackle will be in the mix for a starting spot at both tackle spots in 2019.
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