Throughout this young football season, the predominant storyline surrounding the Indiana football team has been evaluation of the senior leadership.
Onlookers and fans alike have wondered aloud whether there will be evidence of the seniors leading the team this season. Kevin Wilson answered that question to a degree on Tuesday, but the way he did it raised some eyebrows.
â€œEvery team has leadership, weâ€™ve got leadership on our team. Maybe itâ€™s not the kind that you want at a winning program but every team is run by the players.â€
In one statement, Wilson freely admitted something that many coaches will not â€“ that at the end of the day, teams are led not by coaches, but by players â€“ and gave one of the more candid assessments Iâ€™ve heard a coach give about his teamâ€™s leadership situation. Give Coach Wilson credit folks; he knows how to tell it like it is.
He made clear immediately that he meant his statement not as an indictment, but as an evaluation for his team to take in and improve upon. Even a cursory look at the North Texas game last weekend gave several looks at a team that didnâ€™t come in sharp. The defense had 18 missed tackles and 28 â€œloafsâ€, a statistic kept by the coaching staff counting plays where players showed a lack of effort getting to the ball.
In one statement, Wilson freely admitted something that many coaches will not â€“ that at the end of the day, teams are led not by coaches, but by players
â€œ(The type of effort we saw last week) was shocking, because weâ€™ve given good effort for the most part up to that point,â€ said co-defensive coordinator Doug Mallory. â€œ(The 28 loafs) is unacceptable and I donâ€™t know whether the kids are tired or fatigued, but weâ€™ll play more kids as the season goes on.â€
A while after that, Mallory was asked about a couple of his defensive players admitting that there may have been players that took North Texas for granted to a degree.
â€œIf thatâ€™s the case, thatâ€™s a problem with our kids,â€ he said. â€œFor us to think weâ€™re talented enough to line up, go through the motions and be successful weâ€™re in need of a reality check thereâ€¦ I would hope thatâ€™s not the case that weâ€™re overlooking someone and taking them for granted because that perception is a false sense of reality.â€
Effort, leadership and commitment are some of the most tricky issues to deal with in football and on a team like this one, itâ€™s that much more important that the players are on the same page and buy in to what the coaches are selling. Without a good deal more of all three of those attributes, this team will not succeed this season.
Itâ€™s obviously a complex situation for the upperclassmen that are playing their final year of football under a coaching staff that, by all accounts, has been much more demanding of them than the previous one. To further complicate matters, many members of this yearâ€™s leadership group are trying to fill those shoes for the first time, after taking a back seat to older players in the past. Senior wideout Dre Muhammad was upfront with the media when talking about the difficulty of taking the reigns for the first time.
â€œNot many players have been in a position to really lead a team,â€ he said. â€œI think there are a lot of us still trying to figure it out. A big part of it is the actions, because if you show actions and contribute, you take care of saying stuff and getting people to fall in line.â€
Muhammadâ€™s words do a lot to help make sense of the issues that the Hoosiers have had so far this year with leadership. One need look no further than Damarlo Belcher, a player who was vocal with the media and within the team last year, to see a learning curve. He shared much of his burden with Tandon Doss last season and both of them deferred to Terrance Turner. With both Doss and Turner gone this season, the spotlight has turned to guys like Belcher and Muhammad. Wide receiver has been the area of least concern for Indiana, but even there, players are still learning how to lead.
Other positions on the roster havenâ€™t been quite so fortunate, quarterback in particular.
Ben Chappell played a massive role last year for this team, as the quarterback in an extremely pass-heavy offense. The two players attempting to fill his shoes this year, Ed Wright-Baker and Dusty Kiel, have nowhere near the time in a system or the in-game experience that Chappell had. As a result, a position that had last year been one of the Hoosiersâ€™ biggest strengths has become one of questionable consistency.
â€œA long way,â€ is what Coach Wilson said when asked about where Wright-Baker and Kiel are in their optional game preparation as quarterbacks. â€œA teacher canâ€™t tell you to study, but thereâ€™s a test over the material. We have a test every Saturday on national TV in front of thousands of fans.â€
Wilson conceded that both Kiel and Wright-Baker have other obligations, but also recounted numerous examples of great quarterbacks heâ€™s been around, and made it clear that he wants to see both do a better job of preparing. The starting quarterback of a college football team needs to hold a position of leadership, and that starts with preparation.
Wilsonâ€™s words regarding preparation ring true not only for the quarterbacks, but also for the entire roster. Preparation extends not only to watching enough film, but also bringing requisite energy to practice every day to prepare each other for conference play. There will be plenty of freshmen that see ample playing time against Penn State this weekend, but for this team to have its best chance at hanging tough, seniors will need to step up their effort this week in practice.
The freshmen that have played are talented, but many of them have gotten a shot mainly because they outworked the more experienced upperclassmen. Coach Wilson mentioned meeting with his seniors earlier this week and letting them know what was expected of them. When starters are announced on Saturday, it will be interesting to see if there are any veterans who got the message and have reclaimed their starting spots.
If so, that can only be a positive indicator for this football team.
â€œYour football life is terminal,â€ Coach Wilson said of the seniors. â€œYouâ€™ve got 9 weeks of your football life left, itâ€™s up to you how you want them to be.â€
Saturday should be an indicator of whether they will go quietly, or if they have some fight left.