After last Saturdayâ€™s contest with South Carolina State, the Indiana Hoosiers have only North Texas to play before entering the brutal conference portion of the schedule.
Indiana is a team in transition and, as is true for most transitioning teams, the Hoosiers will need to work especially hard to develop and improve throughout the season.
Under normal circumstances, the coaching staff would count on veteran players to lead the charge and develop the kind of culture and work ethic that a team needs in order to succeed.
During the offseason and early this year the storylines reaching the media focused on the leadership that the upperclassmen on the team would provide throughout the season in order to ease the transition.
Fast-forward a mere three weeks and the narrative has undergone a seismic shift. Instead of leaning on experienced standbys, the coaching staff continues to throw freshmen into the action.
â€œCompetition and the bench are your two greatest allies as a coachâ€¦ the other day we used the latter, you need to earn the opportunity to play,â€ Wilson said on Tuesday. â€œWe need to be always moving forward, thatâ€™s my challenge to these guys. Does everyone embrace that? I donâ€™t know. I donâ€™t think we have issues, but at the same time, in order to get our program going the way we want it to go we need to be working hard and have competition.â€
According to Wilson, many freshmen have done a good job of embracing this philosophy, which has led to them seeing the field. Probably the best example from the past weekend was Dâ€™Angelo Roberts, who won B1G Freshman of The Week honors after rushing for over 100 yards and a touchdown.
Roberts didnâ€™t receive a carry in the seasonâ€™s first game against Ball State, but has led the Hoosiers in yards per carry in the two games since.
â€œI love his mentality, that kid runs hard he plays the game violent,â€ said co-offensive coordinator Rod Smith. â€œHe plays mad and thatâ€™s what you likeâ€¦ he brings that hard edge even though heâ€™s a freshman and I think other guys feed off that.â€
Mark Murphy is another example of a true freshman making a serious impact for Indiana.
While he didnâ€™t see the field in the opener against Ball State, he made up ground very quickly, leading the Hoosiers in tackles against South Carolina State. Heâ€™s listed as a safety, but saw most of his time at linebacker out of the Nickel package.
â€œHeâ€™s a really good football player, we really like him as a safety but Leon (Beckum) got hurt and we were depleted at the Will position and needed some speed,â€ co-defensive coordinator Mike Ekeler said. â€œHeâ€™s got the speed, he can run, heâ€™s a tough kidâ€¦ he does a great job for us and could play a number of different roles. He could be playing safety this time next year for us, but right now we need him at that Nickel/Will spot.â€
True freshmen Peyton Eckert and Bernard Taylor also did an admirable job in their first college starts on the offensive line after taking over for two upperclassmen, Justin Pagan and Mark Damisch.
â€œThey played hard,â€ said Coach Wilson. â€œWe missed stuff, and as the game went on we always get a little more nervous. Both of them keep coming along and I think theyâ€™ll compliment the older guys.â€
All the praise being heaped upon the freshmen is fine, but keeping the bigger picture in perspective is important as well.
Even though many positive words are being spoken about this yearâ€™s freshman class, it doesnâ€™t look all that different from the types of mid-level classes that would traditionally come to Indiana.
None of the freshmen playing are the â€œeliteâ€ guys that you would see at schools like Ohio State or Michigan. Rather theyâ€™re guys who played hard in practice and outworked the veterans they were expected to look up to.
Kevin Wilson said last week that there were guys who werenâ€™t practicing with the amount of intensity that he wanted to see and that if his team continued to practice like that, they wouldnâ€™t win games. Itâ€™s certainly not a coincidence that on a day when so many freshmen played extensively, upperclassmen like Pagan and Damisch lost their spots and didnâ€™t see the field.
So while it is nice to see so many freshmen getting their chance to perform on Saturdays, itâ€™s simultaneously worrisome because it raises some questions about the current psychological makeup of this team.
Seniors like Damarlo Belcher and Jeff Thomas deserve credit for embracing the new staffâ€™s higher standards, but many of their classmates appear to have fallen behind their younger teammates.
Maybe itâ€™s that the newest members of the team havenâ€™t been beaten down by years losing, maybe itâ€™s just that the freshmen donâ€™t know any other way at this level than Wilsonâ€™s. Whatever the case, IU wouldnâ€™t be playing many of their youngest players if the oldest ones had been living up to expectations.
On the bright side, the experience this yearâ€™s freshman group is getting should serve to expedite their growth and get their growing pains out of the way early.
â€œThe more these freshmen play, the more they keep coming along and get more comfortable,â€ Wilson said. â€œNow itâ€™s just the little things like getting lined up in the right spot.â€
Wilsonâ€™s bottom line isnâ€™t just about the physical ability and understanding of the game. As heâ€™s made clear multiple times, bringing a desire to improve on a daily basis is equally important.
â€œHow do you respond to the hundred yard game? Is that all you want?â€ he said when discussing Dâ€™Angelo Robertsâ€™ Saturday performance. â€œThatâ€™s not a whole lotâ€¦it wasnâ€™t that big of a deal, I really want to see what the other guys do to respond.”
Upon hearing that statement, perhaps itâ€™s easy to understand how players could fall short of expectations; after all, if a 100-yard game isnâ€™t good enough, what is?
Maybe thatâ€™s the point â€“ that the guys who are satisfied wonâ€™t see the field this season; that every player on this team needs to understand that there is room for individual improvement. Itâ€™s a mentality that every successful team has, and one that may take a while to sink in. How long it takes will depend on leadership.
Look for the youth to lead the way.