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Indiana linebacker Cam Jones and quarterback Jack Tuttle took matters into their own hands this offseason.
He called his teammates together to discuss the program’s goals and aspirations, the need to always play with an edge, and to break down exactly why things went wrong in 2021.
Now he’s using the lessons from the players-only PowerPoint session to avoid a repeat this fall.
“It’s never good to go backwards,” Jones said before admitting his team needed a real heart-to-heart to move forward. “I think if you have the wrong mindset, if you wake up with the wrong mindset, you’re going to have a bad day. If you have the right mindset, I think you’re going to have a good day.”
Or in this case, perhaps, a great season.
Of course, this was the Hoosiers’ last fall project. But after opening the season in the top 25, a string of injuries and embarrassing losses ensued. The result: two wins, none in Big Ten play, a humiliating 44-7 season-ending loss at rival Purdue and a month-long reflection.
This led to a flurry of changes.
At quarterback, Michael Penix Jr. left for Washington, along with 2020 co-SEC freshman Connor Bazelak, who arrived from Missouri. Bazelak and Tuttle will compete for the No.1 position.
Indiana’s three most productive runners are gone, though two veteran transfers — Shawn Shivers and Josh Henderson — could provide immediate relief.
Defensively, the Hoosiers have to replace four starters.
Coach Tom Allen also shook up the coaching staff, firing offensive coordinator Nick Sheridan, hiring former UMass coach Walt Bell and reclaiming signal-calling duties on defense after coordinator Charlton Warren left for North Carolina.
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“Last year was really hard and I never want to go again,” Allen said. “At the same time you appreciate how difficult it is to be at a certain level.”
Allen knows the rotation starts inside the locker room. He believes Jones and Tuttle’s work has already made a difference.
“Man I was fired. I knew things were going to be different,” Allen said. “It’s never the big things. But I’m telling you there are some small, subtle things that I think he recognized and he saw and noticed what we talked about. I don’t think I can put a value on that.”
Allen is unlikely to publicly name a starting quarterback before Indiana’s Sept. 2 home opener against Illinois.
Tuttle has made four starts in 14 career games and has been a consistent influence since arriving at Indiana in 2019. But Bazelak completed nearly two-thirds of his throws at Missouri, throwing 17 interceptions in 24 games for 5,058 yards and 23 touchdowns. And they may have an edge with new composers.
“I’d say the experience, just calm and cool, not confused, not real emotional,” Allen said when describing what he saw from Bazelak. “For me, experience is just experience – where I’ve been in big games, played in big places.”
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Times are changing
Indiana lost two players after reporting to camp last season: running back Sampson James left for Purdue in mid-August and Tim Baldwin Jr. entered the transfer portal in October.
Allen, like other coaches, hopes college officials do more to prevent transfers during the season. In terms of names, image and likeness compensation for athletes, Allen is doing his best to keep the Hoosiers competitive.
“It won’t go away,” he said. “Programs and alumni bases, fundraising that figures it out and gets people involved will thrive. Who knows what the future holds, but I know we have to embrace it. We have to continue to grow. That’s participation.”
They are back
Injuries forced the Hoosiers to use four different starters at quarterback last year but the most devastating absence may have been cornerback Tiavon Mullin.
In 2020, he was named first team all-conference and also received national honors. Last year, he missed five games with injuries and made just four starts. Now he said he is healthy and ready to go.
“It was very disappointing,” he said. “It was just a freak accident, a guy fell on my leg. We’re ready to go back and I’m ready to go back.”
The Hoosiers need to build momentum with a strong start, and that starts Friday night under the lights against Big Ten foe Illinois.
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Towards the end of September, the usually challenging schedule begins. Indiana has back-to-back weeks at Cincinnati and Nebraska and then plays at Ohio State and Michigan State on consecutive weeks in November. Michigan, Penn State and Purdue will visit Bloomington this year.