If you had asked me eight months ago what I thought Indiana football’s chances of winning at least six games in 2018 would be, I wouldn’t have been extremely optimistic.
And six wins is always the magic number for a program like Indiana. Six wins means bowl eligibility, which is no easy task when you play in the Big Ten East with teams like Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State.
But there didn’t seem to be a lot of reason to get excited about the 2018 season. In fact, I probably would have guessed a season in the four-win range.
There were just too many question marks at key positions.
The IU defense, which has been the most consistent side of the ball the past few seasons, had suffered significant losses through graduation.
Guys like Tegray Scales, Chris Covington, Rashard Fant, Chase Dutra, Nate Hoff, Greg Gooch and Robert McCray were all gone.
These weren’t just a few easily replaceable names either. These were names that had been significant reasons why the IU defense had improved dramatically the past few seasons.
These weren’t just holes left behind but more like craters. The linebacker position in particular was pretty much like starting over in regard to players with experience. Scales and Covington were both in the NFL, and the one guy with experience — Dameon Willis — had opted to graduate with one season of eligibility remaining.
Overall, things did not look promising.
Add to that the fact a playmaker like Simmie Cobbs Jr. had departed for the NFL early from the wide receiver position and that the Hoosiers looked particularly thin at the quarterback position, and there simply didn’t seem to be a lot of room for optimism.
As Indiana opens training camp Thursday with its annual Media Day followed by the first day of practice Friday, however, this team has a completely different feel.
I think six or seven wins could be within this team's grasp depending on how some of the newcomers pan out.
Now I’m not saying the addition of a few players since December is going to turn this team into a Big Ten East contender by any stretch, but there are at the very least a few reasons for positivity out there.
So what happened?
Let’s start on defense, specifically the linebacker position. While it’s impossible to replace players like Scales and Covington, Indiana has had a couple of positive offseason moves that have helped the situation considerably.
First of all, Willis, despite participating in Senior Day activities a year ago, decided to return for his final season of eligibility. That’s an instant upgrade in terms of leadership and experience.
In addition, IU received some big news on sophomore transfer T.D. Roof from Georgia Tech. Roof was a big recruit that got away in the class of 2017 out of Buford, Georgia. But since his dad was the defensive coordinator at Georgia Tech, it was easy to see how IU wasn’t able to make it happen.
So Roof goes to Georgia Tech and sees action as a true freshman at a linebacker spot. He also played on four different special teams squads. But then his dad took a job at North Carolina State, and Roof had a decision to make.
He decided to transfer, and Indiana was his preferred destination. He enrolled at the semester and participated in spring football and was used with both the first- and second-team defenses. IU petitioned the NCAA for Roof to be able to play right away because of the circumstances with his father taking the NC State job, and he was given immediate eligibility. And so the depth got better at linebacker there, too.
Offensively, the quarterback position was the biggest concern, and now it’s perhaps the most intriguing position on the field.
With Richard Lagow gone via graduation, the heir apparent was Peyton Ramsey who got a lot of experience as a freshman last season. And while he did some good things particularly running the football, his arm was a question mark at best. His backup was expected to be Nick Tronti, the former Mr. Football from the state of Florida who sat out last season.
As practice begins this week, there are three names in the quarterback race: fifth-year graduate transfer Brandon Dawkins, true freshman Michael Penix Jr. and Ramsey. Tronti has since transferred.
But Dawkins started 15 games at quarterback the last two seasons in the Pac-12 at the University of Arizona, and Penix was a last-second flip from Tennessee to Indiana on signing day.
All of a sudden, the quarterback position looks much more put together, and all eyes will be on that position beginning with the start of practice Friday.
So, at the very least, there is a lot more room for optimism with Indiana football than there was eight months ago.
Like anything else, though, we’ll know a lot more a month from now at the end of training camp if this is an Indiana team to truly take seriously.