EDITOR’S NOTE: Tom Allen’s first full season as the Indiana head coach (he coached the bowl game in 2016) resulted in a 5-7 record and just missing a third consecutive bowl appearance. IU lost to Purdue 31-24 in the Old Oaken Bucket game, a loss that kept the Hoosiers out of postseason competition. As we count down to the start of fall camp Aug. 2, we will be previewing the Hoosiers position-by-position. The first installment looked at running backs and the second one at wide receivers. This one focuses on the IU offensive line.
Just how deep is the 2018 Indiana offensive line? Consider this:
Hunter Littlejohn started all 12 games at center last season as a redshirt sophomore, and he likely will open the 2018 season in a backup role.
That’s because IU picked up a talented yet oft-injured fifth-year graduate transfer in Nick Linder from the Miami (Fla.), and he is penciled in to be the starter going into training camp.
But that’s a good problem for Indiana coach Tom Allen to have. Across the board, he has players who have started a ton of Big Ten games, and Allen is hoping that experience will be one of IU’s big strengths on the offense.
Key Returners: Coy Cronk (junior), Wes Martin (senior), Brandon Knight (senior), Simon Stepaniak (junior), Littlejohn (junior), Delroy Baker (senior), Mackenzie Nworah (sophomore), Harry Crider (sophomore).
Notable Newcomers: Nick Linder (grad transfer), Caleb Jones (redshirt freshman).
Losses: Danny Friend (graduation).
Greatest Strength: Plenty of Big Ten starts.
Look up and down the Indiana offensive line and you see players who have made a multitude of Big Ten starts in the trenches.
Cronk has started all 25 games of his college career at left tackle. Martin has made 31 starts in his career including 25 consecutive starts at left guard. Knight played the final 10 games a year ago with eight starts at right tackle. Stepaniak and Nworah each started six games last season at right guard. Littlejohn had 12 starts at center.
But it’s not just the starters. Even the backups have a lot of experience. Baker is comfortable at every position but center and played in 10 games at tackle and guard last year. DaVondre Love played in 11 games last season and is a capable backup. Crider is Martin’s backup at left guard and considered a solid prospect, too.
Position Battles: Who starts at right guard?
The right guard position is an interesting one.
Stepaniak started six games there last season before getting hurt, and then Nworah took over and started the final six games and was solid. Both had good springs. Stepaniak might have a slight edge but it could be a battle waged throughout camp.
Biggest Question: Can Linder stay healthy enough to contribute?
Linder is an interesting acquisition at the center position as a graduate transfer, but the question will be his health.
He started 23 games in 2015 and 2016 at Miami. But he missed all of last season because of a shoulder injury and was limited in spring ball for an injury, too. He’s expected to be ready to go at the start of camp.
The nice thing for Allen and his staff is last year’s starter at center, Littlejohn, is waiting in the wings.
Worth Considering: Can Caleb Jones be a contributor?
Jones is a mammoth of a man out of Lawrence North who used his redshirt season as a freshman a year ago.
He is 6-foot-8 and weighs 370 pounds. And he’s talented, too. The challenge will be exactly how to use him. Had this season’s redshirt rule applied last year, IU could have used him in up to four games and gotten an idea of how close he was to be ready to play, but that rule was not in effect.