(Eds: Updates. With AP Photos.)By MICHAEL MAROTAP Sports Writer
Indiana quarterback Tre Roberson has always been able to win games with his quick feet.
Now the sophomore has expanded his repertoire.
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Roberson spent the offseason working on his footwork, his throwing motion, his accuracy and efficiency. He’s changed his style so much since last November that Hoosiers fans might not even recognize him against Indiana State in Saturday night’s season-opener.
”I’m throwing the ball better, I’m more confident in the passing game and I’m doing what I need to do,” Roberson said after a practice earlier this week. ”I needed to get more efficient passing the ball and listening to Coach (Kevin) Wilson, I think I’ve done that.”
The transformation from star athlete to polished quarterback can trip up even the most talented athletes.
Indiana had no choice.
With veteran starters Dusty Kiel and Edward Wright-Baker transferring after a dismal 1-11 season, fourth-string quarterback Teddy Schell graduating and top recruit Gunner Kiel, Dusty’s younger brother, backing out of a verbal commitment to Indiana, Wilson was left with only one player on the roster who had thrown a pass in the Football Bowl Subdivision: Roberson.
So Wilson and his staff challenged their incumbent starter to make the conversion from dual-threat quarterback to traditional thrower.
The project began with some mechanical changes.
”The No. 1 thing he did a year ago was he kind of dropped the ball as he was throwing it,” assistant offensive coordinator Kevin Johns said, dropping his hand below the shoulder in a throwing motion. ”We worked on him keeping the ball higher.”
Wilson, who helped tutor former Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford, also asked Roberson to spend more time in the film room.
After watching countless hours of game tape, Roberson began noticing the little things – where he was holding the ball, how defenses reacted to different looks, where he could have and should have gone with the ball as a freshman. Eventually, the Indianapolis native came to the same conclusion as his coaches: If the Hoosiers were going to improve, Roberson had to do more out of the pocket.
”Just dropping back and going through the progressions last year, I think I was a little frantic last year because I didn’t want to make a mistake,” Roberson said. ”That gets better with preparation.”
All of the extra work began paying dividends in spring practice and summer workouts.
When fall practice opened, though, Wilson immediately issued a new challenge Roberson. With junior college transfer Cameron Coffman and true freshman Nate Sudfeld battling the incumbent for playing time, Wilson told reporters after the first practice: ”From what I saw today it (Roberson’s passing) needs to be a lot better.”
Roberson spent the next 3 1/2 weeks trying to prove his head coach wrong.
The transition certainly hasn’t been easy for a guy whose old style had him seemingly destined for stardom.
As a junior at Lawrence Central in suburban Indianapolis, the 6-foot, 180-pound quarterback threw for 1,008 yards and ran for 984 yards, accounting for 15 total touchdowns – seven rushing. As a senior, Roberson threw for 2,611 yards and 24 TDs, rushed for 1,992 yards and 21 TDs and led his school to its first 5A state championship game. He played well enough to win the state’s Mr. Football Award and earn a scholarship to the same school where his grandfather, Canadian Football League Hall-of-Famer Larry Highbaugh, starred in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
At Indiana, Roberson’s athletic ability immediately got him into a three-man race for the starting job, though he initially landed behind Wright-Baker and Kiel on the depth chart.
When the two veterans got hurt, Roberson took the starting job and never gave it up. After becoming the first true freshman to start a game at quarterback for the Hoosiers, Roberson finished the season 81 of 142 for 937 yards with three TDs and six interceptions, rushing for 426 yards and two more scores and going 0-5 as a starter.
Everyone knew the numbers had to get better in 2012.
”We can’t overcome solid or mediocre play and expect to win,” Wilson said on media day. ”Last year, if you completed 60 percent of your passes, you were 60th in the nation. So today, a lot of it is passing. Tre’s a run guy, but I don’t think his body type is one- you don’t want to beat him up.”
So Indiana did the next best thing – training Roberson to become the quarterback they needed.
Roberson now acknowledges that the game has slowed down, that he’s seeing things differently, that he’s more comfortable in his pass-first role. And coaches insist he’s become a stronger leader, too.
It’s all new to the 20-year-old Roberson. But he doesn’t seem to mind.
”It makes me more comfortable going out there and I’m not thinking about it as much,” he said of how the film study has helped him become a better player. ”I’m playing more with my footwork and my arm more than I did last year.”