Indiana’s Cobbs set for big comeback season

If the Ohio State game is any indication, a healthy Simmie Cobbs Jr. could put up even better numbers than he did two years ago -- and the Hoosiers will need him to be that good.
Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Spor

INDIANAPOLIS — Simmie Cobbs Jr. spent one full, agonizing season watching his Indiana teammates do the dirty work.

Now, Cobbs and Nick Westbrook will swap roles.

After missing all but one play in 2016, the junior receiver made a splashy return against No. 2 Ohio State, only to see it tainted by Westbrook’s own season-ending injury.

“It’s one of our deeper positions, even though you hate to lose a guy of this caliber,” coach Tom Allen said Monday, confirming that Westbrook tore his ACL. “But you know, younger guys have got to step up, and opportunities will be given to them, and that’s what this is about — one individual has a challenge and somebody else has to rise up and create his own opportunity and take advantage of it.”

Cobbs understands.

In 2015, he emerged as the Hoosiers’ most productive receiver, finishing with 60 receptions, 1,035 yards and four TDs. But he was suspended for the 2016 opener, then injured his ankle on Indiana’s first offensive play of Week 2 and never returned.

So quarterback Richard Lagow found other reliable options.

Westbrook became the Hoosiers’ top deep threat, Mitchell Paige the solid slot guy. Rickey Jones dared opponents to double Westbrook or Paige, and Devine Redding posed a real challenge out of the backfield.

With Jones, Paige and Redding all moving on after last season, the expectation in 2017 was that Cobbs and Westbrook would form one of the Big Ten’s most dynamic receiving duos. Instead, Donovan Hale beat out Westbrook for the starting job and Luke Timian became the slot man.

All three played well against a Buckeyes defense that’s expected to be one of the nation’s best.

Timian wound up catching 10 passes for 72 yards, both career highs, Hale had five catches for 67 yards and tight end Ian Thomas caught two TD passes.

But Cobbs stole the show with 11 receptions for 149 yards and one touchdown in his return.

“He’s way better than he was before,” coach Tom Allen said after the Hoosiers’ 49-21 loss. “He’s come back very motivated. Coach (Grant) Heard is, I think, the best receivers coach in the country, and everywhere we’ve been together, he’s produced to that level. I think that, you know, Simmie has responded. He needed a guy like that to motivate him, to show him how it’s supposed to be, and hats off to him for responding.”

Meanwhile, Westbrook was injured on the opening kickoff.

Allen said the subsequent MRI showed the tear, forcing Westbrook into the same long rehabilitation process Cobbs faced last year.

“It was great to be back out there,” Cobbs said Thursday night. “We left a lot of plays out there on the field, but our confidence is still high. It’s the first game and doesn’t dictate our season moving forward.”

At least, the Hoosiers have plenty of options to replace Westbrook, who caught 54 passes for 995 yards and a team-high six TDs in 2016.

Lagow hooked up with 10 different receivers in the season opener, and Cobbs is still rounding into form.

If the Ohio State game is any indication, a healthy Cobbs, a junior, could put up even better numbers than he did two years ago — and the Hoosiers will need him to be that good.

“He still has things to work on. He knows that. But he did make some plays and played well,” Allen said of Cobbs. “Obviously, the guys that played will be given opportunities to be — just like they did in the game.”

Notes: Cobbs, linebacker Tegray Scales and safety Chase Dutra were the coaches’ choices as players of the game. … Allen said the Hoosiers probably will continue using two centers, Hunter Littlejohn and true freshman Harry Crider. … While Lagow threw a school record 65 passes Thursday, Allen noted that 18 of those throws came on run-pass options. … Allen also said that walk-on tight end Ryan Watercutter was awarded a scholarship.