Hoosiers hoping stability leads to big turnaround
Indiana's transition season is over, and coach Kevin Wilson is ready to make a fresh start.
The players who groaned and complained about the new coaching staff are gone. Those who stuck around have put teamwork over egos. Student ticket sales and overall ticket sales are both up, and there's a sense in the locker room that this year will finally be different.
''You've got to move forward,'' running back Stephen Houston said. ''It was hard last year, but it's not the first time we faced adversity and it's not going to be the last.''
Hey, it's a start after Indiana endured its worst season (1-11) since going winless in 1984.
The indignities were felt in every corner of the program.
Indiana was one of just two Big Ten schools that failed to qualify for a bowl game. It was the only school to go winless in league play. It closed 2011 with nine straight losses and was the only BCS-conference school that failed to defeat a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent.
Some players quit the team in the middle of the season. Others were suspended or dismissed for violating team rules. Some that stayed continued to stir things up in the locker room as Wilson played 16 true freshmen and 16 redshirt freshmen - the most in the nation.
Those problems now appear to be resolved.
''I think starting off Year 2, there are a lot more guys on the same page,'' center Will Matte said. ''There's a good core group of guys in the locker room and everybody understands better what we need to do and what Coach Wilson wants.''
Wilson tried to change the tone with some offseason lessons about team unity.
It began with a trip to the school's swimming pool where players were instructed to help their teammates take off their shirts in the water. At first, things didn't go too well. But when the Hoosiers returned for a second attempt, things went, well, swimmingly.
''I think it showed us how much we were not in sync with one another,'' Houston said. ''Last year, after practice, we went our own separate ways. Now a lot of us will play ping pong or whatever, they got us ping pong tables, and we're just being around one another and having fun.''
Players and coaches insist the attitude adjustment can translate into more wins if they can find the right combinations on the field, starting at quarterback.
A year ago, with no clear-cut winner in the preseason quarterback derby, Wilson wound up using three different starting quarterbacks - Dusty Kiel, Tre Roberson and Edward Wright-Baker. Kiel and Wright-Baker left the program after Roberson finished the season No. 1 on the depth chart.
Now Roberson faces a new challenge - holding off the challenge of junior-college transfer Cameron Coffman, whose brother, Chase, and father, Paul, are both NFL veterans.
Clearly, Wilson expects more out of his quarterbacks than the 11-touchdown, five-interception, 55.8 percent completion percentage the three combined for last season.
''We can't overcome solid or mediocre play at quarterback and expect to win,'' Wilson said.
One facet that should help: Stability.
Houston, Roberson and D'Angelo Roberts were Indiana's top three runners last season. All three are back.
Seven of the Hoosiers' top nine receivers also return, though Kofi Hughes, who led the group with 35 receptions and 536 yards, must serve a one-game suspension for violating team rules. And four of the starting linemen - Matte, Bernard Taylor, Collin Rahrig and Peyton Eckert - will be back, leaving an open hole at left tackle.
Experience should help the defense, too, when play begins Sept. 1 against Indiana State.
Indiana has all four starters back on the defensive line and three of four back in the secondary. The other, safety Alexander Webb, made two starts last season.
The biggest changes are at linebacker, where Wilson is plugging in JUCO transfers Jacarri Alexander and David Cooper alongside incumbent starter Chase Hoobler.
''We're a lot more mature, have a lot more depth, a lot of guys got experience last year and that will definitely help out this year,'' safety Mark Murphy said.
It's still going to take time.
Indiana has only eight seniors on the roster, tied for the fewest in the nation, and is likely to rely predominantly on underclassmen again. And Wilson still needs to change the expectations in a program that has been to only one bowl game since 1994 and has rarely sold out home games over the past decade.
Wilson insists the program is moving in the right direction.
''We didn't pay for everyone to be here in summer. We took classes and we did great in summer school, but it was really a commitment to train, to prepare, to mature and to be a better football player,'' Wilson said. ''We're making - this institution and this administration from the top and the athletic department - is making the commitment to making a winning team.''