It’s no coincidence that IU football’s two highest-rated offensive signees in the class of 2018 are already on campus.
Running back Ronnie Walker and quarterback Michael Penix Jr., the Hoosiers’ two best incoming freshmen according to 247Sports, seized the opportunity to enroll early at IU and participate in spring practice after signing in December.
The practice of enrolling early for college football players has become increasingly common and benefits players who want to adjust quicker and make their transitions from high school smoother. Walker and Penix are not just looking to ease into their careers as Hoosiers, though.
They see openings to contribute early, and IU Coach Tom Allen is more than ready to let them.
“The opportunity is great,” Penix said last week. “Coach Allen, he told me that it’s going to be a fair competition, so all the quarterbacks in the quarterback room are going to compete for the starting job.”
The IU offense that finished in the bottom half of FBS in yards and points last season was often slowed by inconsistency, both in production and personnel. Richard Lagow and Peyton Ramsey seesawed back and forth at quarterback while various injuries prevented leading rushers Morgan Ellison and Cole Gest from playing full seasons.
Lagow’s graduation, coupled with the fact that neither Ellison nor Gest truly took control of the backfield in 2017, has left room for Penix and Walker to be in the mix at their respective positions.
Penix only has Ramsey, who will be a redshirt sophomore next season, and Nick Tronti, who will be a redshirt freshman, to compete with currently.
Reese Taylor, a fellow 2018 IU signee and Indiana’s Mr. Football, will join Penix as another potential freshman quarterback in the summer and stiffen the competition even more. That is why Penix said he always planned to enroll in school early, even when he was committed to Tennessee before he switched to IU on signing day.
“I feel like it’s better preparing me for when the season comes,” Penix said. “I’ll be ahead of the game by knowing the plays, knowing the coaches and knowing teammates better.”
Walker shared a similar motivation for wanting to come to Bloomington in January rather than June. He said he would have considered it a “setback” to miss out on the opportunities afforded by spring practice, which starts on March 3.
The running back position is a crowded one for the Hoosiers, even with the premature departures of Alex Rodriguez, Tyler Natee and Devonte Williams from the program this offseason.
Ellison and Gest remain, and the rising sophomores combined for 1,132 rushing yards last season. Ricky Brookins also picked up more than 200 all-purpose yards as a junior in 2017 while becoming a favorite of the coaching staff for his veteran presence and blocking ability.
It will not be easy for Walker to break into the crowded backfield and take over right away. But he says he is up to the task and, at least as a high school recruit, he was rated by evaluators as better than any current Hoosier running back ever was.
“I’m going to work my tail off so I can get the spot,” Walker said. “I want to show coaches that I’m here to play. I’m here for that spot.”
Penix and Walker certainly are not facing identical circumstances. Quarterback is a spot that Allen and his staff would love to nail down with a consistent presence throughout the year, which could mean hundreds of snaps for Penix, or none. Walker might end up seeing one-third or one-fourth of the carries while contributing in spurts.
But both men, just weeks removed from finishing high school, are embarking on their first springs as college football players with opportunities ripe for the taking. The next few weeks and months, Allen said, will reveal a lot about his newest players.
“That to me is going to be the true test case,” Allen said. “We’ll know a lot more of those answers once we go through spring football.”
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