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COLUMN: IU has to find answers at tight end in 2018



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Senior tight end Ian Thomas and junior offensive lineman Delroy Baker celebrate Thomas' touchdown in the second half of IU's 49-21 loss to Ohio State. IU will have to replace its starting tight end this season after Thomas graduated and was selected in the NFL Draft. Katie Franke Buy Photos

As TJ Ivy makes the quick transition from high school graduate to college student, only a few things will have his attention during his first weeks at IU.

Ivy, along with fellow freshman tight end Matt Bjorson, will look to familiarize himself with the IU offensive playbook, as the season opener at Florida International is now less than 80 days away.

During the summer, Ivy is also taking one class at IU — SPH-H 180 Stress Prevention and Management.

He likes his chances in the class.

"I think it's a class that I'll definitely come out with an A, for sure," Ivy said.

The skills Ivy will learn during the four-week course may not only serve him well as an undergraduate, but may also come in useful on the football field, where Ivy and Bjorson are two of six tight ends on the IU roster looking to win the starting job.

"It's definitely something I'm looking forward to, going out there and competing," Ivy said. "It's one thing I love to do, but at the same time I understand I am a freshman. So I'm going to get in here and get ready and make sure I get myself down before I start looking at others."

Of all the positions with unknowns regarding who will start for the Hoosiers this season, the tight end position joins kicker, linebacker and wide receiver in terms of having to replace high-level production.

Last season's starter, Ian Thomas, was taken in the fourth round of the 2018 NFL Draft by the Carolina Panthers

When Ivy took his official recruiting visit to Bloomington, he was able to speak with Thomas, and did so again prior to the NFL Draft.

"He's a great role model to look up to and model your game after," Ivy said. "I think I can, for sure, model my game after him, just because of the fact that I look at my plays in high school and a lot of the stuff they do here, it's a lot of the same plays, just different terminology."

While his biggest on-field contributions in 2017 came infrequently, as Thomas scored two touchdowns against Ohio State in the season-opening game before scoring his final three of the season against the likes of Georgia Southern, Illinois and Rutgers, his athletic on-field presence forced opponents to game-plan against him. 

Even during his first season at IU in 2016 after he transferred from Nassau Community College in New York, Thomas was considered a weapon in the passing game.

This was before the arrival of current IU offensive coordinator and tight ends coach Mike DeBord, who has coached seven collegiate tight ends who have gone on to play in the NFL.

"He's definitely, I would say one of the better offensive coordinators in college football," Ivy said. "One thing I like about his game is he utilizes the tight end position, he makes the tight end a strong point. I think it should be because tight end is one of positions on the field where there are multiple jobs. It can make a difference or break it."

DeBord's track record as a producer of NFL tight ends is a major selling point to recruits, but his task this season with IU should simply be to establish a starter who can be a consistent offensive presence for IU.

This could be either through the air in the passing game or in the blocking game, helping open holes for Morgan Ellison or maybe even Brandon Dawkins.

The tight end position underwent a revival for IU in 2017 after DeBord took over from former IU Coach Kevin Wilson and his fast-paced offense. IU still predominantly used the shotgun formation with both Richard Lagow and Peyton Ramsey at quarterback last season, but Thomas had more of a presence compared to tight ends during the Wilson era.

With Thomas now gone, DeBord will have to determine his replacement for the upcoming season. Aside from the two freshmen, the Hoosiers will have four tight ends returning from last year's roster.

Junior Austin Dorris and sophomore Shaun Bonner were both primarily used on special teams last season, and likely won't be factors in the starting tight end race.

Peyton Hendershot will still be a freshman in 2018, despite playing in the first four games of last season, after being granted a medical redshirt during the offseason. He starred at tight end for Tri-West High School in North Salem, Indiana, during his high school career, but his ability at the college level is yet to be seen.

That leaves senior Ryan Watercutter, the most experienced of the tight ends on the IU roster. He started out at IU as a linebacker when he walked-on to the team just before the 2014 season, but moved to tight end for the 2016 season.

Watercutter impressed coaches enough to earn a scholarship during preseason camp last season, and he even started two games, but only had 12 catches while playing behind Thomas.

All of this boils down to the basic idea that whoever takes over at tight end for the Hoosiers in 2018, be it a new face or a returning player, they will have limited experience at best.

IU Coach Tom Allen described tight end as a "big need" for the team during IU's 2018 National Signing Day press conference on Dec. 20, 2017.

That need will most likely be filled by one of Hendershot, Ivy or Watercutter.

"He's a team favorite because he just never says anything," Allen said of Watercutter following IU's win against Rutgers last season, during which Watercutter had an acrobatic catch. "He just does his job the best he can and has become a scholarship guy here that's contributing. You couldn't be more proud of a guy like that."

Being the known quantity, Watercutter will likely be in the pole position for the starting job, but it also wouldn't be out of the question to see either of the newcomers in a rotational role this season.

It remains to be seen who will start at tight end for IU on Sept. 1, but a more important question to answer will be how DeBord plans to replace Thomas' athleticism, as well as the time IU's opponents spent planning for Thomas before games last season.

With a new quarterback, a new tight end and other new pieces sliding into place in the Hoosier offense, DeBord will have his work cut out to turn the tight end position into a consistent offensive weapon in 2018.

cpdrummo@iu.edu

@cdrummond97

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