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Freshmen to watch for IU football in 2018


Freshman athlete Reese Taylor stretches Monday morning during warmups at the IU football practice fields. Taylor ran for 40 yards against Florida International Saturday. Matt Begala Buy Photos

Freshman quarterback Michael Penix Jr. gets a lot of the hype when it comes to his IU freshman teammates.

Penix Jr., the talented prospect out of Tampa, Florida, has been a lightning rod for attention this offseason, as he finds himself in the middle of the Hoosiers' most important and publicized storyline — the battle for IU's starting quarterback position.

Whether Penix Jr. is able to beat out senior Brandon Dawkins and sophomore Peyton Ramsey for that spot has yet to be seen, but regardless, the Hoosiers have a number of other freshmen that could be big contributors in 2018.

With some questions about depth at certain positions and the new NCAA rule that allows coaches to let freshman test the waters of competition for four games before deciding whether to redshirt them or not, multiple young talents could see a good amount of important snaps for Coach Tom Allen and his staff.

So, here are a few freshmen other than Michael Penix Jr., in no particular order, who could make big contributions this year.

Reese Taylor, defensive back

Taylor is definitely the most dynamic option the Hoosiers have out of all the freshmen because of his ability to play on either side of the ball. 

He'll mainly be seeing time as a defensive back, but Taylor showed his prowess on offense in high school as a quarterback. After throwing for 3,150 yards and a program-record 40 touchdowns and rushing for 802 yards and 15 touchdowns for Ben Davis High School in 2017, Taylor led his team to a state title and was named 2017 Indiana Mr. Football.

Don't be surprised if Taylor switches over to offense at times and sees snaps as a running back or receiver. 

Taylor's versatility has led to some friendly fights between the offensive and defensive coaches as to who gets to work with him in practice.

"Reese is going to help us out on both sides, coming in at spots," cornerbacks Coach Brandon Shelby said. "He's kind of focusing on defense and then he'll go over to offense and do some things. So it's a fun time watching him run around with the ball in his hands. He's going to be a really good player for us."

Jaylin Williams, cornerback

Sticking with IU's secondary, Williams, a Memphis, Tennessee product, will be looking to be an important part of what the Hoosiers do at cornerback this season. After losing one of the program's greatest cornerbacks ever in Rashard Fant to graduation and the NFL, IU will be looking for added depth at the position.

Juniors A'Shon Riggins and Andre Brown Jr. and sophomore Raheem Layne will all get major minutes there but, much like Taylor, Williams might be too fast and talented to keep off the field. 

"Those guys have world-class speed," Shelby said. "They can roll but the main thing is we have to get them going faster in the right direction, and that's the key."

Micah McFadden, linebacker

When it comes to freshmen whose stocks have risen this offseason, McFadden might be at the top of that list.

Linebacker is another position in need of shoring up this offseason after the losses of Tegray Scales and Chris Covington, and McFadden has staked his claim for playing time so far.

The Tampa-native has a chance to learn behind more seasoned options such as senior Dameon Willis Jr. and junior Reakwon Jones, while also providing an aggressive back-up option that can come in and make big plays.

Allen said McFadden has become one of the Hoosiers' most surprising breakout players during fall camp. 

"We knew he was really a good player but sometimes you just never really know how they're going to come into fall camp and play, handling all the new things they have," Allen said. "He's a guy that I think has really elevated himself."

Ronnie Walker Jr. and Stevie Scott, running backs

IU has a deep group at running back with sophomores Morgan Ellison and Cole Gest and senior Mike Majette leading the way but Walker Jr. and Scott give the Hoosiers two more capable options.

Walker Jr., a heralded recruit coming out of high school in Hopewell, Virginia, is the quicker and possibly more talented of the two.

The hulking Scott, who is 6-foot-2 and 236 pounds, is more physical and has been another young player that has impressed coaches in fall camp. 

"The physical part, we knew was there," Allen said of Scott. "We just had to get the mental part and understand the system. He's been a really pleasant surprise."

Matt Bjorson and T.J. Ivy, tight ends

After Ian Thomas left for the NFL, IU looked a little bare at the tight-end position heading into 2018. 

That leaves the door open for both Bjorson and Ivy to get plenty of reps in practice and an opportunity to earn some playing time in 2018.

Bjorson in particular has excited his coaches and teammates leading up to the season. Junior Austin Dorris, one of the the veteran leaders of the tight end group, said Bjorson has learned the playbook very quickly. 

The coaches said they think he's learned at a fast pace as well.

"He's not playing like a freshman," offensive coordinator Mike DeBord said. "He's really learned the system and still needs to learn some technique stuff here and there, but he's playing very well too."

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