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COLUMN: Vertical passing game will be critical for IU offense



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New offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer speaks during a press conference Jan. 25 at Memorial Stadium. The Hoosiers finished last season with a 5-7 record. Sam House Buy Photos

With new offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer in Bloomington this season, almost all the focus has been on the quarterback battle.

However, while there has been a never-ending discussion on who will be taking snaps, not much has been said about the need for the offense to be more explosive since Head Coach Tom Allen replaced former Head Coach Kevin Wilson in 2016.

In Allen’s two seasons, IU has had one of the least explosive offenses in college football. Explosiveness can be tracked by a stat created by ESPN’s Bill Connelly known as IsoPPP.

The IsoPP measures how successful a team was at a play and if it was successful, how much impact the play had.

Indiana’s IsoPPP numbers under former offensive coordinator Mike DeBord were, well, pretty atrocious. In 2017, the Hoosiers finished 116th in college football in explosiveness, which was actually six spots higher than where they were in 2018 with an IsoPPP rating of 1.02.

To compare, University of Oklahoma led the country in IsoPPP at 123.3, Purdue was tenth most potent team in the FBS and University of Kentucky was 60th in the country. While IU shouldn’t expect to be on par with Oklahoma, it should be closer to Kentucky instead of being barely in front of Rutgers, 124th, and Ball State University, 125th.

The good news for IU is while DeBord was often ridiculed for being overly conservative as a play caller, DeBoer has a great reputation of being able to stretch the field with deep passes and explosive plays. In his two seasons at Fresno State University, the Bulldogs jumped thirty spots in IsoPPP and leaped to 120th in total offense to 47th last season.

DeBoer talked about a need to develop timing when throwing the deep ball at IU's media day Thursday.

“What explosive plays to me are is a matter of timing and accuracy,” DeBoer said. “I think all our quarterbacks have the ability to throw the ball down the field far enough as long as they're throwing on time, and I think that's the thing, as they go through the progressions, just make sure we're hitting that progression to the deep ball at the right time, and I think those guys kind of understand some of our core concepts. We'll continue to polish those up and expand on the offense and the opportunities that we can have to throw the ball down the field.”

While vertical passing is what the public usually connects to potent offenses, passing game coordinator and wide receivers Coach Grant Heard noted that explosive plays come in a variety of forms.

“Everybody says ‘Hey, throw it down the field’ but some of that is catching a hitch and having a guy break it,” Heard said. “I think what Dr. Matt Rhae and David Ballou have done have given my guys the confidence that they can do that plus being able to run down the field and catch it."

Whether it be wide receivers Nick Westbrook or Donavon Hale stretching the field, Whop Philyor or Ty Fryfogle working the slot or Stevie Scott and the rest of the talented Hoosier back field breaking runs, IU has the weapons to go along with DeBoer’s aggressive play-calling style to create big plays. The biggest question for IU is can the quarterback, whoever wins the job, do his part in taking the IU offense to the next level?

“Personally, I’ve done that in high school and throughout my whole career, so it’s nothing new to me,” freshman quarterback Jack Tuttle said. “I believe it’s going to help this program a lot, and it (vertical passing) will add a very special part of our offense.”

Tuttle was known for having a big arm in high school, and Michael Penix Jr. showed the same in his spare playing time before tearing his ACL last season. Elite arm strength has long been one of Peyton Ramsey’s biggest weaknesses, but it has improved during his time at IU.

Whichever quarterback DeBoer and Allen choose to lead the offense, the goal will be the same: be explosive in 2019.

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