INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana football head coach Tom Allen knew what he had in rising sophomore running back and return specialist Jaylin Lucas. It would be hard not to.
With a freshman campaign that saw the electric Lucas tally a pair of kick return touchdowns, rushing scores and 944 all-purpose yards, his upside became glaring. At Big Ten Media Days in Indianapolis on Thursday, Allen hinted that Lucas had received offers from other programs.
To display his appreciation and loyalty to the 5-foot-9-inch speedster, Allen flew down to Lucas’s hometown of Houma, Louisiana after last season. Allen discussed NIL opportunities with Lucas and his parents, a gesture that helped the offensive weapon remain in Bloomington.
“You usually do that for recruits,” Allen said of visiting Lucas. “I knew how special he was. We had to make sure that he knew we were going to do a great job of helping him be rewarded for his performance.”
Lucas bought in. He said he wanted to be part of the team’s foundation.
“I felt like there’s something here that needs to be built,” Lucas said on Thursday. “There’s some unfinished business here. I want to win a Big Ten championship.”
With a mere six wins over the last two seasons combined, the Hoosiers certainly have exhibited room for growth. In 2022, Indiana ranked second to last in the conference in total rushing yards, yards per attempt and touchdowns.
In addition to Lucas, the Hoosiers return highly productive senior running back Josh Henderson and added redshirt junior Wake Forest University transfer running back Christian Turner in the portal. This spring, Allen emphasized diversifying the rushing attack.
Predictability plagued Indiana’s efforts to run the ball effectively last season, but there is a newfound possibility to get more creative. The Hoosiers deployed more two running back sets and pre-snap motions throughout the spring. Lucas expressed excitement for the adjustments.
The one-two punch, thunder and lightning approach of Henderson and Lucas figures to be the Hoosiers’ primary method in the backfield. But Lucas believes Turner can add a versatile element and create a potent three-headed attack.
“Christian Turner’s a dawg,” Lucas said with a smile. “Turner is elusive — he can run routes out of the backfield, he can run you over, he can do everything.”
That notion of being a Swiss army knife embodies Lucas to a tee. While his prowess as a return man is well documented, Lucas has been working on unlocking himself as a receiver. He is expected to see a chunk of snaps out of the slot, where he said he can turn five-yard catches into 50 or 60-yard scores.
Part of this ability comes from his film study. Lucas analyzes the nuances of former University of Oregon receiver De’Anthony Thomas and former West Virginia University receiver Tavon Austin, who retain some of college football’s most legendary highlight tapes.
Lucas said he tries to emulate their vision and ability to make defenders miss on a consistent basis. Last season, those traits were frequently on display for fans. However, what he does behind closed doors might be even more impressive.
On April 13, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Walt Bell’s eyes lit up when Lucas’s name was mentioned. He described two of his kick returns in practice as “the greatest runs [he’d] ever seen in his life.”
While his contributions were relatively hampered by his snap counts, Bell said he expects Lucas to be the focal point of this year’s offense — and someone who can keep Indiana competitive in every game.
“He’s now really becoming a true multipurpose tool,” Bell said on April 13. “He has done a great job mentally of doing all the things we’ve asked him to do. He’s playing all over the field. He’s got a really special gift.”
With the limited role he had, Lucas’ freshman season was about as successful on an individual level as it could have been. He was named the Big Ten’s Return Specialist of the Year and took home First-Team All-Big Ten honors from the conference coaches and media.
A self-proclaimed perfectionist, however, Lucas believes he can improve in every facet of his game. That includes the drudgery of the running back position like pass protection.
Bell noted it was an aspect that Lucas had room to grow. Now, just over a month from the start of the season, Lucas is more than up for the task.
“I’m coming along well with [pass blocking],” Lucas said. “I promise you, there ain’t going to be nobody touching my quarterback this year. Believe that.”
Lucas credited offensive line coach and run game coordinator Bob Bostad for making much-needed changes to the running scheme. He stayed tight-lipped about specifics but noted that Bostad has been tinkering with the edge runs and inside zones.
Regardless, Lucas has seen the development manifest in practice.
“As soon as I look up [there’s] a hole,” Lucas said.
Defenses will undoubtedly be more keyed in on Lucas’s presence this season. Whether it be at tailback, slot or outside receiver or return man, his role as a feature player in the offense may have ups and downs. Still, Lucas has one simple message for fans.
“I’m going to make something happen,” Lucas said. “Be ready to see a lot of plays being made on the field.”