Last season, playing quarterback for Indiana football was an arduous endeavor. Behind a group that surrendered 38 sacks — tied for second worst in the Big Ten — the Hoosiers’ signal callers were often scrambling for their lives before even thinking about scanning the field.
Week one against Illinois, Indiana lost now-redshirt senior right tackle Matthew Bedford, a 2021 All-Big Ten honorable mention, to a season-ending ACL tear. Then, following a blowout loss to Michigan in week six, offensive line coach Darren Hiller was relieved of his duties.
In December after the season, Indiana hired Bob Bostad, an offensive line guru who came to Bloomington with a laundry-list of accolades in his over 30-year career. Bostad spent time with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tennessee Titans and Wisconsin, developing NFL stalwarts Kevin Zeitler and Travis Frederick in his first stint with the Badgers.
Upon Bostad’s arrival in Bloomington, and at the genesis of spring practices, the players saw what made the coach such a valuable commodity: his attitude.
“When we step on the field, it’s work. It’s business,” redshirt senior guard and team captain Mike Katic said in a press conference Monday afternoon. “(Bostad) brings a lot of intensity and that’s what we need, especially with Ohio State coming.”
In 2022, it became quickly apparent that ousting Hiller wasn’t a magic fix. In the months of October and November — once quality control coach Rod Carey had taken over in the interim — the Hoosiers still allowed 13 and 16 sacks, respectively, again the second worst marks in the conference.
The calamity up front manifested in the run game, as well. Partially due to unfavorable game scripts, Indiana simply failed to establish a consistent run game. The Hoosiers finished the season second to last in the Big Ten in rushing yards, rushing average and rushing scores.
This season, while the left tackle spot is the immediate question with Luke Haggard now in the NFL, Indiana will likely trot out most of the same personnel. Katic, redshirt senior center Zach Carpenter, redshirt junior guard Khalil Benson and Bedford make up a veteran group with plentiful experience.
Still, offensive coordinator Walt Bell has noticed his linemen attacking practice with a different “edge” that perhaps was lacking last year.
“By no means is this an attack on Darren Hiller. I want to get that out of the way first,” Bell said. “With coach Bostad the amount of repetitions, the time on task — when they’re out there they’re working. You’re starting to see some technical proficiency.”
It’s a simple concept, but Bostad preaches the importance of the quantity of practice reps. On August 2, he said his primary focus was building up confidence in his group, something head coach Tom Allen, Bell and co-defensive coordinator Matt Guerrieri echoed Monday.
Part of Bostad’s longtime success coaching offensive lines stems from his ability to teach in a way that players understand. He emphasizes the importance of having a “sound” approach to practice and maintaining organization in how he drills.
“I’m just a big believer in you’re going to build (confidence) by a lot of reps,” Bostad said August 2 “Being a good coach is being a good teacher. Do we have good lesson plans, does it make sense or are we all over the board?
Against an Ohio State defensive front that features serious talent in juniors Jack Sawyer and J.T. Tuimoloau — both among the top six recruits in the nation in 2021 — confidence will be paramount for the Hoosiers.
“We’ve got some guys that have played a lot of football. I feel like there’s a quiet group that’s confident,” Bostad said. “We just have to put it altogether. I like the approach. I like the attitude. I like the willingness. Those things are all there.”
Beside Katic at the left tackle spot is perhaps the one position on the offensive line where there isn’t an established presence. Bostad raved about redshirt freshman Carter Smith, a four-star recruit from Ohio in the class of 2022, and there have been some indications Smith is in line for his first collegiate start this Saturday.
Allen mentioned the advantage of throwing young players into the fire to enhance maturity, namely in his pair of redshirt freshmen quarterbacks Tayven Jackson and Brendan Sorsby. Of course, there will be growing pains and errors regardless of who takes the snaps against Ohio State, but those mistakes are often vital to learn from.
For Smith, who may be protecting one of their blindsides, blunders could not only be costly to the outcome of the game, but as was evidenced last season, to the player with the ball behind him.
According to Katic, the biggest thing he tried to help Smith with throughout fall camp was keeping a level head. In a Bostad-esque manner, Katic said he has stressed staying calm and not letting one play affect the young tackle’s mentality.
Nonetheless, Katic saw what Bostad did in Smith that propelled him up the depth chart.
“He loves the game. He loves getting better every day,” Katic said of Smith. “He takes notes — he’s very locked in in meetings. You can see that drive, that want to get better every day. That excites me.”
While the starters remain similar to last season, an area Indiana has undoubtedly improved is its depth. With capable transfers in former University of Massachusetts tackle Max Longman and Texas Christian University guard Noah Bolticoff, the Hoosiers have options to rotate if need be.
Bostad said the former was on the bubble of earning a starting spot, adding that he has ascended since he arrived in the spring. With Bolticoff, Bostad lauded his positional versatility.
Ultimately though, no one can prove the Hoosiers’ offensive line development until Saturday. While the Buckeyes provide one of the toughest challenges for Indiana all season, Allen, Katic, Bell and especially Bostad know they need to be tested.
“It’ll be more on the field production,” Bostad said. “Everybody’s just got to do their job.”