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The Indiana Daily Student

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As Indiana football starts over, Curt Cignetti & players aim to ‘turn this program around’

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When Curt Cignetti took over as Indiana football’s head coach Nov. 30, he faced a challenge he later described as 20 days of 4th and 1, highlighting the urgency of the task ahead. 

Fifth-year senior running back Justice Ellison was the first to help Cignetti move the chains, announcing his decision to transfer from Wake Forest University to Indiana on Dec. 10. In the weeks thereafter, the Hoosiers added over two dozen players, setting the foundation for Cignetti’s first season. 

Ellison bought in before anybody else. He first visited Indiana on Dec. 8, and three weeks later, he was in Bloomington with his now-fiancée Camille, believing wholeheartedly in Cignetti’s vision. 

“When I met with him in the meeting room, I was like, ‘Coach, I’m with it. I’m with the process and with the transformation you’re trying to do here,’” Ellison said. 

Ellison, who spent four turbulent years with the Demon Deacons that featured an 11-win season but two campaigns with no bowl appearances, knows the distinguishing factors between being good and bad on Saturdays. 

If nothing else, Cignetti’s intangibles told Ellison all he needed.  

“I saw how passionate he was,” Ellison said. “I was like, ‘Man, this guy’s passionate,’ and that’s what I want to be a part of — people who, when all else fails, we put our mind to it, it doesn’t matter what the record was before, we can change it around.” 

For Indiana football, records are a sore subject. The Hoosiers went 3-9 last season and are just 9-27 over the past three years, a stark decline from the heights of a 6-2 record in 2020. 

Those struggles resulted in the ouster of head coach Tom Allen, who oft cited Indiana’s inability to adapt to the changing landscape of college football — most notably the transfer portal and Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) — as the primary reason for the decline in on-field play. 

After Allen was fired, a wave of NIL funds entered the Hoosiers’ program, as the Indianapolis Star reported at least $3 million became available for Cignetti and staff. 

Cignetti capitalized on this investment, retaining star receiver Donaven McCulley, who initially entered the transfer portal and was expected to go to Florida State University, and bringing over a dozen players and recruits with him from James Madison University to Bloomington. 

The Hoosiers’ roster is heavy on former James Madison players. Some scoff, pessimistic about whether the success — Cignetti was 52-9 across five years on the Dukes’ sideline — will translate from the Sun Belt to the Big Ten. No such doubt exists inside Indiana’s locker room. 

“All the guys that have come here from JMU, we’re all ballplayers,” redshirt junior defensive end and James Madison transfer Mikail Kamara said. “We’ve got dogs. They’re just kind of undermined because we’re in the Sun Belt, but we’ve got size, we’ve got speed — we’ve just got to be on the bigger stage.” 

Between Kamara, senior tight end Zach Horton, junior receiver Elijah Sarratt, redshirt senior offensive lineman Tyler Stephens, sixth-year senior defensive tackle James Carpenter, junior linebacker Aiden Fisher and senior linebacker Jailin Walker, the Hoosiers landed seven players who earned All-Sun Belt honors. 

The Big Ten is a step-up — maybe two — in competition. But don’t tell the players. 

“I look at it more like an opportunity to prove myself and show I belong here,” Fisher said. “I think a lot of the guys that transferred in, that’s why they’re here — we’re ready to compete on the biggest stage, and we’re excited for it.” 

*** 

As Cignetti stood behind his black podium and microphone on April 9 in the team room at Memorial Stadium, his face and hand movements bore a sense of irritation. 

The Hoosiers were minutes removed from completing their ninth spring practice. They were also fresh from an impassioned message provided by Cignetti, who took issue with Indiana’s effort in the session. 

Given an off day to watch the solar eclipse, Cignetti believed some of the Hoosiers came back lackadaisical — all too similar to the team he inherited in late November. 

“I think a lot of them were mature enough to come out, have the right mindset to get better,” Cignetti said. “But too many of them that people that follow Indiana ‘think’ are players came out like the old Indiana. And that’s what we need to eliminate — that kind of habit, choice, decision and mindset.” 

The ‘old Indiana’ is that which lost seven of its final eight games a season ago, has finished above .500 just three times in the past 29 years and been ranked in the final polls once over the last 35 years. 

Cignetti has taken on similar challenges before, helping turn around Indiana University of Pennsylvania and Elon University and guiding James Madison from the Football Championship Subdivision to the Football Bowl Subdivision. 

Through 13 years on the sidelines, Cignetti has never had a losing record. His arrival in Bloomington pits two forces against one another — a program that’s struggled to win and a coach who’s struggled to lose. 

At times this spring, it’s been a tug-of-war — but redshirt junior running back Kaelon Black believes Cignetti, as he’s known for, is winning. 

“With our coaching staff, the help of them, just bringing in winning traditions and winning ways,” Black said. “Just trying to filter out last season and bring in the new Indiana. I feel the players have come a long way as well, making sure everyone is on the same page, being humble and acting like we’ve been here before.” 

Black was with Cignetti at James Madison and has emerged as one of Indiana’s most vocal presences on the practice field, at times leading the Hoosiers through stretching periods. 

Indiana had several leaders last year, but sixth-year senior offensive lineman Mike Katic noted how much more precise reps are this year. There are fewer reps to go around, with each one carrying more intensity. When reps aren’t performed right, they’re re-done. 

Cignetti said it’s ultimately his responsibility to get the team ready, but player accountability is important. Black is doing his part, and the Hoosiers’ locker room is starting to follow. 

“I think there’s a level of telling everybody, ‘Hey, let’s go, let’s go do this,’ because ultimately, everybody wants to win,” Ellison said. “We’re desperate for wins. We’re very desperate for wins, and you can feel it in the locker room. I know the fans are desperate for wins, too.” 

Kamara echoed Ellison, saying his main goal is to win. 

But there’s more. Kamara, a native of Ashburn, Virginia, has the bigger picture of Indiana football in mind. He knows the stigma that exists around creating change — it’s much easier said than done — but he’s ready to break it. 

“I want to turn this program around,” Kamara said. “A lot of people I talk to, transfers come in here and say, ‘Oh, we’re going to change the program,’ and no one really believes in us. People might be saying they believe in us, and they’re excited for Cig to be here, and they’re excited for a new program, but they don’t really believe in us. I want to put us on the map.” 

Now, the challenge becomes turning goals into substance on the field. Cignetti already has the blueprint. So do the nine former James Madison players and seven assistant coaches who joined him in Bloomington. 

It centers around a three-pronged identity now printed on bracelets the team gives to recruits before each practice. 

“It’s everybody being disciplined and playing violent, playing physical,” Kamara said. “That’s the game we played at JMU. That’s the game we’re going to be playing here. All three phases — special teams, offense, defense — is physical, fast, relentless. That’s our motto.” 

There’s one additional quality the Dukes boasted: wins. 

Indiana, through its first 13 practices leading into the spring game at 8 p.m. Thursday in Memorial Stadium, has grown closer to adapting Cignetti’s motto. Now, it hopes the wins follow — and help usher in a new era of Hoosier football. 

Follow reporters Dalton James (@DaltonMJames) and Daniel Flick (@ByDanielFlick) for updates throughout the Indiana football offseason. 

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