BLOOMINGTON – Stevie Scott turned the corner and cut upfield, with an admonition from Indiana coach Tom Allen ringing in his ears:
“One man can't tackle you,” Allen had said, after Scott had been brought down on the previous play by an ankle tackle in the open field.
This time, Scott reached the second level and found only a safety between him and the goal line. A shout of “beat him!” came from the sideline and Scott did as he was told, absorbing the defensive back's tackle attempt and bursting through to the other side for a 40-yard touchdown. The highlight play, Indiana's longest run at Wednesday's practice, sent nearly the entire offense into a frenzy in the end zone.
Indiana has plenty of weapons on the outside this season, but it is going to need Scott to break plenty of those hard-hitting runs to balance the passing game and keep drives alive. Thankfully for him, the talented sophomore won't have to carry the entire backfield load: The Hoosiers have one of their best overall running back groups in recent memory and explosiveness is everywhere.
“That position group is very interesting,” offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer said. “It's strong and it's very diverse. You got Cole Gest with the speed, you got Stevie who's a combination of both (speed and power), you got Sampson James, who came in (Tuesday) and was phenomenal with the physical aspect of it between the tackles.”
DeBoer appeared as impressed by Scott's touchdown run as the players were. He's been looking for Scott to be a finisher.
“Every guy has had their time to shine and Stevie's was (Wednesday),” he said. “I was really interested to see, in a live setting, he had one guy to beat to finish and he beat that guy. It was really cool to see him finish that play.”
The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Scott surprised even running backs coach Mike Hart with his breakout freshman season in 2018. He set Hoosier freshman records for rushing yards (1,137) and rushing touchdowns (10). After sneaking up on everyone last year, the Syracuse, New York, native comes in this season with the weight of expectations on his shoulders.
Hart, who is also the Hoosiers' assistant head coach, said Scott had not done any consistent weight-lifting until he got to Indiana, so working with strength coach David Ballou has transformed his body and made him quicker and more explosive.
Scott said he feels that he has an extra gear this season.
“Going into last year, that was my first camp coming out of high school, I wasn't really ready and prepared,” Scott said.
“But after going through my first year in the weight room with coach Ballou and Dr. (Matt) Rhea (the Hoosiers' athletic performance coach), they've helped me improve my body physically and mentally.
“This year of camp I feel really confident and just real smooth and just ready for the season.”
Scott will face competition “breathing down his throat,” as Hart put it. The 6-1, 220-pound James, who is a four-star true freshman from Avon, has all the physical attributes of a top-level Big Ten running back.
He's unafraid of contact and broke a 20-yard run Wednesday by getting to the corner and making a strong cut up the field.
Gest will be the change-of-pace back. At 5-8 and 193 pounds, he doesn't have the size of Scott, James and sophomore Ronnie Walker Jr., but he's the quickest of the bunch.
He's coming off an ACL tear as a sophomore in 2018, but DeBoer said there might not be anyone faster than Gest when he's in space.
The multitalented group will push Scott to stay on top and all of the backs to prove they belong.
“We just all for strive for greatness,” Scott said of the running backs. “We compete to help each other get better. The competition in the room is helping each other build off that energy and improve.”