Indiana had one of the best passing offenses in the country last year. The Hoosiers ranked second in the Big Ten and 15th nationally, throwing for more than 300 yards per game, and were 24th in yards per attempt at 8.3.
Replicating that production in 2020 is complicated by the fact that Indiana lost two of its top wide receivers, Nick Westbrook and Donavan Hale, to graduation. Between them, Westbrook and Hale combined for 64 catches for 945 yards and eight touchdowns.
Fortunately for the Hoosiers, they have recruited well at wide receiver in recent years and the position is now one of the deepest on the team. With returning star Whop Philyor, capable veteran Ty Fryfogle and a host of talented youngsters, Indiana will once again field plenty of dangerous pass-catchers.
“We want to be physical, we want to be the difference-makers on this offense,” wide receivers coach Grant Heard said. “When we can throw it, we have a good offensive output. I know we have to run the ball, but we always have to have that threat of being able to throw it.”
Philyor is clearly the leader of Indiana's wide receiver crew, a second-team All-Big Ten selection last season after he became just the seventh player in Indiana history to reach 1,000 yards receiving in a season. The senior finished with 70 catches for 1,002 yards and five touchdowns and comes into his final season already in the top 20 in career receptions and receiving yards.
Heard wants Philyor to step up and embrace being the target of every defense's game plan. He is hoping his star receiver can become more comfortable breaking down the different coverages opposing teams will throw at him.
“(I want Philyor) just to understand defenses more,” said Heard, who is also Indiana's co-offensive coordinator. “I feel comfortable about him knowing our playbook and what we ask him to do. Now I'm putting pressure on him to know more defenses. What they're trying to do to take him away, to take certain plays away, why we're calling certain stuff, just to open his mind up and become a more well-rounded football player.”
Philyor has a capable No. 2 receiver opposite him in Fryfogle, a senior who caught 45 passes for 604 yards and three scores last season. The 6-foot-2, 214-pounder had a huge game against Penn State with five catches for 131 yards and nearly led the Hoosiers to a road win over the No. 9 Nittany Lions.
Heard is pushing both of his senior wideouts to take a more active role in leading the position room, especially as the coronavirus pandemic has kept the players from working out around the coaches.
“I'm trying to give them freedom to do stuff, to get guys together, to do it on their own and develop them speaking out,” said Heard, who has been with the Hoosiers since 2017. “Ty and Whop don't like to speak out a whole bunch. I know people think Whop's personality is outgoing, but he is really a shy person. Ty doesn't say a word. It's trying to get those guys to speak out and start being leaders on their own.
“Somebody step up and lead the room. I don't truly believe that just because you're a senior you're a leader. Leaders can be anybody. So hopefully somebody in that room, I would love for it to be Whop or Ty, but somebody needs to step up and fill those roles that Nick left and Donavan left.”
Behind Philyor and Fryfogle are a group of young receivers eager to prove themselves in the Big Ten. The most promising are 6-4 redshirt sophomore Miles Marshall and 6-5 redshirt freshman Jordan Jakes who bring some much-needed size and could be especially effective in short-yardage situations.
Both lack experience, though Marshall did have four catches for 49 yards in the Hoosiers' win over Purdue, his only start of 2019.
One issue for the IU wide receiver corps is getting into a rhythm with quarterback Michael Penix Jr. The left-hander missed the end of last season with a shoulder injury and the pandemic limited the Hoosiers to four spring practices this season, meaning there was precious little time for the up-and-coming receivers to get used to the speed on Penix's throws.
“Conversations between (the wide receivers) and the quarterback (have been) great, but the ball that Mike Penix throws is gonna be a lot different than their high school quarterbacks,” Heard said, laughing a little. “Mike is the quarterback so he's going to have lead that group. ... Right now, with them not being able to get together, talking over the phone is not going to be (enough).
“I don't think (the younger wide receivers) realize how fast that ball is coming out when Mike throws it and that's going to be a little bit of a change-up when they get to it.”
If the receivers can get used to Penix's throwing style in time for the season to start, this Hoosiers passing game could gel into an elite unit.