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Way too early look at 2017 Indiana Hoosiers football

The 2017 offseason is certainly going to be different in Bloomington, Ind. After all, there was an unexpected change at the top of the program and all. With Kevin Wilson ousted for “philispohical differences,” defensive coordinator Tom Allen has been elevated to the head coaching position. 

Obviously change is afoot at the top of the program, but there are significant changes to the depth chart as well. Some of the biggest names in recent program history are off to potential NFL futures and that means recruiting will sink or swim Allen’s first year at the helm.

It also means 2017 could be a mystery for one of the most hard-to-read programs in the Big Ten.

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How does all of it add up for the 2017 Indiana Hoosiers football season?

Burning Question: Can Tom Allen Continue the Defensive Transformation?

The secret to Indiana’s success in 2016 was a vastly improved defense. Sure, some may be able to argue there was nowhere to go but up. The reality was, this program didn’t just go up defensively, it actually was able to win games because, not in spite of, the defense.

It is also likely the reason Tom Allen is now the Hoosiers head coach. However, 2017 is going to be a very different season than the first under Allen thanks to some key parts that will be gone for this upcoming season.

That means Allen must find some answers up the middle with the loss of tackle Ralph Green III and linebacker Marcus Oliver. It also means that some younger players who stepped up in 2016 must continue to play at that level or continue to rise.

In all, it may be asking a lot to expect this defense to continue its rise

Biggest Strength: Linebacker

Losing Marcus Oliver hurts, as he was one of the most productive tacklers in the Big Ten. But, the linebacker position is loaded with talent and Oliver’s loss may not be as big of a deal as some are making it out to be.

A lot of that comes from the fact that Tegray Scales decided to come back for his senior season in Bloomington. Scales has been as productive as Oliver, just in a different way throughout his career. After all, Scales led all Big Ten players with 126 tackles last season. He also put up a crazy 23.5 tackles for loss and 7.0 sacks…not to mention an interception for a pick-six as well.

Scales comes in to the 2017 season as a favorite for Big Ten Linebacker of the Year, and in a 4-2-5 system like the one Allen plays, having one outstanding linebacker is huge.

However, the reason for this being Indiana’s biggest strength is the fact that fellow soon-to-be Senior, Chris Covington, will be next to him. In a limited role, Covington showed promise with 29 tackles, 3.0 tackles for loss and 2.0 sacks in 2016. His role will vastly expand in 2017 and that is a good thing.

So is the fact that Indiana has loaded up on linebackers period over the past few years thanks to a switch to the 3-4 defense just a few years ago. There is depth as well as top-line talent at linebacker for the first time in a long time in Bloomington.

Biggest Weakness: Running Back

If there is a reason to worry about the Hoosiers offense without Kevin Wilson it lies in a very uncertain future in the run game. With Devine Redding off to the NFL a year early, what should’ve been a great situation turns in to a complete unknown.

The Hoosiers rusher for 1,929 yards as a team last season and Redding accounted for 1,122 of those yards. Also gone is the second leading rusher, former quarterback Zander Diamont, who rushed for 244 yards. It leaves soon-to-be sophomore Tyler Natee as the leading returning rusher with just 237 yards and two touchdowns on the season.

In fact, he is the only returning running back with a touchdown to his name on the Hoosiers roster. But, come November, Natee was buried on the depth chart and is likely a situational running back at best given his stature.

We’ll more likely see soon-to-be junior Mike Majette and soon-to-be sophomore Devonte Williams battling it out in spring for the starting job. Are either of them ready to step up to the plate in 2017? The two combined for just 87 carries for just 347 yards last season.

After years of players like Tevin Coleman, D’Angelo Roberts and Jordan Howard in the mix, the 2017 season is certainly an unknown at a position that has been the secret to Indiana’s offensive success.

Let’s just say there are more questions than answers at running back heading in to 2017.

Players to Watch This Offseason:

Richard Lagow, QB: 

Few players are as physically intriguing and hard for opposing defenses to prepare for as Lagow is. He’s tall and built like a brick house, but he can also scare you with his overall athletic ability.

However, his first season in Bloomington was an up and down one. He finished last season completing just 57.8 percent of his passes and threw 19 touchdowns to 17 interceptions. Lagow also threw for a ridiculous 3,362 yards despite those previous numbers.

That was likely a product of Wilson’s pass-happy offense, but the overall numbers suggest plenty of room for improvement for the senior quarterback. Can he take this offseason and become a deadly quarterback? He likely won’t have the steady run game he had last season to bail him out at times and he also needs to stay healthy.

Chris Covington, LB:

We talked a bit about Covington before, as he is likely to step in to a starting role for his final season in Bloomington. However, that isn’t a guarantee given the competition that existed at the position before. Let’s see if Covington can live up to expectations as a potential starter or if the competition will get to him. I’m guessing he’ll handle it just fine and emerge from the spring as one of the players everyone is talking about.

Simon Stepaniak, C: One of the areas that is of the biggest concern for the Hoosiers this offseason has to be its offensive line situation. Gone are stalwarts like Dan Feeney and Wes Rodgers. The latter will likely be replaced by soon-to-be sophomore Simon Stepaniak, who was his backup as a redshirt freshman last season. Can Indiana entrust a young offensive line to a player like Stepaniak? Answering that question is going to be a key point to this offseason on the offensive side of the football. Getting a solid anchor in the middle of the line is going to be needed with all the changes around the center as well. Stepaniak has a bright future if you believe the coaching staff from last season, let’s see if that solidifies in spring.

Overall Outlook:

Indiana is coming off of back-to-back bowl game appearances. It is a huge milestone for a program that has struggled mightily to even make single bowl game appearances. However, everything is different for this team in 2017 given all that is gone.

Can this team find a running game given the losses at running back and up the middle of the offensive line? Will the secondary continue to grow and surprise people as a unit? Can Richard Lagow become more accurate of a passer with so many of his weapons from last season also gone?

If those questions aren’t all answered in the affirmative, it could be a dip below .500. Then again, getting Illinois and Purdue as cross-division games is certainly helpful.

Let’s just say there is a lot of unknown for a program that has historically struggled to maintain success.

Andy Coppens is the Founder and Publisher of Talking10. He’s a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and has been covering college sports in some capacity since 2008. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyOnFootball

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