BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (WDRB) -- If ever anyone should be allowed to use the dog-eared mountain-climbing sports metaphor, it should be the Indiana University football program.
Because what is the Big Ten to the Hoosiers if not a mountain? And what was 2011 if not a season spent in base camp. There was no ascent for the Hoosiers, who weren't just 1-11 overall (0-8 in the Big Ten), but did not lead in the second half of any conference game.
"Last year, we got off to a bad start and we finished on a bad start," wide receiver Shane Wynn said during Thursday's IU Media Day, with perhaps unintended insight.
Insightful, because it can be fairly said that the Hoosiers and first-year coach Kevin Wilson never truly got started. It was a year of adjustments and learning and, in some ways, coming to a meeting of the minds. It was a season of acclimation. And sometimes, the higher the climb ahead, the longer the acclimation period.
Even Wilson's first statement reflected it.
"We're continuing to grow and we're coming off -- of course, everybody knows, we are where we were," Wilson said.
Not "we are where we are," but "we are where we were."
Except that nobody quite feels that way. If nothing else, players and coaches at IU agree that everyone understands each other heading into this season, and everybody intends to pull in the same direction. Some IU players said that they really didn't come into a comfort level with all of the changes until the end of last season. Wilson has worked hard to build team unity. The Hoosiers have broken into squads and had watermelon eating contests and hot pepper eating contests and a ping pong tournament, just to keep things fun and to bond. That doesn't necessarily mean the Hoosiers are going to be a lot better this season. But it certainly means they feel better heading into it.
"There's a new attitude. Everybody's excited," sophomore quarterback Tre Roberson said. "Everybody feels like we're going to go out and win some games."
Note, the plural use on "games." There have been changes. A new offensive coordinator, Seth Littrell, comes over from Arizona, where his offense ranked third in the Football Bowl Subdivision at 370.8 yards per game.
Littrell also brought a highly touted freshman quarterback, Nate Sudfield, who threw for 2,332 yards and 31 touchdowns as a high school senior. And the Hoosiers have a junior college QB, Cameron Coffman, who sat out last season after transferring and has a good grasp of Wilson's system. With Wilson talking about getting the pass-run ratio to 65-70 percent in favor of the pass, you figure all three are going to get a hard look.
And it should be noted, Wilson would like the change to start with offense. In fact, he said, "To me, we don't change until the scoreboards change."
He went on, "Ultimately, I don't know if we've changed until we see scoreboards and we see how we produce against other Big Ten opponents and the people that are part of our league. We've added guys and guys graduate and guys go by the wayside, guys get injured. We've had some guys come through. We've lost a coach or two, gained a coach or two. We've reorganized some internal infrastructure with recruiting and things to help us in those regards. We know the system is further along. . . . At the end of the day, we're not changing until we get out here and we play on Saturdays and we win games."
And winning, for Wilson, is going to be a question of scoring. He's not discounting defense, nor writing his off. But ask him about what he wants from the defense and you'll quickly be involved in a discussion of how the offense needs to produce more, in order to help the defense out. He'd like to see his defense produce more turnovers, and deliver in timely situations, third-and-long near field-goal range, and on third downs in general.
But don't let the talk about offense fool you. You don't win in the Big Ten without defense, and Wilson knows it. The Hoosiers have brought in nine junior college transfers this offseason. Eight play on the defensive side.
"Bill Parcells said one time, 'As a puppy, they either bite or they don't bite,'" co-defensive coordinator Mike Ekeler said. "And unfortunately last year, I'm not pointing any fingers, but we needed some more guys who bite. And that's what we've tried to do, to get some more guys who bite. . . . We had to put out some fires, and I like the guys that we got."
More than anything, Ekeler said, the staff wants to breed toughness into its players.
"I hope we hang our hat on being tough and physical," he said. "That's where we're trying to get here around here. Where we're going to strap it up and you're going to get, as (Wilson) says, a face full of Hoosier. . . . It's been here I the past with Coach Mallory. He had a great run. But since that point, there really hasn't been much. That's our challenge. . . ."
"It's a complete attitude. And it's where I think Coach Wilson is on the right track. Without giving anything away, what he does from a team-building and confidence-building standpoint has been really remarkable. And then you also recruit your culture. If you want to be tough and physical and hard-nosed and fast, you go recruit those kinds of guys. And that's what we've tried to do."
IU athletic director Fred Glass spoke before the football coaches got started on Thursday. He said he believes Wilson is on the right track, but needs time to get things going. He noted that season ticket sales are up over last season's total, having topped the 26,000 mark. He didn't put any specific win total out there that he would consider proof of progress.
When asked if there were some other standard besides wins and losses by which he'd measure progress, Wilson said there would not be, that IU is not improving its football facilities just to look good.
It all sounds right. The facilities look good. The players are positive. Coming off a one-win season, there's little more you can ask. It all checks out until you stand IU next to the mountain, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan, then you remember the climb ahead.
IU doesn't need to finish it anytime soon. But this season, it does need to start it. Copyright 2012 WDRB News. All Rights Reserved.
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