ISU OFFENSE: Mix of experience and untested personnel hit the field

·6 min read

Aug. 26—Do not use the word "back to normal" when it comes to the Indiana State football team.

For the remainder of the 2022 season, nothing will likely feel or be normal again in the wake of the car accident that killed Christian Eubanks and Caleb VanHooser and badly injured Omarion Dixon and John Moore early last Sunday.

A return to routine would be a better way to phrase what the Sycamores did this week. Practice resumed Tuesday as the team shifts from preseason camp to game preparation mode in the lead-up to ISU's season opener against North Alabama next Thursday at Memorial Stadium.

"It was good to get out there and get the players moving around. The energy has been great," ISU coach Curt Mallory said. "What I've told the players is that we have to lean on each other. We'll have good and bad days, but we have to pick each other up. I think we've done a good job of that."

Because of how the effect of the accident interrupted normal proceedings with ISU football, and because the season is rapidly approaching, the remainder of the season previews the Tribune-Star would normally do on each unit will be confined to stories on the offense and the defense. Within each, the individual units will be addressed.

First comes the offense. What characterizes ISU's offense in every department is that there's a mix of both experience and untested players who will be expected to contribute.

Some of those untested players have been tested elsewhere, most notably at quarterback, where a starter is expected to be named early next week. Two of the three quarterbacks vying for the starting responsibility, Gavin Screws and Evan Olaes, have played or have observed at the FBS level. Screws at Troy, Olaes at Colorado State.

Here's a look at ISU's offense, broken down by each unit:

Quarterback

The quarterback spot has only been settled going into preseason activities in the Mallory era once since he arrived in 2017 — that was when Ryan Boyle had the spot for himself prior to the 2019 season. So having ambiguity at the quarterback position is nothing new.

Not that it's the way ISU wants to go.

"I'd love to have it be solidified before camp. You'd like to go into the season knowing who the guy is," Mallory said.

Camp has only slightly provided daylight between Screws, Olaes and Cade Chambers.

Screws and Chambers have the advantage of having gone through spring practice with new offensive coordinator Mike Bath. Screws has had more practice snaps of the two. Olaes has had to play catch-up as he transferred in May. Early on, at least, that should give Screws and Chambers an advantage.

"We'll probably decide Monday on who the starter is. Evan has closed the gap quick, but what has separated the quarterbacks is who was here in the spring," Mallory said.

Michael Haupert, who has been injured for most of the preseason camp, could see time as a wildcat quarterback as well as other positions on the field.

Running back

Tennessee transfer Tee Hodge is listed as the starter, but ISU will use the combination of Hodge and Justin Dinka. Hodge is bigger, 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, while Dinka is 5-11 and 180 pounds.

In theory, it should provide a sort of Mr. Inside-Mr. Outside contrast in styles, though both are versatile, and both can run between the tackles or provide a burst on the outside.

"Tee is a bigger back, but has decent speed. Justin has decent size, actually, he's fast. They complement each other well. You'll see them both depending on what the first play call and package we have in the game," Mallory said.

Dixon's injuries in Sunday's accident will keep him from playing in 2022. He would have spelled Hodge and Dinka. Moving up to third back status is former North Central standout Dawson Basinger, who has shown promise in small doses in his career. Former Northview star Korbin Allen could also be a factor.

Wide receivers

The most familiar ISU name of all sits atop the depth as Dante Hendrix, who has been on the team since Mallory's first season, brings a veteran presence, dependability, and speed to the flanker position. Hendrix missed half of the 2021 season due to turf toe.

There is also veteran talent at the wideout position. Slot receiver Daijon Collins has 19 career catches and Dakota Caton returns from the knee injury that cost him the entire 2021 season.

The X position is where ISU's size comes into play. ISU has high hopes for junior college transfer Kevin Barnett, a 6-foot-4 target, the second-largest among the receiver group. The tallest is 6-5 Harry Van Dyne, who will spell Barnett for now.

"I wouldn't say we've been surprised in Kevin Barnett, but he's had as good a camp as anybody has ... other than Dante," Mallory said. "We have some tall, rangy receivers."

Overall? ISU is significantly longer at receiver than they've been in years.

Other receivers that should see the field in 2022 include Ethan Chambers and DeAndre Rhodes.

Tight end

A local player to watch out for is Marshall, Ill. native Lance Rees. ISU has been excited about his potential and he's listed as a starter at one of the two tight end spots the Sycamores have on their depth chart.

Rees, 6-4 and 250 pounds, was a standout performer for Marshall as ISU is hoping to work him into the offensive attack after he didn't play in 2021.

Tyce Ferrell and Henry Woodcock are dependable veterans at the H-back spot. Both are blockers more so than targets, but both are also capable in terms of catching the ball with 14 career receptions combined between them.

Rocco Ciocca and Kai Rios are the reserves.

Offensive line

An issue the offensive line has had in camp is injuries. Nearly all of the starters sat out at one point or another, which has disrupted continuity and which has kept the personnel from meshing in the way ISU would like.

"It's been hard to get into rhythm. We haven't had a lot of continuity yet. As guys have come back, we've begun to see some [continuity]," Mallory said.

Most of the projected starters have playing experience. The most experienced lineman, by far, is right guard Jose Vazquez IV, who has 20 career starts dating back to 2019.

After that? Proven starts on the resumes become harder to come by. Right tackle Carter Herrin has 12 career starts. Center Jackson Byrne played eight games in 2021, left tackle Joel Stevens started six before injury ended his 2021 season and backup tackle Keagan Trost played three games.

Herrin and Trost will likely continue to battle for the right tackle spot into the season.

There is one new starter as Spencer Schneider will play left guard. He played one game in 2021. Michael Ross backs him up.

Other reserves who could see time include tackle Tate Parker, center Griffin Comer and guard Logan Bartley.

Josh Weichel, who started four games in 2021 at right tackle, is out for the season.