BLOOMINGTON — When Craig Johnson was hired in February to replace Notre Dame-bound Deland McCullough as IU’s running backs coach, he told the players in his room their slate was truly clean.
Although his most recent job was as an offensive analyst at Maryland in 2020, he had spent the previous 20 years in the NFL. He didn’t know what any of them had done in the past, either at Indiana, their previous schools or their high school, and he had no interest in finding out.
“All I really care is what we’re doing now in the present and where we’re going in the future…” Johnson said at a news conference after IU’s practice Monday. “When I walk into a new place, everybody wants to tell me ‘This is what this guy does and this is what this guy does.’ I don’t care. I wash that out of my mind. It’s a new slate. Let me see what you can do.”
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Cleaning the slate wasn’t difficult to do because the stable of running backs he inherited barely had any track record at IU to speak of. The Hoosiers have five running backs on scholarship. Two are first-year transfers, two are redshirt freshmen and one is a true freshman. The redshirt freshmen, David Holloman and Trent Howland, rushed for 62 yards on 17 carries last season. A walk-on, former New Palestine star Charlie Spegal, matched that rushing total by himself on 19 carries. Holloman, Howland and Spegal are the only running backs on the roster who had even a single carry for IU last season.
So Johnson doesn’t know them, and no one else really does either. It’s not much of a surprise, then, that even after spring practice, the running backs unit hasn’t taken much shape in the second week of August.
“We’re still finding our way with our group,” Johnson said. “Without a doubt.”
That being said, it is a group individually and collectively energized by the fact that each of the backs enters this season with an almost limitless sense of possibility.
The dynamic seems to be much different than it was a year ago, even though some of the baseline conditions were similar. The Hoosiers were replacing an incumbent starter in Stevie Scott III, who had left for the NFL, and McCullough had been hired in February to replace the outgoing Mike Hart. However, from the time USC transfer Stephen Carr committed to IU in May, the writing seemed to be on the wall he was going to win the starting job. Carr had been a five-star recruit out of high school in California, and McCullough had been his running backs coach at USC in his freshman year. At 6-1, 215 pounds, he had the build of an every-down back and early in the preseason, IU coach Tom Allen acknowledged in interviews Carr seemed to have separated himself.
Carr had a decent season, rushing for 600 yards and six touchdowns in nine games before an ankle injury brought it to an early end, but two of the backs who were supposed to compete with him — Sampson James and Tim Baldwin Jr. — transferred out with James leaving just days in two preseason camps and Baldwin leaving in October after struggling with fumbles. David Ellis Jr., who was also supposed to be in the mix as an all-purpose back, missed most of the season with a leg injury and took a medical hardship waiver this offseason, ending his college career. That left the Hoosiers relying on walk-ons Davion Ervin-Poindexter and Chris Childers to carry the load in the final games of IU’s 2-10 season after Carr’s injury before they transferred out to find scholarships elsewhere.
This year’s competition doesn’t seem anywhere near as clear cut, which in turn should help more backs stay engaged.
“It kind of fuels the fire for all of us,” North Carolina transfer Josh Henderson said. “I think that we all want to play. But that just elevates the competition part of it. We’re always battling, but we’re making sure everyone is being held accountable for everything that we’re doing.”
If there is a favorite to be the starter, it appears to be fifth-year senior Shaun Shivers, who played at Auburn for four years before transferring to IU, taking advantage of his extra year of eligibility because of the COVID season of 2020. 1,020 rushing yards in four seasons with the Tigers, he has the most prolific college numbers of any of IU’s running backs, but he was never Auburn’s top rusher and the Tigers seemed to be turning the 5-7, 186-pounder into a third- down back. The speedy, muscular Shivers is determined to prove his height shouldn’t prevent him from playing every down and he can make plays in space. Johnson said he’s already happy with his performance in pass protection and in catching the ball out of the backfield.
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“My biggest thing was making a guy miss, which I’ve been working on all camp,” Shivers said. “Working on my cuts, jump-cutting, things I know I need to work on. Just really, when I get to that second level, I’m real fast and I use my speed, but if I get a guy squared up I can make him miss instead of trying to run him over. Just working on my elusiveness.”
The other four scholarship running backs still have a shot at the job, though, and even if Shivers wins it, each of the others could still be more involved than they were in their offenses a season ago. The 5-11, 215-pound Henderson got just five carries in two appearances at North Carolina last season, so getting a backup’s carries would still be a drastic improvement and he would have another season of eligibility to build on that. Holloman (6-0, 209) and Howland (6-3, 239) were both purposely limited at IU so they could take redshirts, so being part of the rotation in any way would increase their workload.
Jaylin Lucas, a 5-9 185-pound true freshman, is speedy and elusive, and Allen has frequently pointed out how much he’s “flashed” in practice, so it appears likely he’ll fit in the Hoosiers’ plans for this year somewhere .
Johnson said he will be working throughout camp with Allen and offensive coordinator Walt Bell to decide how the workload might be split among the room as the IU coaching staff decides how to improve a running game that ranked 12th in the Big Ten in both rushing yards per game (114.5) and per carry (3.2) in 2021. McCullough had players compete for “jobs” every week, with someone slated as starter, backup, third-down backs for short and long distances and a “gadget guy” who could be used for trick plays or in the passing game. Johnson is letting the backs determine their workload with their play.
At this point, though, Johnson said he’s working on developing the whole room and making sure every back in the group can be trusted to run the ball, avoid turnovers, catch out of the backfield and pass protect.
“I want to coach from the top to the bottom,” Johnson said, “because I know that there’s a chance that sometime every guy who doesn’t walk out there as a starter has to be prepared to be ready to play. That’s what I’ve learned.”
Follow Herald-Times IU Insider Dustin Dopirak on Twitter at @DustinDopirak.