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Mutka: Can Wilson reverse Indiana’s doormat status?

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM



Accentuating the positive isn’t easy if you’re a long-suffering Indiana University football fan. Since Bill Mallory took this program to giddy heights in the mid-80s, it’s replaced Northwestern as the Big Ten doormat.

In the last 16 seasons, the Hoosiers have produced exactly one winner (7-6, 2007). Over that time, they’ve gone 2-6 or worse 12 times in conference hostilities. Not a pretty picture.

Enter Kevin Wilson, the latest candidate to reverse the Hoosier-rhymes-with-loser trend.

What a culture shock it must be for someone who spent nine years as offensive coordinator at Oklahoma, where losing is unacceptable. During his tenure, the Sooners were 6-1 in Big 12 title games, enjoyed seven 10-win seasons and appeared in three national titles.

Wilson’s resume includes Miami of Ohio and Northwestern, helping the Wildcats claim their first Big Ten championship in 62 years in 2000, but this is his first stab at being a head coach in college.

So, why Indiana, I asked?

“I think the program is ready to take off,” said Wilson, who had just returned from a trip to Oklahoma, where his five children — ages 8 to 15 — are finishing up school before moving to Bloomington this week.

Upgraded facilities, including a 25,000-square-foot weight room (one of the largest in the nation) in the northern end of the horseshoe, were among the attractions. So was the warm reception he received.

State programs may find it difficult to compete with the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts for the almighty dollar, but Wilson doesn’t consider that a negative.

He credits the Colts and especially quarterback Peyton Manning with stimulating interest in one of the nation’s more populous states.

“Football’s getting stronger in Indiana,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to be earth-shattering for us to do well.”

To prime the pump, he loaded his staff with midwesterners, including Mark Hagen, a former IU standout who spent the previous 11 years at Purdue. The highly regarded aide will blanket Northwest Indiana, which has produced such recent Boilermaker defensive starters as linemen Michael Neal (Merrillville) and Kawaan Short (East Chicago) and safety Albert Evans (Portage).

“Mark’s well-known in this state, a phenomenal recruiter,” said Wilson. “We want Northwest Indiana to be a part of it.”

His staff includes quarterback coach Rod Smith and offensive line coach Greg Frey — who were plucked from Michigan — Kevin Johns (Northwestern wide receivers coach) and defensive coaches Mike Ekeler and Brett Diersen, who were enticed from Nebraska.

“We’ve got guys that know the Big Ten,” said Wilson, who spent nine years at Miami. “And I’ve got a feel for Ohio.”

He inherited 15 returning starters, including wide receiver Damarlo Belcher, who ranked No. 1 in the Big Ten with 78 catches, and 6-6 tight end Ted Bolser, who scored five touchdowns.

The major issue now is who will replace Ben Chappell, who passed for more than 3,000 yards. In spring practice, Wilson spread the reps among four quarterbacks who barely blipped on last year’s radar.

In the Cream-and-Crimson spring finale, Dusty Kiel threw two touchdown passes, but Teddy Schell, Edward Wright-Baker and Adam Follett also scored.

“I didn’t come in with pre-existing notions,” Wilson said. “I wanted to give them a fair shot.”

No easy solution here. Nothing’s been settled, not after just 15 practices.

“I’m pretty confident about the quarterback position, but not ready to make any quick judgment,” Wilson said. “It needs to play out.”

That opens the door a crack for incoming freshman Tre Roberson, who racked up more than 4,600 yards, threw 24 touchdown passes and scored 21 to lead Lawrence Central to a 13-2 record and Class 5A state runner-up honors. 

How quickly can Mr. Football affect IU’s offense?

“Sometimes, that position can be pretty overwhelming for a freshman,” Wilson cautioned.

Last year, the Hoosiers suffered from their inability to establish a running game. They were buried by a ratio of nearly 2-to-1. Being manhandled by physical, deeper opponents is a shopworn story.

Darius Willis was supposed to be the go-to-guy, but was plagued by injuries for the second straight season. After rushing for just 283 yards, he’ll start 2011 with a one-game suspension because of an off-the-field incident in December.

“I know he’s got some hype and everybody thinks he’s pretty good,” Wilson said, “but I’ve had a bunch of guys do that (200 yards) in one game.”

Last year, Oklahoma running back DeMarco Murray set career records for touchdowns and all-purpose yards. During Wilson’s tenure, 22 offensive players were drafted, seven in the first round.

Indiana will bring in 21 recruits, including D’Angelo Roberts, a homegrown running back who set Monroe County career records of 6,002 rushing yards and 75 touchdowns, but is undersized at 5-10, 180 pounds.

Wilson understands how competitive the Hoosiers have been the last two years. Near-misses left them agonizingly short and Bill Lynch among the unemployed.

“They lost seven games when they were up by seven, three, tied or down by three in the fourth quarter,” Wilson said. “You’re not going to win all those, but win a couple and you’re going to a bowl game.”

Of course, if that happened, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

“The talent level is bowl-capable,” Wilson said. “You need to do little things to get over the hump.”

It’s a handy crutch to fall back on, but Wilson dismisses Alibi Ikes.

“Past failures and past successes have nothing to do with it unless you want to use them as an excuse to limit yourself,” he bristled.

Sounds easy on paper, but I’ve been here before.



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