Indiana's fifth-year seniors have provided vessel for change in Bloomington
Indiana head coach Tom Allen said Thursday that the fifth-year seniors, with their leadership and on-field efforts, have "turned this thing" around. Their leadership might have also provided a glimmer of sustainability as well.
When Indiana honors its seniors Saturday before the Hoosiers play No. 14 Michigan, it will bid adieu to an entire group of players who third-year head coach Tom Allen did not recruit to come to Bloomington.
The fifth-year seniors were on campus with a year under their belts when Allen was named the defensive coordinator for the 2016 season. Allen also had minimal recruiting influence on a 2016 class that features fourth-year seniors, like Khalil Bryant, Coy Cronk and Allen Stallings., as well as a host of redshirt juniors will remain for another year.
Given that history, Allen has spent more time with the current fifth-year seniors – Nick Westbrook, Simon Stpaniak, Hunter Littlejohn, Reakwon Jones, Donavan Hale and others – than he has with any class of collegiate football players.
And because of that class, Allen said Thursday, the Indiana football program has reversed the trend of football at the state’s namesake university.
“They’re going to be the group that turned this thing,” Allen said. “This group is the one that changed it on the field. That’s a special thing.”
Most classes of recruits in recent years have entered the program wanting to be the change at Indiana, and with the competitive games against top-tier Big Ten opponents, the Hoosiers had, on numerous occasions, nearly passed through the membrane that had separated them from the rest of the Big Ten for more than two decades.
True freshman cornerback Tiawan Mullen has been the physical embodiment of a 2019 class – and the 2018 class included – coming to Bloomington and enacting immediate change on the field, pushing the Hoosiers to their first winning season since 2007 and first AP Top-25 ranking since 1994. That change isn’t made without the leadership of the seniors, Allen said. Those seniors also came to Indiana, for former head coach Kevin Wilson, wanting to be the change.
“We came here, and we were the freshman class. We were going to be the difference,” Simon Stepaniak told TheHoosier.com last week. “Now, fifth year in, we’re finally making a difference. After getting that seventh win, I thought to myself, ‘Dang, dude, we’re doing it.’”
The fifth-year seniors – the 2015 class – had seen so many teammates come and go. From the ones that made a long-term impact, like Brandon Knight, Jonathan Crawford and Jacob Robinson, to the ones that were more short-term, like Camion Patrick, Tyler Green, Jameel Cook and Devonte Williams, the fifth-year class eventually found itself among a resurgence of youth in 2019 and whittled to seven of approximately 16 seniors on what has amounted to the most significant IU team since 2007, maybe since 1994.
“We were at a critical time,” Allen said. “You create a window of opportunity to create change. I think with the youth of our team, it was critical for those guys to be a good role model, a good mentor. Leadership had to go beyond just a guy that did his job and a guy that led by ‘example.’”
Through 10 games, that steady hand has provided an environment for players like Mullen to make gradual improvements and swing games along the way. Mullen has seniors Andre Brown and A’Shon Riggins at his position, sophomore linebackers Micah McFadden and Cam Jones have Reakwon Jones, true freshman tackle Matt Bedford has three senior offensive linemen, and sophomore defensive end James Head has Allen Stallings.
Despite having their own on-field merits and playing in what will be three bowls in five years, perhaps the most significant role the fifth-year seniors played was the vessel through which Indiana’s two greatest recruiting classes could grow at the collegiate level and lead the Hoosiers to early success that has the potential for sustainability.
“I see Tiawan tweeting, ‘We’re the game changers’ and stuff. They are, man,” Stepaniak said. “We need guys like that to keep coming in and keep the trend uprising. We were those guys too. We have a bunch of guys on this team, and they all want to be the difference.
“I think we’re back for good. The only way we’re going to stop is if we stop ourselves.”