Star players breaking out all over for IU football

By Lew Freedman

Maybe Indiana University should call it the Tom Allen All-Stars rather than the Hoosier football team.

Although the IU football squad is still weeks shy of playing a game that counts, the world is watching the guys who finished last season as the biggest surprise in the college game.

In a season that nearly did not happen because of COVID-19, was delayed, shortened and played under strict spectator and participation guidelines, no program in America gained so much by negotiating the curves and pitfalls of the weird 2020 campaign.

Playing out one of its most successful seasons in school history, the Hoosiers finished with a 6-1 regular-season record, were ranked as high as No. 9 in the nation and qualified for a bowl game.

It also impressed the heck out of college football watchers during the journey, making an impression that has stuck like Gorilla Glue. Player after player on the IU roster has been cited as someone to be watched in 2021. A year ago when lists were prepared urging people to pay attention, names of Hoosiers were harder to find than a credit for an extra in a battlefield scene of a Civil War movie.

Now, everyone knows Hoosier names back for another go-around under Allen as the Magic Man continues to build a long-term success story in Bloomington.

Football experts who are custodians of position-oriented trophies have announced the names of top players across representing a variety of highly respected programs. As a perpetual loser over the decades, Indiana University players were rarely so recognized.

On the cusp of this season, which begins for the Hoosiers on Sept. 4 at Iowa, the amount of acclaim aimed at IU players is staggering, of the order and nature of what is regularly heaped on Alabama, Clemson or Ohio State. A couple of years ago, the average college football expert probably didn’t know three IU players.

Not so anymore. Quarterback Michael Penix Jr., coming back from injury, and wide receiver Ty Fryfogle are on the Maxwell Trophy list, an award emblematic of the College Player of the Year.

Penix also appears on the Walter Camp Award list for player of the year, and he is on the Davey O’Brien list, that award presented to the nation’s top quarterback. Fryfogle also was picked for the Biletnikoff Award list identifying the nation’s top receiver.

Running back Stephen Carr has been singled out for the Doak Walker Award. Matthew Brand, who blocks for Carr, is on the Outland Trophy watch list.

A strength for IU last season was defense, and Micah McFadden and Tiawan Mullen have been cited for the Bronco Nagurski Trophy watch list. Mullen gained more recognition being named for the Jim Thorpe Trophy watch list for the finest defensive back in the country.

Mullen is coming off a season when he was chosen as the first IU cornerback in history to gain first-team All-American recognition. McFadden also is up for Butkus Award. McFadden and Mullen each have been placed on the Chuck Bednarik Award list, too. That prize is given to the top defensive player.

Peyton Hendershot, twice selected third team All-Big Ten, was picked for the John Mackey Award watch list, which keeps tabs on tight ends. D.J. Matthews Jr., receiver and return specialist, is on the Paul Hornung Award watch list.

Linebacker Michael Ziemba is a Danny Wuerffel Award nominee. Although Wuerffel was a quarterback, the award goes to an individual who provides service to others, inspires service to the world and is appreciated for a positive impact on society.

The winner of the Big Ten coach of the year award last year and the American Football Coaches regional award, Allen is nominated for the Bobby Dodd national award this preseason.

That’s quite a list. Postseason awards are much more meaningful, but IU has rarely earned the right to bask. It shows people are paying attention.

Allen said while having players highlighted is nice, the Hoosiers need “earmuffs and blinders” to block out the glow and not confuse the present with the past.

“But the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, OK?” Allen said. “But you have to earn the right to get put on a list. You don’t show up and get put somewhere because of a certain name usually. So I guess it’s a positive thing, for sure, that you get a chance for your program to be recognized, that we have players that people perceive to be some of the best at their position.”

Exactly.

It can all be a distraction, Allen said, or a motivator. It’s good to be noticed, but then you’ve got to go out on the field and prove yourself worthy.

Yet against the backdrop of years of frustration due to poor seasons, IU fans can’t help but be pleased to be told they will be watching a bunch of all-stars this fall.