23 players signed their national letter of intent to further their football career at Indiana University on Wednesday. It’s the first recruiting class of Tom Allen‘s tenure as head coach, who took the job on December 1st.
Surprisingly, the sudden coaching turnover didn’t affect the makeup of the class too much. Only one player de-committed after Allen replaced the recently departed Kevin Wilson. And the new staff finished strong in getting ten prospects to pledge their future to IU. It included seven in the final two weeks before National Signing Day.
Immediate playing time tends to be a major factor among recruits when it comes to where they ultimately end up. While it’s true that certain players ultimately get redshirted, the top prospects want to contribute right off the bat. With that in mind, which signees in the Indiana 2017 recruiting class are expected to see significant playing time as true freshmen?
Potential Instant Impact Players in Indiana 2017 Recruiting Class
It’s not often that a highly touted prospect backs out of a commitment from USC in favor of IU. But that’s exactly what Juwan Burgess did on January 19th. The 52nd rated athlete in the nation according to Rivals, Burgess is part of a budding Hoosier recruiting pipeline from Plant High School in Tampa, FL.
Whenever the term athlete is thrown around in recruiting circles, the immediate though among scouts is versatility. Burgess certainly fits the bill, having played on both sides of the football in high school. Last year, Burgess finished with 229 receiving yards and four touchdown catches. He also had 63 tackles and led the Panthers with three interceptions on a team whose only loss on the year came in the Florida Class 7A state finals.
Ultimately, Allen sees Burgess projecting as a safety at the next level. That said, expect him to also be a force on special teams as a return man.
One of two prospects to commit on Tuesday (defensive back Raheem Layne being the other), Morgan Ellison comes to Bloomington from Pickerington Central High in the Columbus, OH area. The Tigers made it all the way to the Ohio Division I state semifinals, losing narrowly to eventual champions St. Xavier. And the talented running back played a prominent role.
Ellison missed most of his junior season due to injury. As a result, he fell under the radar of most Power Five schools looking to bolster their backfield. He originally committed to Ohio but maintained contact with the Indiana coaching staff. He took an official visit on January 20th and eventually capped off Allen’s first recruiting haul with his late commitment.
With Devine Redding having declared for the NFL Draft, the Hoosiers are massively inexperienced at running back. Redding accounted for nearly 57 percent of IU’s rushing output last season. That should give Ellison an opportunity to become an early contributor in the run game.
A top 40 national prospect at defensive tackle, Juan Harris is certainly among the more intriguing players in the Indiana 2017 recruiting class, if anything due to his imposing frame. At 6’3″ and 367 pounds, it’s not an understatement to describe Harris’ size as freakish. The Janesville, WI native was an ironman of sorts at Parker High, splitting time at guard in addition to his play on the defensive front.
Harris’ ability to establish leverage at the point of attack is the biggest thing that jumps out on the tape. That’s not much of a surprise given his massive build. What he’ll need to adjust to is the overall team speed in physicality he’ll experience in the trenches at Big Ten level.
Getting Power Five caliber defensive line bodies was a priority for the coaching staff this year. Harris certainly qualifies and Allen thinks he can become a force in Big Ten play very quickly. As an early enrollee, he’ll get to participate in spring practices which can only aid in his development at collegiate level.
“That was a big deal for him to get on campus, be a part of our strength and conditioning program, and allow him to begin to prepare himself,” Allen said at Wednesday’s press conference introducing the class. “He’s a guy that has the skill set to be an elite football player in this conference.”
The recurring theme Allen touched upon in discussing the Indiana 2017 recruiting class is bringing in versatile players. Bryant Fitzgerald might epitomize that quality more than any other prospect. He saw time at safety and running back while also returning kicks at Avon High School.
In 2016, Fitzgerald was arguably the most prolific player in all three facets of the game for Avon. He led the Orioles in rushing yards (814), rushing touchdowns (9), kick return yards (251), tackles (103), tackles for loss (11.0) and interceptions (3). Those numbers are a big reason he won Mr. Football in the state of Indiana last year.
Much has been made of Indiana’s marked improvement on defense under Allen in his capacity at defensive coordinator. But one of the things that remained a struggle was giving up big plays through the air. IU ranked 82nd nationally in opponent pass plays of 30 or more yards.
Having quality safety play that can support the corners over the top is key towards getting better in this department. Fitzgerald and Burgess will be expected to lay the foundation as this secondary continues to get better.
There’s a striking similarity between Caleb Jones and the aforementioned Juan Harris: they’re big, really big! Jones comes in at 6’9″ and 320 pounds and Allen hinted that weight stat might be on the low side. The 15th highest rated prospect in Indiana according to Rivals, he primarily played right tackle at Lawrence North High in Indianapolis.
What stands out on the tape is how astute Jones is as a run blocker. It was by necessity for the most part considering nearly 85 percent of Lawrence North’s offense came on the ground his senior year. What also stands out is his ability to get into the second level to create seams for the run game further up the field. His lateral quickness will need to improve in pass protection, particularly against the speedy edge rushers he’ll see in the Big Ten.
Jones was a highly sought after recruit and committed to the Hoosiers on August 1st of last year. It’s why he became a target for rival schools trying to woo him away from IU after the coaching change. This certainly was a worrisome proposition considering Wilson’s specialty was offensive line. But Jones held fast to his pledge and signed his letter of intent.
The Hoosiers are fairly inexperienced at tackle but found a potential gem last year in Coy Cronk who earned all-Freshman team honors by ESPN and BTN. Jones will have a chance to contribute right away but will likely compete with Delroy Baker for reps.
Let’s be honest. It’s always going to be difficult for Indiana to compete with the Big Ten’s perennial powers for the highly touted prospects who appear at the top of the recruiting rankings. It’s a reason the Indiana 2017 recruiting class comes in at 59th according to Rivals.
But make no mistake about it. This is an immensely talented group that fills plenty of key needs for IU heading into 2017. As it is, coach Allen tries not to pay attention to how many stars a given prospect is getting from a recruiting service. Instead, he trusts the ability of him and his coaching staff to evaluate talent.
“If we think he’s a good player, go recruit him,” Allen emphasized. “If we don’t, I don’t care how many stars he’s got in the other direction. Because I’ve been in those meetings where that gets you in lots of trouble, where you’re just trying to pick a guy because of what somebody else thinks of him, and that’s the reality.”
“So I just know that you have to trust your eval on your guys and get guys who fit your program.”
It’s that philosophy which forms the backbone of Allen’s first class as Indiana head coach. After two consecutive bowl appearances, fans of the Cream and Crimson are hoping it will help continue to move the program towards bigger and better things going forward.