Two seasons ago, Indiana had one of the most explosive passing attacks in the country, perhaps the most explosive in the Big Ten.
What a difference a year makes.
Nate Sudfeld — who helmed that prolific passing game back in 2013 — was injured in the team’s sixth game, and the Hoosiers were forced to turn to inexperienced backups Chris Covington and Zander Diamont. That dropped them from the conference’s best passing offense in 2013 to the conference’s worst in 2014.
Yes, a season after averaging 306.7 yards per game through the air and leading the league, Indiana averaged just 141.4 yards per game through the air and ranked dead last in the Big Ten in that category.
The swing can be blamed almost entirely on the injury to Sudfeld, which derailed a junior season in which he still managed 1,151 yards in just five games and change. In 2013, he ranked fifth in the Big Ten with 2,523 yards and threw 21 touchdowns to nine interceptions in just eight starts, though he appeared in all 12 games.
The Hoosiers were caught fairly unprepared when Sudfeld went down, as Covington and Diamont were thrown into the fire after not seeing a single college snap prior. Covington completed three passes before going down with his own season-ending injury. Diamont completed just 48.5 percent of his passes and threw just one touchdown in six starts to finish the season.
But now Sudfeld’s back, and he’s ready to reestablish the Hoosiers as one of the Big Ten’s preeminent passing teams.
“Even without an injury, you kind of have nerves for that first game, just, ‘Hey, let’s get that first hit going.’ But especially a little bit more (for me following the injury),” Sudfeld said last month during Big Ten Media Days. “But our athletic trainers have been unreal helping me out this whole offseason. That spring semester was tough. With my rehab, I had a 6:30 a.m. lift. I’d be there by 5, rehab for an hour and a half, go lift and go have treatment afterwards. Those guys … they’ve helped me so much. (Head trainer) Craig (Tweedy) did such a great job, and it’s a testament to them how well I’ve recovered.
“What Craig has done is after player practice he’s had me put on a shoulder pad and helmet, and he’s been hitting me. He’s been having bags, hitting my shoulder, hitting my back as I’m throwing, things like that. And it’s felt great. Running through the gauntlet, where you have to lower your shoulder and run through and then falling on bags and things like that, it’s felt great. So that’s really kind of helped me with the nerves. I feel like could’ve taken hits a while ago, but especially now I feel almost stronger than I’ve ever been.”
Coming back from the injury provides plenty of its own pressure. But Sudfeld will be tasked with potentially having to do it all for the Indiana offense. Last year, the Hoosiers relied almost exclusively on Tevin Coleman to carry the offense, and he had a remarkable season, one of the best ever for a running back. But Coleman’s gone, and though Indiana added an accomplished rusher in Jordan Howard, there are question marks in the running game. And seeing what the passing game couldn’t do once Sudfeld went down, there are certainly non-quarterback question marks there, too.
Thankfully, the Hoosiers have a strong offensive line, which Sudfeld said makes everything easier.
“As a quarterback, you can’t do anything if you don’t have time to throw the ball. Receivers are not going to get any touches when you can’t protect for a little bit. And running back aren’t gonna run for very much without a hole. It’s really the foundation, the base of everything,” Sudfeld said Sunday during the team’s media day. “If the O-line’s really clicking well, I think we’re gonna have success in other aspects of the game. It’s really what coach Wilson emphasizes, great O-line play. They’ve answered that call, and they’re doing extraordinary.”
The good news, too, is that Sudfeld has improved his game immensely since his statistically impressive sophomore season. Coaches said he’s done a lot to better his quarterback play, and Sudfeld attended the Manning Passing Academy this summer, too. All in all, it ought to make for a much improved passing attack from last year’s last-place finish, and it ought to make Sudfeld a leader for the Indiana offense and the Hoosiers as a whole.
“I really just see a different focus, a different drive, a different sense of urgency than he’s ever had in his career,” offensive coordinator Kevin Johns said. “Early on when he was a freshman, I would challenge him and say, ‘Can you keep this focus for two straight hours of practice?’ And a lot of times he couldn’t. And I see a kid now out there that every rep he is on it like the game is on the line. And I think the other guys they see that and they feed off that.”