Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Indiana won't spend spring practice going through the motions, not with what's at stake this fall for head coach Bill Lynch and a program entering a pivotal season. Despite a momentum-killing 3-9 campaign last fall, Lynch is still in Bloomington and so are all of his assistants. But there will be plenty of changes when the Hoosiers open spring drills March 24.
Seven players have switched positions, all from offense to defense. Former All-Big Ten quarterback Kellen Lewis will audition at several spots this spring, and last year's leading receiver, Ray Fisher, returns to his roots as a cornerback. Injuries are still a problem, as they were last year, and several defensive starters -- linebacker Will Patterson, tackle Deonte Mack, safeties Austin Thomas and Nick Polk -- will sit out spring drills.
But Lynch vows that the Hoosiers will be better in 2009. For his sake, they better be.
I caught up with Lynch on Monday to discuss his outlook for spring ball.
What's the mood around there heading into spring ball after a season where things didn't go as planned?
Bill Lynch: We've had a great offseason. When you come off a season where you don't meet the expectations and don't go to a bowl game -- and you miss out on all those extra practice opportunities -- the offseason becomes so critical. I really like the leadership of our senior class. That's really what drives an offseason program, the leadership that you get from within. I just sense an attitude around here of guys that have worked very hard and they're anxious to get out there.
The message all along is we need to get better. We all do things in the offseason where maybe you switch positions and add some wrinkles to your offensive and defensive schemes, maybe change up a little bit how you practice. All those things are great to experiment with in the spring.
Do you sense any dramatic changes? I know you didn't make any staff changes. Will it look very different for the fans when they see you in the summer?
BL: We're going to be a lot better football team. That's the No. 1 thing. We moved some guys around on our staff. We didn't make any changes because we've got a really good staff. Philosophically, I wanted to have two defensive line coaches. We're a four-down-linemen scheme and we function with four coaches on defense, so we moved George Ricumstrict, who was our linebackers coach, to defensive end coach to work with [co-defensive coordinator/defensive tackles coach] Brian George. Mike Yeager, who had the safeties and is moving to linebackers, played linebacker in this defense and has coached in it in the past. Joe Palcic will take over the secondary by himself. So we made some adjustments there.
And then on offense, same thing. Kyle Conner will continue with the tight ends but also be an assistant offensive line coach. So he'll spend most of his time with the offensive line, particularly when we get into passing drills. We did a little restructuring there that I think will make us better.
You mentioned the line play on both sides. Was that a priority for you coming out of last season?
BL: It's a philosophical thing. That's where you win. You win up front. I had kept the structure of the staff the same as [former head coach] Terry Hoeppner had it -- one D-line coach, one O-line coach. I wanted to have two guys up front on both sides. We've got the guys on the staff. It's not a case of, 'Oh, boy, we've got to do this if we're going to win.' It's just a philosophical thing, particularly on defense if you're going to play with four down linemen.
Have you done this before at Ball State and other stops?
BL: Yes. Through my different places, I've done different things. Based on the staff you have and the team you have, you always tweak things. But I feel that's going to give us the best chance to win.
You also made several position switches, all from offense to defense.
BL: Once you get into practice, you may change something, bring them back to offense or move somebody else. But that's the beauty of the spring. You have the opportunity to tweak some things. But the ones going into the spring are offense to defense. We lost some guys from the defensive standpoint and we also had some guys on offense we felt could help us there and give them a better opportunity to get on the field sooner.
Each change has a reason for it. It's not just a blanket, 'We've got to help the defense, so we're going to move offensive guys.' Some of it is to help the individuals themselves.
Kellen might be moving around again in the spring. What's your plan for him?
BL: We're still kind of deciding that. He's a guy we have to have on the field. He's a very, very good football player that's very skilled. We're just looking at what gives us the best chance to win. We've got a lot of confidence in Ben Chappell as a quarterback. He played quite a bit last year as a result of Kellen's injuries. And we also have a young kid, Adam Follett, who we think is awful good.
And Kellen is so capable of doing so many things. We're looking at different things we may do to get Kellen on the field and Ben or Adam on the field at the same time. Kellen's going to be on the field. It's just a matter of we may be using him at different spots as we go through the spring, until we see exactly what's the best fit for us.
How has Kellen handled that?
BL: He's been great about it. He's had a great offseason. He wants to win like anybody else, and he knows he's an important part of this football team, and he can help us in a lot of different ways. So he's been a real team guy about it, and in some ways, I think he's excited about doing some different things.
He was obviously an All-Big Ten quarterback as a sophomore. Was there ever any hesitation, confidence-wise, from him, about knowing where he'll be?
BL: I don't think so at all. That's the great thing about the spring. We know he can play quarterback. We'll just see how it goes and see what's going to be best for us.
Last year, injuries really hit you guys pretty hard, and some key guys will still be out for the spring. How do you make sure injuries don't hurt you so much again?
BL: If your question is, are we doing things to keep from getting hurt? I don't think you can do that. Football is a unique game, and it's so important in the spring to hit and have contact because it's the only time of the year you can do it, up until you start practice again in August. It's different than basketball, where you can have individual workouts and skill development.
s and quarterbacks, they can work together in the summer and all that, but for the offensive linemen, other than the weight room and doing some individual drills, this is such an important time, spring practice. We're going to get after it and have a physical spring practice. We need to get better, and I don't think you can coach this game worrying about injuries. You've got to be smart and we're going to be smart about the drills we do and how we coach them, and we're also going to be smart about guys recovering from injuries. But we're not going to back off in terms of using the spring as a great opportunity to get better.
You had a lot of injuries in the secondary last year, some carrying over to the spring. How is that group shaping up and who do you see stepping up there?
BL: Moving Ray Fisher over to defense, that gives us a different look. He's a very, very talented guy who was a very good corner in high school. He's excited to do it as well because he knows he can really help the football team there. We're going to have really good competition at corner. Chris Adkins and Richard Council played a lot of football in the fall as a result of some injuries, and Donnell Jones as well.
Austin Thomas and Nick Polk are certainly safeties that played very well and played a lot for us in the past. They'll be missing a lot of contact stuff after ACL surgeries, so it's going to give the other guys a good chance. They're going to get a lot of reps. They're going to be able to prove whether they can play. That's why we moved a couple guys over that were receivers, Shane Covington and then Kyle Dietrick and Collin Taylor. It will be interesting.
Jerimy Finch is a guy a lot of people were excited about last year. How has he done this offseason and what do you expect from him?
BL: He's much healthier now than he was in the fall and he's had a good winter as well. He's anxious to get out and go. He's certainly a talented guy. Hopefully, we can keep him healthy during the spring so he can really compete.
You've had two outstanding defensive ends the last two years in Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton. What are your expectations for those guys? Is it just a matter of playing well at the same time?
BL: If you're going to have a good football team, your best players have to have their best years as seniors. And Jammie and Greg have both had very, very good years here. They've worked very hard. They know this is their last go at it, and they're anxious to continue to improve. We have two established guys on the outside. Our biggest concern is we've got a bunch of young kids inside, who I think are going to be good players. But this spring is going to be critical for them.
Is running back a pretty open spot going into the spring with Marcus Thigpen gone?
BL: I think so. Bryan Payton and Demetrius McCray are two seniors who have both, at times, had a chance to play. Darius Willis is an outstanding kid who we redshirted. He's now eligible in our mind, and he's got a chance to give us something that we haven't had. Because he's a big, strong guy that's got good speed as well. And then Zach Davis-Walker is a young guy that's played some as well. We've got good depth, a little different style than we had with Marcus, so that's going to be pretty competitive as well.
You mentioned the different attitude among players this offseason. Who are the guys who have stepped up to take charge?
BL: The biggest thing is we've had several. Kirlew and Bryan Payton jump out at me. Will Patterson, Matt Mayberry, Rodger Saffold, Pete Saxon. And those are all senior guys that I'm talking about. Middleton and Kellen Lewis have had their best offseasons to date. There's a good group of them that have worked very, very hard. When you can start naming that many seniors -- and I'm leaving some out and not on purpose -- shows you we're certainly heading in the right direction.
Was it important to have so many guys step up after the season you had in 2008?
BL: I think so. And whether you have a good year or bad year, each year's different and each year goes with the leadership that starts putting the team together. We've got 18 scholarship seniors. We haven't had that number in the past. And really, just about all of them have had significant roles at one time or another on the field. So it's not a bunch of guys looking to play for the first time. We're all excited about that, and they've got a real sense of ownership going into the spring.