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Indiana looks to build team, then program

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- After going 1-11 last season, Indiana probably needed a little kick in the pants.

The Hoosiers got it during winter conditioning when they went through an exercise program led by former Navy SEALs. Cornerback Lawrence Barnett recalls one demanding day when the players were summoned to the pool at 4:30 a.m. to swim laps and then do movements in sync with their teammates. If anyone messed up, the team had to jump back in the pool and do more laps.

Head coach Kevin Wilson got the idea from watching IU's basketball team go through the same program in the fall. Wilson admires basketball coach Tom Crean and how he led the Hoosiers back from a few difficult seasons to a Sweet 16 berth in this year's NCAA tournament. The inspiration doesn't stop there.

"He comes out to practice every day and tells us that just like the basketball team, we can turn our program around," defensive back Kenny Mullen said. "But we have to want to do it ourselves."

In truth, it's going to take a little more than that for a team that has only been to one bowl game since 1993. The Hoosiers have a long way to go, but they're hopeful they got over the toughest part of the journey last year.

Indiana didn't beat a single FBS team in Wilson's first season as coach and finished 114th nationally in scoring defense, allowing more than 37 points per game. If the players seemed like novices at times, that's because they were; no other team in the country played more rookies than the Hoosiers, who threw 32 true and redshirt freshmen into the fire.

"It was tough for us, but it was a good way to get our feet wet and get ready for this year," Barnett said.

That's the theme of the spring in Bloomington, where the roster is still young but at least is not lacking in game experience. That's translating into fewer missed assignments and mistakes during spring practice.

"We're so much further along than we were anywhere in the fall," co-defensive coordinator Doug Mallory said. "We don't have to go back to step one as much with our teaching."

Wilson is not sure he took the right steps last spring. He admits that some of the veteran players might not have bought into his program, and team chemistry wasn't great as the youngsters started taking over all the playing time. Some of that could have been smoothed over in the preseason.

"Last year, we were trying to learn an offense and a defense, and this year we're talking more about how to build a team," Wilson said. "Maybe we did that in reverse order. In this day and age of multiplicity and justifying all the video we've got to watch, it's always scheme, scheme, scheme. Now we're trying to do a better job building team unity."

To that end, "Team" is the simple slogan Wilson is using this spring to promote cohesion. That's also where the Navy SEALs training came in. Having suffered through losing last year, the players say they forged a bond, and it helps that many of them were going through similar experiences in seeing the field for the first time.

But the Hoosiers remain young and need leaders to emerge. Wilson has to remind himself that though many of his starters played last year, this is still their first collegiate spring ball. He has the team practice every other day so it can get much-needed strength training done on the off-days.

There are some good building blocks on hand, like promising quarterback Tre Roberson, who took the reins of the offense as a true freshman; running back Stephen Houston, who ran for more than 800 yards last year despite showing up late from junior college; safety Mark Murphy, who showed great instincts for the game while playing three positions as a true freshmen a year ago; and junior-college imports David Cooper and Jacarri Alexander, who are shoring up the linebacker spot and adding energy to the defense this spring.

Yet Indiana is still light years away from having the kind of overall depth and talent of Big Ten Leaders Division rivals Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin. At least the basketball-mad school has finally made a commitment to football, with the new north end-zone complex at Memorial Stadium and a massive weight-room facility.

IU football has long seemed like a challenge that even Navy SEALs wouldn't touch. But Wilson remains optimistic that the 1-11 record was just a bumpy start.

"I don't think I'm fighting a battle I can't win," he said. "That's why we're not moping around and why we're not feeling sorry for ourselves. We're going to see if we can take some nice steps this year and keep building."