There's reason to be cautiously optimistic about Indiana football in 2013. The Hoosiers improved their wins total last fall by three and amazingly in November found themselves in contention to represent the Leaders Division at the Big Ten title game. All but three starters return, including the playmakers from an offense that finished second in the Big Ten. Quarterback Tre Roberson has recovered from a broken leg and will compete to reclaim his starting job this spring. The schedule features eight home games for just the second time in team history. IU isn't without major concerns, namely a defense that hasn't consistently stopped anyone for more than a decade and recently lost co-coordinator Mike Ekeler to USC. The team only went 4-8 in 2012 and must build much better depth at several positions, starting in spring ball, which kicks off Saturday.
ESPN.com caught up with IU head coach Kevin Wilson to discuss the spring.
What's the big theme for your team entering the spring?
Kevin Wilson: We've got enough guys back, we're stronger, we're mature, we understand each other and understand the standard. We've just got to continue to work at a higher level. When you're not mentally or physically as strong as you want to be, you've got to gain on it. There's different levels of that. It's nice that we get a lot of guys back, but you start over. We are starting over at a better spot because a lot of guys are back. We're building a foundation to play better football next year.
Where would you like to be from a depth standpoint by the end of the spring?
KW: Everybody's got depth issues and we could be better in certain areas, but we only lose about four or five guys who really played [in 2012]. We've got a lot of what's back, and we've got, on paper, a nice recruiting class that will help, but really it's not about the depth as much as it's about competition. Guys are pushing guys to be on the field. We've got a lot of guys back who have been second-teamers and the first-teamer [ahead of them] is back. Now how do you push that first-teamer and beat him him out? A great example is at quarterback. We've got three guys that have all played, they've all played kind of well, their stats are OK, but we haven't won a lot of games. There's really not a proven winner. We've got guys that look like they can do OK, but they haven't proven they can win at a high level of Big Ten football. I think that will be an awesome competition. We want to see that across the board.
How do you identify winners in that group or other groups when you're not playing games?
KW: Sometimes you'll see who moves around, who gets the group in the end zone. But that sometimes can be skewed. A guy busts a coverage and a guy scores a touchdown, does that mean the quarterback is a better quarterback? Sometimes it's a play where there's not a good call and he's got to throw it out of bounds and it's a great play because there's nothing open. I just think your body of work, your body language, your leadership skills. Are you the best extension of the coaching staff and what we're trying to do? The game's called football and we put the football in your hands every snap. It's got to be a guy you trust because you give him the game, every game, and say, 'Go play.' Right now, those guys have all had some fair stats, but we want to see winning football played at that position.
How is Tre [Roberson] physically, and what do you expect out of him?
KW: He's been full-go. Right now, we're doing our offseason program, our agility program, and he's full-go. There's no limitations. I don't want him to be tackled, but we don't tackle the quarterbacks anyway, so I would anticipate he'll be out there every day. He's gotten bigger. When he got hurt, he was under 185 [pounds], right around there, and now he's pushing 200 pounds. He's bigger, stronger, looks good running. I don't think he's at full tilt, but every day he gets stronger, every day he gets better and every day he gets more confident. Knock on wood, he should have no limitations, and he'll compete every day with those other two guys [Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld].
You really bring back a lot at wide receiver, running back and tight end. How much competition is there at those other offensive positions?
KW: We've got everybody back except [center] Will Matte on offense. We didn't lose a quarterback, we don't lose a running back, we don't lose any receivers. So we've got basically the crowd back. It's the same deal. Our kids realize, though, that the deal is we're going to play a number of guys. It doesn't matter whether you go out there first or second, we're going to play six, seven, eight, nine guys. We need to have one or two more receivers than we have. We're going to [use] two tight ends at least, with two or three running backs and seven or eight receivers. So when you say depth, it would be nice to see some of these guys that redshirted continue to come on and help us as complementary tight end guys and complementary receivers.
The tempo we play with, you've got to play a number of skill guys. A lot of guys are back, they've seen that we're going to throw the ball to them, and they believe they have quarterbacks who will get it to them so they can make plays. I'm expecting that receiver group to pick it up. We'll see if they can keep plugging along there.
You lose a few pieces up front on defense. How does the defensive line shape up entering the spring?
KW: We signed two JC guys, one guy is here now [Jordan Heiderman]. We redshirted a big guy who we like. We did sign a couple of guys there, so some of those guys might get into the mix when preseason rolls around. But we need to play better across the board because we're making tweaks with what we're doing. We definitely need to play better run defense.
Schematically, will there be some new things on defense?
KW: I don't know if it's that. We've just got to look at the position we're putting guys in, where we're playing them. It's not major [changes]. Same with offense, you're always playing to your strengths and weaknesses. Right now, we've played OK on offense, and not very good on defense. So we have to keep coming on both sides. Defensively, we're developing players, but we have to make sure we're putting them in the right spots with play calling to play winning football.
We have enough guys coming back. We should continue to improve this program. We should continue to take a very positive step this year. That being said, we have to play better football on the defensive side. We made some subtle changes from Year 1 to 2. It still wasn't what we needed. There won't be wholesale changes, major deals, but we've got to keep looking for what works.
Where do you see the leadership emerging on the team, and can the secondary be a strength for you guys because you have quite a few players back who have played?
KW: Probably more competition and depth back there than we've had. And I think we've signed a couple kids who can get in the mix to help us. The linebacker corps got real beat up last year. Jacarri Alexander and Chase Hoobler missed some games, two of our starting three missed four, five, six games independent of each other. It took a toll. We're losing [Adam] Replogle and [Larry] Black and Will Matte and Nick Sliger, those are the four guys who really played. The fifth guy would be Charles Love, the backup tight end. So when you look at the football team, basically everyone's back, so with the leadership, hopefully you'll see that linebacker corps pick up and the secondary. We've got to establish a standard of what winning defensive football is at Indiana, and how we're going to play it. We'll build a mindset, we'll do some subtle structure things to hopefully position our players in better places, and we'll tackle better and get off the field and make stops and get some turnovers.
We've got to take a step offensively, be more wide open, continue to improve, take care of the ball and score more points. And we've got to improve defensively. When you're a 4-8 football team, that's not good. We're definitely moving in the right direction. Nineteen starters are back, and 14 of them are sophomores and juniors. So we've got some guys we can work with, and we've got the best recruiting class we've brought in. We basically have five seniors on scholarship and we signed 22. So we've got the core team back. It needs to get better. I think we'll make some nice additions as preseason comes around, and hopefully we'll continue to be more competitive and play the brand of football we're trying to build here.