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Indiana Football Position Preview: Running Back



As fall camp quickly approaches, Hoosier Illustrated takes a look at each position group for Indiana football. (Rich Janzaruk/Herald-Times-USA TODAY NETWORK)

As fall camp quickly approaches and Big Ten Media Days is set to take place next week, a critical summer takes place for the Indiana football program.

The Hoosiers are looking to find some of the explosive offensive production that has been lacking much of the past two seasons.

A large reason for that has been the lack of production from the running backs and offensive line duo.

Last year, Indiana’s rushing attack was ranked 13th in the Big Ten in yards per game (110.8) and 12th in yards per carry (3.4). With a lackluster passing attack as well, the inability to provide any punch from the running back room was disappointing.

But, Indiana football head coach Tom Allen is excited about what the makeup of that room is this season.

“I want to maximize that room,” Allen said this spring. ” … I like that room a lot and feel like we have more flexibility. We have to run the football. We have to run it effectively. Just with different levels from that for our defense, for our offense, for the team. For late in the game finishing out late fourth quarter games. Huge emphasis, no question.

“I think those guys in that backfield, and add Christian Turner to that group, he has a chance to be a special player as well. So I’m excited about that running back room We have a bunch of guys in there that can run really hard so we want to get them on the field as much as possible.”

Ahead of fall camp, will take a look at the position groups on both sides of the ball and break down the state of the position.

Next up is the running back room.

More: Importance of Indiana’s running backs can’t be understated: ‘I want to maximize that room’

The Star

There’s no question who the star of this backfield is and that’s Jaylin Lucas. While an All-American kick returner a season ago, Lucas showcased his ability and versatility with the ball in his hands coming out of the backfield.

Lucas totaled just 271 rushing yards, with a 5.5 yard per carry average, and 82 yards receiving. He also added two rushing touchdowns.

His best game of the year came in the season finale against Purdue. He carried the ball nine times for 100 yards and a touchdown. It included a 71-yard touchdown on his first touch of the game, and Indiana’s second offensive snap.

The speedster has been terrific already this offseason, having numerous standout plays in spring practice.

“He had two of the greatest runs I’ve seen in my life. It’s a shame they were behind closed doors,” IU offensive coordinator Walt Bell said. “He’s done a great job mentally of doing the things we need him to do … He’s playing all over the field … he’s now really become a true multi-purpose tool. We still have to continue to evolve and develop those tools, but if he gets it — enough time, we will be in every game … he was just making a lot of people miss, fall down. He has a really special gift and one of the better ball in hand players I’ve been around.”

Indiana’s offense lacked explosiveness last season and with another questionable quarterback room, Lucas’ speed and agility is critical.

While the 5-foot-9 back isn’t going to be the lead back in terms of being the between-the-tackles runner, he’s going to have a large role out of the backfield.

Look for jet sweeps, outside pitches and numerous screen plays to get the ball quickly to Lucas in motion and out in space.

Video: Indiana running backs discuss spring practice

Mr. Productive

While Lucas will be the major playmaker, look for the backfield duo of Josh Henderson and Christian Turner to have critical roles for the offense as well.

But, it’s Henderson who should be the main workhorse next season. Henderson has the most versatility out of the group as an equal runner and pass catcher, and has shown to be the most productive. Last season the 5-foot-11 back had 398 rushing yards with a 4.4 ypc average and had the third most receiving yards on the roster with 274. He also had a team-high four receiving touchdowns.

Henderson spent three years at North Carolina as the third back in the lineup and got to IU looking for a bigger role. His 90 carries last year were more than double his career total (41) heading into the year.

In seven games with at least seven carries, he saw his ypc average rise to 4.8, compared to just 3.4 ypc when he was under seven carries in a game.

This would be rare territory for Henderson, however. He has a career high of just 13 carries in a single game, which came in his first career appearance back in 2019.

While Indiana didn’t have a true ‘lead’ back last season, you have to go back to 2017 to find its ‘lead’ back averaging less than 16 carries a game.

Tom Allen and Walt Bell like this running back room and what it can do, but I think the versatility as a pass catcher that Henderson brings to the field will yield him to get the bulk of the touches between the 20’s.

Change of Pace

Wake Forest transfer Christian Turner came to Indiana after a successful career in the ACC. But, like Henderson, he arrives as someone who hasn’t taken a heavy workload through a full season before.

One thing Turner knows how to do, however, is get into the end zone. He has 12 touchdowns in 26 games over the last two seasons, including seven last year.

But, it’s the efficiency that Turner has on limited touches that is interesting. In six games with at least 10 carries last season, he had only two games above a 4.0 ypc average.

Turner also seems to see his work die down after the first month of the season. In the first five games of the season in 2022, Turner had four appearances with double-digit touches. He saw his average go from 12.2 carries a game to 9.5 in the final seven games.

For his career, Turner has always had a good start to the season but always seems to level off after the first month. He has 115 attempts in his career in September but just 84 and 85 in October and November respectively.

There’s no question Turner will play a role for Indiana but with his inability to be a pass catcher out of the backfield — something he hasn’t shown throughout his career with just 14 receptions — he will likely see a majority of run plays when he’s on the field.

Turner does have experience in the Big Ten, however, a positive when trying to adjust back to the physical style of play. He spent his first two seasons with Michigan, totaling 266 rushing yards on 64 carries.

Depth piece with potential

Trent Howland isn’t someone who has seen many snaps but one thing he has is tremendous size at the position. Despite moving to linebacker last year, he will be back in the running back room in 2023, has confirmed.

At 6-foot-3 and 239 pounds, Howland is significantly bigger than any of the other backs on the roster. While he only has two carries for 12 yards in his career, he’s someone that could fill in during short yardage situations.

There is no indication that Howland’s going to turn into a key part of the running back rotation, but if an injury pops up with one of the core three backs, Howland could step into a larger role.

SEE ALSO: Indiana Football Position Preview: Quarterback

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Alec Lasley is the owner of Hoosier Illustrated, a comprehensive site covering news, updates and recruiting for Indiana University athletics. Alec has covered Indiana for six years and is a credentialed media member. He has previously worked for both Rivals and 247Sports.