For all the impressive stats Tevin Coleman has racked up so far this season -- a nation-leading 170.3 yards per game, a total of 1,192 yards with 11 touchdowns -- perhaps the most remarkable part of his game deals not with numbers but with his position.
Because when Coleman arrived in Bloomington, Ind., three years ago, he had no idea how to play running back.
Of course the 6-foot-1, 210-pound Tinley Park, Ill., was recruited -- by Indiana and a handful of other schools -- to play that position. But at Oak Forest High, where Coleman ran for 949 yards on 83 carries as a senior (an 11.4 clip) and grabbed first team all-state honors, the Bengals ran more of a Wing-T formation, and Coleman’s job was to get outside to the edge. Running through tackles wasn’t on his resume.
“Before he got here, he had never lined up behind a quarterback,” Indiana running backs coach Deland McCullough says. “He never had to pass block. It was all about little fly sweeps or using him in the slot. He had great vision, but he didn’t know how to put his pads down and run over guys.”
Now, Coleman is one of the best in the nation at doing just that. The Hoosiers (3-4, 0-3 Big Ten) might not be turning heads with their overall play, but Coleman’s performances have garnered the basketball school some attention this fall. And there are plenty of winnable games left on the schedule, starting with a trip to Michigan on Saturday.
That Indiana even signed Coleman was somewhat of a coup, considering the Hoosiers were coming off a 1-11 season. McCullough knew Indiana was a dark horse -- much like Coleman is now in the Heisman race -- but trusted the relationship he built with the running back and his dad would pay off. Coleman felt at ease with the entire staff and liked the idea of playing right away. He also knew becoming a complete back was crucial to success beyond college.
“Sometimes with my speed, I’ll get away with running to the edge, but I knew here I had to learn how to lower my pads and get through holes,” Coleman says.
His first few practices were pretty painful, he says with a laugh.
“I never shied away from contact but man, I didn’t want to get hit that hard,” he says. “I had to train my brain and my body to not bounce outside.”
He proved to be a quick study.
As a true freshman in 2012, Coleman led the Hoosiers with 566 yards on 24 kick returns, including a 96-yard scamper for a touchdown. He rushed for 225 yards on 51 carries (a 4.4 average) as Indiana struggled to a 4-8 record.
“You’re talking about somebody who never learned to play the running back in its pure form,” McCullough says. “That transition doesn’t happen in a week. When we got to the spring of his freshman year, he was so much stronger mentally and physically and he understood our progressions.”
Everything clicked in 2013. Coleman rushed for 958 yards on 131 carries, a staggering 7.3 average. He missed the last three games with a high ankle sprain, but it’s doubtful his contribution would have made a difference; the Hoosiers lost 51-3 at Wisconsin and 42-14 at Ohio State before beating Purdue 56-36 in their season finale. Because Indiana finished just 5-7, Coleman didn’t get much attention, even though his yards per carry were second in the Big Ten, topping current Heisman candidate Ameer Abdullah and second-round NFL draft pick Carlos Hyde.
And were it not for a good first 30 minutes two weeks ago against Michigan State, Coleman might still be flying under the radar.
The Hoosiers led the then-No. 8 Spartans 17-14 midway through the second quarter, causing a lot of confused college football fans to flip to the game. Michigan State rallied to score 42 unanswered points and cruise past Indiana 56-17, but the momentarily close score got eyeballs on the stat sheet and Coleman. While Nebraska’s Abdullah (180 carries for 1,249 yards) and Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon (154 carries for 1,168 yards) have garnered the bulk of the attention as the Big Ten’s top backs, Coleman leads both -- and the rest of the conference -- in yards per game and per attempt.
But there’s still an unknown element to Coleman’s game. Although Indiana says scouts have visited Bloomington to watch Coleman, four NFL sources, including three scouts, contacted for this story hadn't watched him and couldn’t offer an evaluation on him as a pro prospect. He’s a casualty of a team not loaded with NFL potential. Scouts want to see multiple prospects when they go to games; Indiana can’t offer that. Those who have seen Coleman rave about him, though, and he’s projected as a second- or third-round draft pick should he come out early.
The junior, who says he’s ignoring NFL talk, isn’t in for the fanfare. McCullough, on the other hand, acknowledges it’s nice the nation is finally seeing what he seen since Coleman’s recruitment.
“I mean, I’ve known he was pretty good for awhile,” McCullough laughs. “Tevin is a quiet guy, and he doesn’t say much. But he comes into my office and we have great conversations, and we have from day one. He’s never made it a secret that he wants to be a great player. What I’ve told him is that you don’t have to toot your own horn.”
In the running backs room at Indiana, McCullough preaches that the Hoosiers want tough guys who run with velocity, players who can burst through holes for big gains. To emphasize this, Indiana might hit repeat on a highlight from earlier this month when Coleman busted through two Iowa defenders on his way to a 69-yard score. That play, McCullough says, epitomizes Coleman.
That he’s doing it only three years after really learning the position is pretty nice, too.
“I don’t get hit hard anymore,” Coleman says. “Now, I deliver the blows.”