Indiana football: Quarterback race still to close to call

Tom Brew

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Indiana offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer isn’t just keeping his cards close to his vest these days when talking about who’s going to win the starting quarterback job for the Hoosiers.

Nope, those cards are locked in a case, and then sealed in a vault. Want to know who the starter is going to be for IU? Well, DeBoer isn’t telling, and neither is head coach Tom Allen.

And maybe they’re not telling because they still really don’t know.

It’s that tight of a battle between incumbent Peyon Ramsey, redshirt freshman Michael Penix Jr., and transfer Jack Tuttle.

“I feel really good about our quarterbacks, but I still don’t have a decision yet,’’ DeBoer said. “You see them all growing. Today was a good example. I put them in so many spots today where they had to process things. I pushed them to see how far they are capable of doing things. We’re tracking every play, and we see what they’re doing. I think we’re going to be pretty good.’’

Tuesday’s practice in shells wasn’t as crisp as some of the previous days. Allen, who wasn’t available the media afterward, praised the defense at the end of practice for winning the day. He was right.

The veteran Ramsey was consistent and careful, as he has been through camp, but Penix had some errant throws — which were out of the ordinary for how he’s look throughout camp — and Tuttle was tentative on a few throws, hesitating to release the ball just a touch. He did throw one deep ball in the scrimmage that was perfect, only to be dropped in the end zone.

DeBoer wasn’t concerned about the errant throws at all. In fact, several of them, he said, were just getting out of bad looks and throwing the ball away, something that wouldn’t have seemed obvious without knowing they were spending a lot of the day installing new schemes, many of which didn’t match up well against Indiana’s defensive sets.

“I know what we do well, and I can get us into those things any time I want, but we still need to expand the playbook, and that’s where we’re at right now,’’ the first-year offensive coordinator said. “Some of that stuff doesn’t match up well with what our defense does, but we’ve got to put it in so that our guys can recall those schemes and concepts when we get to Week 3, Week 4, Week 5, whoever those concepts do match up well against.

“There were probably two balls we should have had, but it was also different guys working with different people. The timing wasn’t quite there with the new stuff we were installing. The guys did a great job this summer repping things and we’re good with that. We were about 70 percent in the scrimmage, it was down a little bit today, but there were reasons for that.’’

Part of that is just getting on the same page, but DeBoer is thrilled with how all three quarterbacks handle that. They’re learning as they go, but they are learning quickly, especially with a lot of young guys out on the field

“The quarterbacks are hesitant to make an adjustment sometimes because they aren’t sure the young receivers are going to adjust with them,’’ DeBoer said. “But we’ll do more of that on Thursday and Friday and we’ll get it down.’’

This three-man race to be the starter just might be down to two. DeBoer did slip and say “they BOTH played really well’’ when talking about the Sunday scrimmage. That might mean that Tuttle, the newcomer, is still behind Ramsey and Penix, who both played a year ago. Ramsey started the 2018 season but was replaced by Penix, who then missed the rest of the year with an ACL injury after only playing parts of three games. Ramsey finished out the season.

It was nothing more than a slip of the tongue for now by DeBoer.

“It’s still being decided. The guys are doing a great job competing and their attitude about it has been awesome. Now I’m pushing to see what they can do and who’s willing to put the team on their back. All three have played really well.’’

Tutttle, the transfer from Utah, says the quarterback room is tight. “I love this team and I love my brothers,’’ he said. “We’re all just busting our tails and trying to help this team win. We’re just want to make each other better.

“We have a very high respect for each other. Those two, believe it or not, they’re my buddies and they’re my friends. But when we get on the field, it’s a competition. That doesn’t mean we need to scratch and claw at each other. We’re making each other better and we want to help this team get better.’’

Penix says he is “100 percent’’ recovered from his October knee injury. There’s no doubt that he and his powerful left arm has the biggest upside of the three, but it’s just a question of if he’s ready to lead this team.

He’s worked hard on being a leader, and he’s confident he can have success as the main man. He had a small taste in three games a year ago, and he’s ready for more.

So much more.

“I feel like I’ve been real consistent, and always making sure I put everyone in a good position. I’m a lot better leading, I’m more vocal. I’m comfortable with it. It comes with experience a little bit, and in our meetings, we’re all pushing each other.

“All three of us, we push each other. It’s a competitive sport. I’m just staying focused on my game and doing what’s best for the team.’’

Indiana Hoosiers quarterback Peyton Ramsey (12) passes the ball in the first quarter against the Purdue Boilermakers at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Ramsey may be the incumbent, but he hasn’t taken that as any sort of given. He’s put in the work to be more consistent and stay mistake-free, which he needs after throwing 13 interceptions a year ago.

“It’s fun just to be out there with the guys, and building new relationships with guys,’’ said Ramsey, a junior from Cincinnati. “The competition part, it’s been fun. I’ve been progressing every day. I’ve been consistent, stacking good days on good days. So far, I’m happy with where I’m at.

“Consistency is a big thing for me. I’ve proven that I’m capable, I’m able, but you have to prove it every single day. That’s what Big Ten quarterbacks do. I have to continue to lead and bring other guys along. That’s something you have to do every day.’’

Ramsey admits he’s not looking over his shoulder and not handicapping the QB race out there on the field every day. When the other guys are getting reps, he’s busy watching everything that goes on, and not just his fellow quarterbacks.

“I’m not necessarily watching the guys in my position, but more watching the entire offense and trying to be the best leader I can to help this offense move along,’’ he said. “That’s my job.’’

With the season opener against Ball State at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis just 18 days away, a decision on a starter is sure to come soon. There are no hints yet, but if it’s Ramsey or Penix, both seem prepared to lead.

And that’s a start.