BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Spring football is behind us, and now the countdown is on to Sept. 4 and Indiana's season-opener on the road at Iowa. Each day that passes is another day for heralded Hoosiers quarterback Michael Penix Jr. to get his injured knee stronger.
The question, though, is will there be enough days?
Penix tore the ACL in his right knee last November in a win over Maryland, and he had surgery soon thereafter. The prognosis throughout his rehab is that he will be ready to go by the season opener, but there's no guarantee of that. It looks promising, but rehab is never a sure bet.
"Mike's doing great. He's recovering and rehabbing, and he's doing a real good job,'' Indiana offensive coordinator Nick Sheridan said Wednesday when he met with the media. "I feel comfortable with where he's at, and I think he feels the same way.''
Penix, the redshirt sophomore from Tampa, was spectacular this season before the injury. Indiana was 5-1 at the time, and the Penix-led offense had exorcised long-standing demons with wins over Penn State and Michigan in Bloomington, and a rare road win at Michigan State.
But then the injury bug bit again, on a routine play where he was running out of bounds. He landed funny, and tore the ACL in his right knee. And for the third straight season in Bloomington, Penix wasn't able to finish a season because of injury.
Back in 2019 as a true freshman, he had won the starting job over Peyton Ramsey, but in his first start against Penn State, he tore his ACL and missed the rest of the season. In 2020 during Indiana's breakout 8-5 season, a clavicle injury in late November knocked him out.
Now it's an ACL again, and another round of rehab. All signs point toward him being 100 percent when fall practice starts, but there can be no setbacks, either. This is an important summer for Penix, and all the Hoosiers, really. They're a likely top-10 team again when the season rolls around, and expectations are high.
"It will be big for Mike,'' Sheridan said. "We were just talking about this the other day. Mike's development (during his three years in Bloomington) has been unique because in the offseasons he's been here, he's always been recovering from surgery.
"I feel confident in our ability to do some things fundamentally for him this summer, get him back throwing, doing some drill work. Maybe as we get closer toward August it will be more normal, but we want to be smart about that. We want to make sure he's healthy and ready to go.
Penix, sadly, knows all about summer rehabs, because he's had to do it every year. And for all the gusto and passion that he plays with, he embraces the rehab process as well.
"This summer will be huge for him, and his growth, and I think he's excited about it. I admire Mike for his toughness, for the things he's had to go through since he's been a player here,'' Sheridan said. "Some of the mental toughness he's show to go through the injuries he's had, and to have an upbeat attitude, it is inspiring, and I admire him for that. He's a special player and a special person, not just to me but my family and our staff. We're excited about Mike, and we know he's got a big summer ahead.''
When Penix has gotten hurt in the past, Indiana has been fortunate that others have been able to come to the rescue. In 2020, it was Peyton Ramsey who led the Hoosiers to several victories. Last season, Jack Tuttle stepped up, coming off the bench against Maryland in his first real action, and he played well to close out the win. The following week, he led the Hoosiers to an upset victory at Wisconsin.
Tuttle has gotten all the reps this spring, and Indiana coach Tom Allen and Sheridan both have full confidence in him if he has to play. But Penix is special, and the goal is still for him to take that first snap in Iowa City.
But Allen has also been very clear that Penix will only start the season if he's 100 percent. Ninety percent isn't enough, and neither is 95. Anything else is unacceptable, and he won't expose him to anything that's not in his best interest, health-wise.
"In my mind, you're not going to put him out there unless he's 100 percent ready to go,'' Allen told me a few weeks ago. "I believe that will be the case on Sept. 4, but I'm not a fortune teller and I don't know what the future holds.
"I just feel like you expect Michael to be ready to go, and that's the expectation from my end. But you're never going to put a guy out there when he's not 100 percent. That will be the decision we'll have to make. That's why you've always got to have more than one person at every position.''
All signs are excellent so far that Penix will be ready to go, and that he should be one of the best quarterbacks in the league, if not the country. There are even Heisman Trophy winning odds on him on FanDuel, at 85-to-1.
"He's working extremely hard right now, and doing everything the right way,'' Allen said. "He's been very diligent in his rehab and the doctors feel really good about his progression. We feel like he'll be ready to go, but if not, Jack will be the guys and we'll just go up there to Iowa City and play our tails off.''
Allen and Sheridan were thrilled with how Tuttle played last year, and they appreciated his toughness during the Outback Bowl when he tried to play through a shoulder injury in the loss.
Tuttle knows his role well, and that means a lot to all involved. It's that LEO mentality, and it shines through brightly with Tuttle.
"It takes a special person to do that, and it speaks to his character,'' Allen said. "It speaks to the way he was raised by his parents, and the ability to truly be a selfless guy. I know we've seen other teams, other situations where the guy is not guaranteed the spot and he bolts to go somewhere else. That's a decision that they have to make. I recognize that that's not easy, and I recognize that he has a special love for this team.
"He'll say it himself. He's said it many, many times. He and I talk a lot. There's a strong relationship with him and our staff, him and myself, and him and his teammates. He loves this place. This place means a lot to him. That's important. It goes back to finding guys that fit with your culture, fit with who you are and care about being developed as a man.''
That's the buy-in that Allen has stressed from the beginning, that it's not about you, it's about the guy in the chair next to you. That's Tuttle.
"Football is obviously a critical part of all this. It's what draws us all here. It drew me here, I get that,'' Allen said. "But at the same time, I think also what keeps you here are the different things. If it's just all football, and that's the end all and that's all that person cares about and values, then if you're not getting to play at that position, then they might say, hey, I might go somewhere else.
"You're right, he's not guaranteed any of that. He does know that Michael is the starter. But he's just been unbelievable in his preparation and continues to be. He was all last season. He was ready when called upon. That's why he won the LEO award for the whole team to end the season at our banquet a few weeks ago. That was chosen by myself and our staff. Just because of the unselfishness, the living out of that phrase to his teammates. Not just saying it, but really truly being that way. Whenever he's called upon, he's going to be ready. I truly believe that.''