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Indiana Hoosiers offensive lineman Brandon Knight (62) during Indiana University football practice in Bloomington. Chris Howell | Herald-Times

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Tom Allen is fond of saying big men lead the way.

This season, they better.

Wrecked by injuries and plagued by inconsistency throughout the 2017 campaign, Indiana's offensive line simply didn't get the job done last fall. But with all five starters returning healthy for 2018, the Hoosiers believe better days are ahead.

And, beginning with Saturday's season opener at Florida International, they're determined to follow through.

"I think we have a little bit of a chip on our shoulder," junior left tackle Coy Cronk said. "We knew last year wasn't what we wanted."

It certainly wasn't, especially as injuries mounted and IU's line struggled to provide lanes for the running game.

Yet, there was at least one small positive to come from last season — the development of depth across the board. It remains to be seen whether Indiana has reliable backups at all five spots, but there is a growing sense that should last season's tough luck strike again, the Hoosiers will at least be prepared.

"Feeling really good," IU offensive line coach Darren Hiller said. "Having everybody back this year has been huge for us as an offense, as a football team. And then (there is) the development of the young guys, with some of the valuable experience gained by (guard) Mackenzie Nworah, (center/guard) Harry Crider and some of those guys who got the opportunity last year to get in and get their feet wet."

Besides depth, Indiana has another thing going for it this season.

That's versatility.

During fall camp, IU was able to move, mix and match players along the line, particularly on the interior. Centers Hunter Littlejohn, Crider and Nick Linder, a graduate transfer from Miami, also played some at guard, giving Hiller some options up front.

"Delroy Baker is another guy," Hiller said. "He's a tackle, but we can bump him inside. Actually, (Thursday), Simon (Stepaniak, a right guard) and Wes (Martin, a left guard) flipped sides. Wes went over and played some right (guard). Not trying to over-do it, but just making sure, because it’s a long football season and it’s the Big Ten. People are going to get banged up. We know that.

“Last year, we saw that first-hand and we were a little bit thin. I feel much better where we are now, with guys that have some experience and can play some different spots."

Otherwise, Hiller likes what he has in his five returners.

Cronk, at tackle, and Martin, at guard, have started 25 consecutive games next to one another on the left side of the line. At center, Littlejohn seems on track to become one of IU's most improved players of 2018.

Littlejohn has battled Linder, a veteran with 31 games of experience for the Hurricanes, for starting duties, while also improving the lower-body strength that hurt him in moments last season.

That's made center one of the spots to watch this month.

"If I had to say one real big battle we’ve got going on right now that’s going to be one of those play-it-out situations, it’s the center position," Hiller said. "But the great thing about Nick is that he’s so experienced and knows so much football that he’s going to play and play, probably, multiple positions. And he can fill in and he can play those spots and he knows what everybody is doing."

On the right side, the Hoosiers are hoping for a healthier 2018 for its top guys, guard Simon Stepaniak and tackle Brandon Knight.

Stepaniak played in only six games, while Knight was slowed by a preseason injury despite making eight starts.

"I think we can be really good," Cronk said. "I think we can finally establish that long-needed run game that we didn't have last year, which starts up front with us. That's 100 percent on the O-line. We can be special, I think. We've just got to stay healthy."

This off-season, the offensive linemen wowed Indiana's new strength and conditioning staff with their work in the weight room.

That work has athletic performance coach Dr. Matt Rhea and others confident IU's O-line is in for a rebound season.

"Wes Martin, Brandon Knight and Hunter Littlejohn have all really led the way with focusing on power and getting the most of it," Rhea said. "There's not a guy in that entire unit who hasn't given us every ounce of effort they could possibly give us. (That's) a group that I think is gonna lead the way."

This article originally ran on heraldtimesonline.com.

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