Thursday, October 14, 2010

What’s Next For IU Without Darius Willis?

Are you like me? Do you hear, “Darius Willis is injured,” and think of “Mario Andretti is slowing down.” Both suggest vulnerability, inevitability and plain old bad luck.

For those not familiar with Indy 500 auto racing lure, Andretti was the charismatic driver forever doomed to suffer busted engines, blown tires, bad breaks and just about every other disaster you could think of whenever he raced in Indianapolis.

He won the race in 1969 and challenged in seemingly every one after that for the next three decades. Something almost always would go wrong, hence the famous “slowing down” label. It was used so often, it almost became part of his name. You know, “Hi, I’m Mario Andretti Is Slowing Down,” but call me Mario for short.

Anyway, Willis has injured his patellar tendon in his knee and will undergo surgery next Wednesday. The sophomore tailback is expected to make a full recovery just in time for next season’s injury.

The guy has seemingly been jinxed from the moment he arrived on campus. Banged up body parts include knee, groin, hamstring and ankle, and those are just the ones we know about. He’s been hurt so much, he might as well move into the training room. When he’s healthy, he’s a big play waiting to happen. He’s 6-foot and 225 pounds with a sprinter’s speed. He can run you over or run by you. He’s a solid receiver and blocker.

Last year, he rushed for 607 yards and six touchdowns while missing three full games, and parts of others, with injuries. This season, in four games, he rushed for 279 yards and four touchdowns. He also caught 11 passes for 102 yards and a TD.

As for exactly what happened to his knee, that remains a mystery as tantalizing as that giant, Egyptian-like statue on the TV show Lost. Willis missed the Ohio State game with what was described as a groin injury. Earlier this week he was listed as doubtful for Saturday’s Arkansas game with a knee problem. Coach Bill Lynch described it as a nagging injury that had been bothering Willis for a while.

Nagging turned into season ending when doctors decided surgery was needed.

What does this mean for the Hoosiers? They lose their best tailback, a guy who excelled at blocking and picking blitzes as well as catching and running. Willis was a threat to make a big play every time he touched the ball. He did, after all, earn Mr. Football honors as a senior at Franklin Central by rushing for 1,728 yards and 28 touchdowns.

Without Willis IU will likely go to a running-back-by-committee approach with senior Trea Burgess (83 rushing yards, one touchdown), redshirt freshman Nick Turner (45 yards, one TD) and true freshman Antonio Banks (42 yards, one touchdown).

Of course, the run wasn’t a big part of the offense given the success quarterback Ben Chappell has had throwing to receivers such as Tandon Doss and Damarlo Belcher. Indiana ranks last in the Big Ten in rushing and first in passing.

Oh, yes. The Hoosiers’ offensive line is battered. That would make improving the running game difficult even with a healthy Willis.

That leads to a final question –- will IU ever see a healthy Willis for an entire season? Recent history suggests no. Running back is a brutal position and Willis seems to have a knack for breaking down.

Maybe that will change by next year, and Willis will add durability to his other attributes.


In the meantime Burgess, Turner and Banks will need to make enough of an impact to take some of the heat off Chappell. The Hoosiers (3-2) can get away with one-dimensional offense against Arkansas State (2-4). They’ll have no chance with that against the remaining Big Ten teams on the schedule.


Oh, thanks to those of you for catching the typo TEST/TEXT in my previous blog. Perfection, it seems, remains as elusive as Willis' good health.

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