BLOOMINGTON – Nick Sheridan sat in front of an IU-branded backdrop after practice Wednesday, fielding questions on a Zoom call with reporters who couldn’t be at the Hoosiers’ facility in person due to COVID-19. When the Hoosiers’ offensive coordinator called the build-up this season “unconventional, without a doubt,” he was being kind.
From a competitive standpoint, 2020’s challenges will have affected Sheridan more than most in Indiana’s program.
In his first year running Tom Allen’s offense, Sheridan only got a truncated spring season, time that would’ve been crucial for finding the mesh points between his personnel and his play calling. Face-to-face contact within the program has obviously been limited at various points, leaving Sheridan less time to strengthen his rapport with starting quarterback Michael Penix. And the conference-only eight-game schedule means Sheridan won’t get the comfort of any favorable nonconference match-ups to tinker with formations and iron out mistakes.
All combine to create a difficult learning curve for a first-year coordinator.
“The level of urgency is high,” Sheridan said Wednesday. “But I think the thing about sports, and specifically this, it’s fair for everybody. Everybody is in the same boat.”
Sheridan isn’t flying blind.
He’s been with Indiana for three years now, two as quarterbacks coach and one managing tight ends. Even last season, when Sheridan made way for former offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer to handle quarterbacks, Sheridan remained a key figure for that position, and worked with DeBoer in technical details like game planning. He’ll take that QBs job back, with DeBoer now in Fresno.
Sheridan was also a key figure in IU’s recruitment of Penix, and he was the young left-hander’s first position coach in college. The relationship between the pair remains strong.
“Michael’s obviously a very talented player,” Sheridan said. “One of Michael’s biggest strengths as a player is the game is slow for Mike. He makes quick decisions, he’s able to see the field, it doesn’t take him long to grasp concepts.”
Penix won’t be Sheridan’s only pupil, though. The days of managing just one position are over for the coach’s son from Michigan who played quarterback for the Wolverines before rising quickly through the college ranks.
Schematically, Sheridan doesn’t expect much to change from last season to this one.
Indiana has run a similar offense through all three years of Allen’s tenure. The differences have been in the details — play calling preferences, personnel shifts, terminology and player development.
Sheridan inherits a unit that returns last season’s top three receivers (if you include tight end Peyton Hendershot), its top two running backs, both of its tackles and an interior-line stalwart, Harry Crider, who will likely shift from left guard to center in 2020.
The staff around him also stayed constant, save the hiring of Kevin Wright to replace Sheridan as tight ends coach. Sheridan lost crucial chunks of the offseason, but he kept the framework of last season’s unit largely intact. That, from a team that finished top five in the Big Ten in scoring, passing and total offense, on its way to a Gator Bowl appearance.
One of Sheridan’s early keys, therefore, is avoiding complication.
“If we feel like we’ve grasped some concepts and the execution level is high, then maybe we can expand what we are doing and continue to grow,” he said. “I want to make sure our players can do the simple things well, feel confident they can play fast and compete. We’re trying to limit them thinking. We want them to play fast.”
Indiana still doesn’t know if its season opener against Penn State will come Saturday, Oct. 24, or the preceding Friday. Either way, the Hoosiers still have the best part of a month to prepare for the most unusual season the Big Ten has seen in generations.
There will be no easing in, no soft-pedal nonconference schedule and next to no margin for error. Sheridan’s greatest comfort, even amid the challenges, is that everyone else in the league is in the same position.
“It’s not like Penn State or the other teams in our league, that they have other games to (prepare). We’re all going to start the same weekend,” he said. “We’re going to do our very best to put our players in the best position so they can play fast and compete and do the simple things well.”
Follow IndyStar reporter Zach Osterman on Twitter: @ZachOsterman.