TERRE HAUTE —
Indiana State’s football backfield is best described as a leap of certainty and a leap of faith.
Running back Shakir Bell — a Walter Payton Award finalist in 2011 — could be the best player in the Football Championship Subdivision, and if all continues to go right for the Indianapolis native, he could be the best player in ISU history.
There’s no denying that as Bell goes, so go the Sycamores. But the certainty that Bell brings to the table is contrasted by an unknown quantity at the quarterback position.
Quarterback Mike Perish — a sophomore transfer from Western Michigan — has never thrown a pass in anger for the Sycamores. After two years of steady quarterback play from Ronnie Fouch, Perish has big shoes to fill. Production from Perish is paramount, for as good as Bell is, there’s no desire to make ISU’s offense all-Bell, all-the-time.
The yin-and-the-yang of how these two Sycamores come together will go far to determine ISU’s fate. If Perish slides comfortably into the quarterback position, the sky is the limit for the Sycamores. If Perish struggles, then by proxy, Bell could struggle too if teams can load up the box to stop him. If that scenario plays out, the Sycamores could struggle.
For Bell, the 2012 possibilities are endless. Not only is Bell one of the most decorated Sycamores in recent memory, he’s done things no FCS player at any school has accomplished.
He was the first sophomore invited to the Walter Payton Award ceremony and was named to an ISU-record four All-America teams. He did it by rushing for 1,670 yards, good for 151.8 per game, best in the nation. His 256 rushing yards against Youngstown State on Sept. 24 was a school record.
Good as 2011 was, Bell isn’t satisfied. He admitted he isn’t an “accolades guy”, but coming second in the Payton Award race has made him hungry to get the prize in 2012.
“Last year was a great year for me and the offense. Coming in second for the Walter Payton Award was an honor, being the first Sycamore and the first sophomore there. But that’s not good enough for me,” Bell said.
“I’m not a second-place guy. I’m not an accolades guy either, but to have the Payton Award as a goal to work towards, to bring it home and show the o-lineman that’s what we grind for, that’s the motivation,” he added.
Bell knows success in the 2012 season is a matter of adjustments. More so than ever, teams are going to design their defenses to stop him. He’s cognizant of the fact that new wrinkles will have to be conjured to create space for him — such as incorporating him more into the passing game.
Bell relishes it all. He knows all eyes are on him. He takes it as a personal mission is to widen those eyes in amazement as he breaks into the open field or jukes a would-be tackler.
“I like all of the attention. For one, it just opens it up for the receivers, but I love the pressure of guys focusing on me. That makes my job harder, but it makes it more fun. If people want to stack the box, that’s just going to make it more fun for me. I’m playing with a pretty big chip on my shoulder,” Bell said.
Meanwhile, Perish has readied himself during spring and preseason practice for his opportunity. Perish played sparingly with the Broncos. He completed 4 of 10 passes for 42 yards in 2011. The Frankfort, Ill. native was ranked as a top 100 quarterback in high school by Scout.com.
His task isn’t easy. By now, Perish is comfortable with his teammates and had no competition for the starting role during the preseason. But Perish’s fate is tied into that of a mostly inexperienced receiving corps and an offensive line that has struggled to protect him at times during ISU’s scrimmages.
What Perish brings to the table is a unaffected calm. Like Fouch, Perish is rarely excitable and isn’t easily rattled. Perish has said that the responsibility of being a starting quarterback hasn’t fazed him.
“I could tell through camp I progressed as far as learning the system. I’m comfortable with the game plan, the players and the offense,” Perish said. “I’m looking forward to starting since I graduated high school.”
What is unknown is how much different ISU’s passing game will look with Perish. Nothing will change as far as ISU’s pro scheme is concerned, but it’s flexible enough to adapt to a player’s own strengths. Perish seems a bit more comfortable with the short passing game, but it remains to be seen whether that’s the direction ISU goes in.
ISU coach Trent Miles has faith in Perish.
“I’m completely confident in him or anyone we put in there,” Miles said. “His strengths are being a field general. His ability to think on the move and lead is where we’re at.”
While Bell and Perish are in the spotlight at prominent positions, it can be easily forgotten that one of ISU’s most productive players in the Miles era — fullback Brock Lough — has graduated. Filling his shoes is veteran Austen Wozniak.
Miles said he won’t overload Bell with carries. Former Warren Central teammate George Cheeseborough will be another option as will emerging redshirt freshman Richie Dyer, who will provide a contrast to Bell as a between-the-tackles gainer.
“Mike Perish can throw the ball. I believe in him. Woz knows the plays. Richie Dyer and George Cheeseborough are going to be good. I can’t wait for people to see what we have going on,” Bell said.
Projected starters — Shakir Bell (RB), Mike Perish (QB), Austen Wozniak (FB).
Reserves — Richie Dyer, George Cheeseborough, Luke Harris, Foluke Gordon-Lamar, Travis Johnson, Trent Lancaster, Ben Obaseki (DE, used as RB in goal line situations), Lucas Hileman (P, emergency QB).
True freshmen (may or may not be redshirted) — Robert Tonyan Jr., Aaron Bruning, Tyler Evans.
Player to watch — Mike Perish, 6-3, So.: All eyes are on Perish to see if he can continue the consistent play ISU got at the quarterback position from Ronnie Fouch the last two seasons. Perish seems more comfortable throwing short patterns and is still seeking consistency on long patterns. His success, or lack thereof, will play in a big role in ISU’s fate this season.
Analysis — With Bell, ISU has one of the best players in the country. ISU coach Trent Miles has been very careful not to over-use the diminutive Bell, but if the passing game doesn’t develop as hoped, Bell will have to be the meal ticket. The good news is that Dyer has ran well in preseason practice and Wozniak has experience at fullback.
— Todd Golden