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Posted on Tue. Aug. 12, 2014 - 12:01 am EDT

Indiana's Coleman learns to cut loose

Junior rates among best running backs

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BLOOMINGTON -- Diamond in the rough. Perhaps that's the best way to describe the freshman version of Indiana tailback Tevin Coleman. He showed up raw and talented. He was strong and swift and prone to youthful breakdowns.

You loved him as a player, but could you trust him?

The Hoosier coaching answer was, yes, but only in measured doses.

Now, well, Coleman might rival Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah for the Big Ten's best running back.

“He's probably one of the more talented backs in this league,” coach Kevin Wilson says. “He's an impact guy.”

Flash back to August of 2012, Coleman's freshman year. IU coaches knew what they had. Well, they knew what they thought they had. They had high school film and recruiting notes on Coleman, an all-state player from the Chicago area. They saw what he did in early Hoosier practices.

Still …

Coleman thrived in bursts. The nuances of the college game, the attention to detail, the blocking and receiving and awareness necessary to make consistent impact in Wilson's diverse offense had to be learned. Mistakes were made. Minor injuries occurred. Running back is not a position for those with low pain tolerance.

“He was a freshmen and he didn't know the stuff real well,” running backs coach Deland McCollough says. “He had a shoulder injury, then a hand. He still played, and it was a testament to how tough he was. His thumb got messed up. That happened in Game One. He went through the whole season beat up.

“Mentally he didn't know (the system) well enough to cut lose. As soon as the spring came, it was over. All the guys were like, this guy is going to be trouble when he learns everything. He learned it all.”

Learning has helped put Coleman on the Doak Walker Watch List, an award given annually to the nation's best running back. If he is not as polished at his position as, say, quarterback Nate Sudfeld is at his, well, there's still time.

Coleman is just a junior.

“I'm really focused on the finer points. I was doing that last year, but I struggled with it. Now that I'm fine with that, it's about sharpening it up a little more just to be dominating in my consistency.”

McCollough sees the improvement.

“He's got a nice, broad picture, now it's the finer points, the small stuff, the footwork being very consistent. Crossing his tracks. Having good angles.

“Tevin is a special player. We're expecting some great things from him this year. I'm excited to see what happens.”

When Coleman arrived, IU already had a solid tailback in Stephen Houston, who had rushed for 802 yards the previous season after transferring from junior college. He held off Coleman that first year, rushing for 749 yards and 12 touchdowns, adding 381 more yards and four touchdowns on 37 catches.

As a backup Coleman rushed for 225 yards and a touchdown. He really made his mark returning kickoffs. He averaged 23.6 yards a return, ranking third in the Big Ten, including a 96-yard touchdown.

That explosiveness helped pushed Coleman past Houston. Last season Coleman became the starter, and had eight runs of 40 or more yards to tie for the national lead. He rushed for 958 yards and 12 touchdowns in nine games, and would have easily broken the thousand-yard barrier if an ankle injury hadn't sidelined him for the final three games.

Nine months later, that still bothers him.

“That pushes me a lot. All I think about are missing those three games. I'm so upset I couldn't do it. That's God's path. I'll try to do it this year. Try to do it big.”

How big?

The last Hoosier to break 1,000 yards was Levron Williams, who totaled 1,401 in 2001. That's the fifth most in school history. Vaughn Dunbar, a former Snider standout, set the record with 1,805 yards in 1991.

IU has led the Big Ten in passing the last two seasons, and with Sudfeld at quarterback, it could make it three in a row. But the Hoosiers ran enough last year to rank fourth in the conference in rushing. Wilson doesn't figure to back off the run in his uptempo, spread attack.

“I'm looking forward to Tevin having a strong year,” Wilson says. “I think he's going to be one of the better offensive players in the conference.”

So does offensive coordinator Kevin Johns.

“We feel great about Tevin, his maturity and what he can bring.”

The diamond, it seems, is no longer rough.

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