Jason Spriggs (78), just a freshman, has locked down Indiana's starting left tackle spot both thruough a strong preseason and through impressive work in his first college start against Indiana State.
About four years ago, Tim Dawson was watching a number of young players in his Concord High School football program, when his eyes caught one in particular.
The young man was trying out for receiver, probably because he was quite tall. But Dawson, 24 years the head coach at Concord, saw a wide frame and an athletic build, the kind that has become deeply valued among offensive tackles. Dawson approached the player about a position change.
“‘Your days of that are over,’” he told a freshman named Jason Spriggs. “‘The good Lord has blessed you with size and speed, and if you keep honing your game, you’ll get a free education someday.’”
Dawson’s words proved prophetic. Four years on, Spriggs is indeed on full scholarship at Indiana. At 6-foot-7 and somewhere between 268 and 272 pounds, he still appears the lean player he was when Dawson first saw him.
But he’s also stayed impressively in shape for a player of his size and position. IU coach Kevin Wilson said Spriggs only carries 10 percent body fat and can run a 40-yard dash in less than 4.8 seconds, evidence of that athleticism.
When Indiana recruited Spriggs out of Concord High School — an area powerhouse situated on a small sliver of land known as Dunlap, between Goshen and Elkhart in the northern-most part of the state — it did so in part for his positional versatility. The Minutemen played their prized big man along both the offensive and defensive lines and at tight end during his career, trying to make the most of all of his potential.
In Concord’s spread offense, Spriggs landed at left tackle as a senior. A standout basketball player as well in high school, Spriggs was always strong against the pass rush, according to Dawson.
A defensive end, tight end and offensive tackle in high school, Spriggs (center) told his coach he was firmly committed to Indiana, even when other programs expressed interest after his senior season at Concord High School in northern Indiana.
“We certainly wanted him protecting our quarterback’s blind side,” said the Concord coach. “I think Jason’s strength is his passing blocking. He’s got good feet.”
The basketball helped in that respect, according to Spriggs.
Playing in the post for Concord, he averaged better than 13 points per game last season. He pulled in 7.1 rebounds per game as a senior, led his area in blocked shots as a sophomore and as a junior and was named first-team all-area in 2012 by The Elkhart Truth.
“I think it helped me a lot,” Spriggs said of playing basketball in high school. “My footwork is basically all grounded from basketball.”
Spriggs impressed as a potential hybrid tight end/offensive tackle on the camp circuit in the summer before his senior year. He earned a scholarship offer from IU after attending a one-day camp in Bloomington, his first from a BCS-conference school.
It would be his only such offer, as Spriggs committed soon after, pulling the trigger for Indiana in mid-June 2011. Several other schools, including Purdue, Notre Dame, Michigan State and Georgia had been paying close attention to Spriggs, intrigued by his combination of athleticism and positional flexibility. When Indiana landed his commitment, it was seen as a potential coup, if Spriggs indeed kept developing physically and technically.
“There might not be a prospect in the state that has as much physical upside as Jason Spriggs," 247Sports national recruiting analyst Steve Wiltfong said at the time. "He has wide shoulders and a frame to pack on an easy 50-60 pounds and become an offensive tackle.
“A good athlete with good feet, I think that’s the position he projects best at in the future."
Spriggs began his high school career trying to play wide receiver, according to Concord coach Tim Dawson. That aspiration was short-lived.
Indiana’s staff shared that opinion.
Upon arrival this summer, Spriggs began working hard to put on weight. He got up to 272 pounds, though he’s officially listed at 268. He said his weight generally fluctuates, between practice and weight lifting and conditioning, but that his eventual goal is to get at or above 300 pounds.
To that end, Spriggs is piling on the calories. He said he often eats with strength coach Rick Danison, consuming meals high on protein and carbohydrates and, Spriggs figures, probably between 5,000 and 6,000 calories apiece. He’s also downing protein shakes with every meal, taking in as much as he can “until I’m full to the point where I feel like I’m gonna throw up.”
“I’m really just trying to get everything back from practice and then add on,” Spriggs said, smiling.
Dawson doesn’t think the extra weight will hold his former Class 5A all-state selection back. He said some of the Mid-American Conference schools recruiting Spriggs still saw him as a tight end, but Dawson was skeptical of that developmental track.
“He’s going to be able to gain a lot more weight and handle it,” Dawson said. “I just think he’s gonna be a great tackle.”
So, apparently, did three new coaching staffs last winter.
Dawson said Illinois, Pitt and Penn State, all of whom went through coaching changes after the 2011 season, called about Spriggs in the offseason, wondering if he might be willing to visit their campuses. They knew he was committed, but would he just be willing to travel out and take the standard tour?
At that time of year in a recruiting cycle, as coaching staffs look to fill holes created by unexpected attrition and round out classes before Signing Day, the intimation is often that if a player is willing to travel out for a visit, then the program might be willing to talk about an offer.
Whatever their endgame, Spriggs told those programs no.
Even given his physical gifts, Spriggs wasn’t expected to make a serious impact so soon in his college career. He came in undersized for any position along the offensive line, and though he’d played tackle in high school, Spriggs had plenty to learn about a position Wilson describes as “reasonably stressful.”
But when redshirt junior Charlie Chapman sustained a serious concussion early in the preseason, Indiana needed Spriggs to step in. Though still new to the position within Indiana’s offense, Spriggs steadily established himself as the Hoosiers' best option at left tackle.
He impressed his coaches and teammates with all those attributes that made him an intriguing prospect, and by flattening his learning curve. But he also showed a certain attitude, what offensive coordinator Seth Littrell termed a “hard determination” to lock down that starting spot.
“To me, what’s stuck out is his tenacity, just blocking,” said redshirt senior center Will Matte. “We threw him in there early in camp, and he didn’t necessarily know what he was doing, but he got after people. He’s extremely athletic. …
“He can dance with anybody on the edge. He’s obviously got to gain some weight, but he’s a big talent, and he’s going to make a name for himself.”
Matte’s assertion seems to be gaining believers. Spriggs spent most of his first college game lined up across from Ben Obaseki, a senior defensive lineman at Indiana State who was a first-team AP All-American at the FCS level in 2011. Obaseki had 7.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss as a junior, and in one game last year he put up 22 total tackles, but against Indiana, he was hardly a factor.
There will almost surely be rougher days ahead for the true freshman, as there are for most players of his age, experience and position. But for four quarters Saturday, Spriggs played at a level that validated the unusual amount of praise Wilson has heaped on him in the preseason.
Not someone generally predisposed to unnecessary or effusive commendation since arriving in Bloomington, Wilson has nonetheless been something just short of bullish about his freshman left tackle this fall. And while Indiana’s second-year coach still attaches reservation to his immediate expectations for Spriggs, Wilson couldn’t help but express excitement this week at his current left tackle’s long-term future.
“I told him Friday, I said: ‘One of these days, you’re gonna be in the NFL,’” Wilson said, “‘and you’re gonna laugh about this first game, because you’re gonna see some real guys coming off the edge.’”
Dawson said last week he was surprised to hear Spriggs had already made the starting lineup, that in his years of coaching, he couldn’t remember sending a player to that level of college football and seeing them thrive so quickly. And yet Wilson finds himself already willing to suggest that, if Spriggs works hard at his craft and on his body, and stays healthy, he has professional potential.
Perhaps one day Spriggs will laugh when he thinks about his first college start, about how large the task in front of him seemed then. And maybe he’ll laugh, too, when he remembers the beginning of his high school career, when a young man now racing toward 300 pounds as fast as his metabolism will let him get there showed up to practice at Concord as a freshman, hoping to be a wide receiver.