IU walk-on QB Grant Gremel expected nothing, earned shot at starting Old Oaken Bucket game

Zach Osterman
Indianapolis Star

BLOOMINGTON – Memorial Stadium had mostly cleared out by the time Grant Gremel, touchdown ball tucked under his arm, walked back out onto the field to speak with reporters last Saturday night.

An otherwise disappointing senior-day loss to Minnesota came with a silver lining for the redshirt sophomore from Noblesville: his first career touchdown pass. Hence the ball.

Left in the bleachers, sitting — well, in that moment, standing — just above the tunnel into IU’s locker room were Gremel’s father, mother, stepmother, aunt and girlfriend. His grandparents were up there somewhere. They were all cheering at the top of their lungs for a player who could not have imagined being in this position when IU’s season started but has looked unfazed by his newfound responsibility since it was handed to him.

Insider:What I'm watching as IU finishes dud season with Bucket visit to Purdue

One who knows there might be more on the way.

“Pressure’s fake,” Gremel said, asked how he would feel if handed a start in Saturday’s Old Oaken Bucket game at Purdue. “I don’t believe in pressure. Preparation creates confidence. Coach (Tom) Allen preaches that all the time, everyone preaches that. But I don’t believe in pressure.”

Indiana's Grant Gremel (16) throws during warm-ups before the start of the Indiana versus Minnesota football game at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021.

His father, Kent, played college basketball, but Gremel’s parents never wanted to force their son into sports.

“Neither one of us, at the time, wanted him to play any sports until it was organized,” Holly Gremel said. “We didn’t believe in putting pressure on kids that young.”

Then the headaches started. Grant was only five years old, but he describes them now as like migraines, painful to the point of being debilitating.

His parents took Grant to a doctor, who ordered scans that returned concerning results. A trip to Riley Hospital for Children confirmed he had a tumor inside his brain.

It wasn’t cancerous, but it had grown on the pineal gland, deep inside the brain near where it meets the stem. Wrapped in nerves, removing it would have been incredibly dangerous.

Doctors planned instead to monitor the tumor. Grant needed regular MRIs to check for any concerning growth or change.

“They just had to see how it developed and how it kind of grew with me as I grew,” Grant said. “I didn’t have to take any medicine or anything like that.”

But the experience was still difficult.

It was hard to explain to a 5-year-old what a tumor was, why it was serious and what it might mean. He needed scans every three months to keep tabs on its progress. And for Grant, the physical experience of the MRI became scary and frustrating.

“He hated going under when they put the dye in,” Kent said. “He didn’t want to be in the MRI machine. There were times when we held him down, when he’d kick and fight. But you could see in his eyes, though, that once he figured out what it all meant, he was cool with it.”

Slowly, Grant came to understand why he needed to follow doctors’ instructions. He began laying under his dining room table for half an hour or more, training himself to remain still. His parents, even through divorce, resolved to always be there together when Grant needed them.

And they let him play sports.

“He grew up very quickly,” Holly said. “Fear, he conquered it very early in age.”

Grant picked up football, basketball and baseball. He carried the first two all the way into high school and excelled on the court like his father had.

But football sparked his passion like the others hadn’t. In particular, he liked playing quarterback. The responsibility of it appealed to him.

“I enjoyed the feeling of everyone looking at me as a quarterback, being the leader and leading,” Grant said. “I enjoyed having all the weight on my shoulders as a second head coach out there.”

After his sophomore season at Noblesville, Gremel put away basketball and went to football full-time.

The previous fall handed Grant Gremel his first big opportunity behind center. Playing a ranked Brownsburg team, Noblesville lost starting quarterback Ryan Barnes (also now a walk-on at IU) to injury. Gremel stepped in and threw for 224 yards and two touchdowns, as well as the game-winning 2-point conversion with 1:08 left, as Noblesville scored all 22 of its points in the fourth quarter of a 22-21 win.

He would throw for another 258 yards and three scores the next week at Avon.

Coming through at Noblesville was tough. After Grant’s junior season, Jason Simmons returned to Ben Davis. Simmons’ replacement, Justin Roden, was Grant’s third coach in four seasons, and he preferred a run-heavy offense.

By this point, colleges were interested — Duke, Cincinnati, Michigan State and Indiana, where Grant had always enjoyed attending summer team camps with the Millers.

But those schools told Grant they couldn’t pull the trigger on an offer with the statistics he put up at Noblesville. His parents started to wonder if he should explore transferring. Holly could move with him, and a more QB-friendly system might get Grant the exposure he needed.

“At that point, a lot of people around him, including myself, were like, do you need to leave Noblesville if you want to play football at the next level?” Kent said. “I was like, ‘Grant, you’ve got to consider these things.’”

He wouldn’t.

“I think one of his most endearing qualities to people around him is he’s fiercely loyal,” Kent said. “He would not leave his girlfriend. He would not leave his teammates.”

Instead, Grant found his outlet working with Indy Select.

One of Indianapolis’ premier 7-on-7 programs, Select boasts recent alumni including David Bell, Jeremy Chinn and Jack Kiser.

That environment exposed Grant to a different level of quarterback play. Not just the technical aspects of the position, but also how to use details like film study and extra work to polish the finer points of his game. Then-Carmel quarterback Jake McDonald took Grant under his wing. So did coaches Eric Hooks and Chad Spann.

“I saw him blossom under that process,” Kent said.

Noblesville's Grant Gremel (14) rolls out of the pocket looking for an open man during the first half of Zionsville vs. Noblesville High School varsity football held at Zionsville High School, September 14, 2018.

In his senior season, Gremel led Noblesville to wins against Fishers, Westfield and Hamilton Southeastern, a treble the Millers had never accomplished before.

“He had a very strong arm,” Roden told IndyStar in an interview earlier this season. “He was always frustrated when we made mistakes, but was a good leader and well-liked by his peers. For him to get a new coach and new offense going into his senior season, he was humble enough to just dive in and immerse himself.”

Indiana stuck around. Between Indy Select, trusted high school coaches in the area and a family friend named Shannon Ferbrache, the list of people vouching for Grant grew long enough for the Hoosiers to extend an offer as a preferred walk-on.

“He may not have necessarily been the top of that group even when he first got here, but I tell you what: He evolved,” IU coach Tom Allen said Monday. “Of our walk-ons that we've had here, he may have improved the most. Just really bought in. Just a tough kid, works hard, attention to detail. He's very smart, excellent student. He's what you want in a walk-on in regards to he does everything right.

“On the field, he does everything right. Off the field, he's on time all the time there, smart, tough, dependable, a guy that is going to represent your program in a first-class way, everything he does.”

Still, no one could have prepared for the set of unusual circumstances that elevated him into contention to start Saturday’s Bucket game.

First, Dexter Williams tore his ACL during the spring season. Grant appeared in the Sept. 11 win against Idaho, but it wasn’t until Michael Penix separated the joint in his throwing shoulder at Penn State that the redshirt sophomore from Noblesville started to consider the possibility of playing meaningful snaps.

Then Jack Tuttle went down against Ohio State. Gremel threw six passes that night. Freshman Donaven McCulley handled the job at Maryland and at Michigan, before Gremel jumped back into the mix going 6-of-12 for 53 yards against Rutgers.

Then came last weekend, another dozen pass attempts and that touchdown.

“(Minnesota) played Cover 2,” Grant said, recounting the play. “I was just looking at the safety, reading off him. He took the inside guy, so I threw it to the outside guy.”

That outside guy, freshman Malachi Holt-Bennett, hauled in what was also his first-career touchdown catch.

“When Indiana came around, he just said, ‘I don’t care how hard it is. I know I may not get the snaps or be the guy, but I want the chance to prove myself,’” Holly said. “He’s never been one to expect anything given to him. He always was one to say challenge accepted, let’s go.”

Grant doesn’t have to go back for regular scans anymore. The tumor grew with him but never so big it became dangerous. He will need it checked every few years but that’s it. He doesn’t even think about it now.

Instead, his focus now is on things like extra film, or longer meetings with his receivers, tight ends and offensive linemen. The kind of added responsibility a quarterback takes on when he knows he might play significant snaps.

Indiana's Grant Gremel (16) runs during the second half of the Indiana versus Minnesota football game at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021.

The kind of responsibility Grant Gremel, the quarterback who refuses to feel pressure, craves.

“I believed in myself. I knew deep down I could play. I wanted to do whatever it took,” he said. “I think naturally I’m just kind of a poised person. I try to be calm. I try not to think too (much) of a situation. I just try and take it one day at a time and be in the moment, and do one thing at a time. If you try to think too much, you over think it and do things wrong.”

He’ll need that poise Saturday if his No. 16 is called. A Bucket game win would salvage at least some pride from an otherwise disappointing season. The night before, Grant Gremel will be in his hotel room studying film with McCulley (they room together on the road). Neither will have expected to be in this position. Indiana might count on both to try and spring an upset.

“It’s all a mindset,” he said. “If I start, I start. If Donaven (McCulley) starts, great. We’re doing everything we can to win.”

IndyStar reporter Matthew VanTryon contributed to this story.

Follow IndyStar reporter Zach Osterman on Twitter: @ZachOsterman.