Injuries sapped Purdue's ability to build any cohesiveness on its offensive line in the second half of last season.
And it did the same during the spring, when two then-projected starters were relegated to the sideline. But with Peters Drey, the starting left guard, and Justin Kitchens, who's competing to start at left tackle, healthy again, the Boilermakers feel they have their full complement of offensive linemen.
Now, they'd like to establish a starting unit, and let it establish a chemistry over the next couple weeks of training camp before the season opener next month.
"Without a question," offensive line coach Shawn Clark said. "We've got to get it nailed down within the next two or three days who are top five and top seven guys are going to be. And we'll work those guys."
Through the first four days of camp, Purdue's starters have been Kevin Pamphile, left tackle; Drey, left guard; Rick Schmeig, center; Cody Davis, right guard; and Trevor Foy, right tackle.
Kitchens, who started the beginning of last season at right tackle, is backing up at left tackle, and pushing Pamphile for the starting spot. But Kitchens was set back in the spring by a shoulder injury, causing him to miss valuable practice time. Meanwhile, J.C. transfer Devin Smith is working at both right tackle and right guard, and could challenge Davis at the latter; Smith, however, also has a redshirt year available.
Purdue's also been pleased with the quick progression of former tight end Robert Kuglar, a redshirt freshman who is backing up Schmeig at center.
"I like what I see individually (from the linemen)," Coach Danny Hope said, "but collectively we're not there yet. We have to find out who the right guys are in the right spots."
Purdue's ability keep those guys in the same spots largely depends on the continued good health of Drey. The senior missed the second half of last season because of a back injury, then sat out all of the spring while rehabbing. But he's back now, and says he's feeling good.
"The whole thing was terrible," he said. "I had to miss five games and it was pretty painful and whatnot. But when it started getting better, I made a big jump really quickly and I just had to get all the kinks out to where I felt pretty much 100-percent.
"I feel fine now. I have a little soreness, but I can't really say if that's from my back or just from football itself. I'm just going to treatment and taking care of it as best I can. And the coaches are aware, so we're doing our best to manage it."
Drey, who did not require surgery, consulted with doctors over the injury, but decided rest and rehab, which he's done twice a day, was the best remedy. He hopes to hold up for the season. Should he not, however, his absence might cause yet another unwanted dropping of dominos across the line.
Pamphile, for instance, has practiced at guard, and might be an option as a backup there. Kitchens, of course, is a former starter, and could easily ascent to that spot. Purdue's talked of Schmeig moving back to guard, should the need arise, and allowing Kuglar an early chance to start.
There's a billion scenarios, but with Purdue having to do that kind of mid-season shuffling in the past - with mixed results at best - it'd rather not have to again.
"We (want) to get that continuity down so (our top five) can get a feel for one another," Clark said. "We've got to get that squared away in the next two or three days."
Pamphile's another key. A former defensive tackle, the 6-foot-5, 300-pounder moved to guard midway through last season, needing only a few practices to make the transition before seeing action, and was there still in the spring. But he shifted over to guard just before the end-of-spring scrimmage, and has worked out there during the summer.
"I'm still learning it obviously," he said. "But I'm getting a lot better and the coaches trust me a lot more. I'm just working on being more physical and perfecting my technique at it.
"It's been a challenge, but during the summer I've worked on my sets with Trevor and others. And coaches noticed that I was getting my sets better and now I just have to perfect it more."
Clark says Pamphile's been a quick study, particularly for a player who had very limited experienced before Purdue.
"He has no bad habits," Clark said. "He's tall, big and can run and is as strong as three men. He's a very smart kid and a low-rep kind of player."
The Boilermakers want - and need - the line to be better than a year ago. Purdue allowed a Hope Era-high 29 sacks last season, nearly two-and-a-half a game, which ranked seventh in the Big Ten.
"I think the (offensive line) is the biggest key right now," Pamphile said. "We have great quarterbacks, fast receivers and a top running back; once we get the offensive line down, I don't think anyone can easily stop us."
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