January 14, 2013
Looking Ahead: Linebackers
Purdue's linebacker corps was dealt a severe loss just before the start of the season, when senior Dwayne Beckford was booted from the program due to his latest off-the-field transgression.
It left the Boilermakers scrambling to fill holes in the unit at the last moment, something that seemingly has been too common at linebacker for the last decade or so. But with three starters returning in 2013, Purdue hopes it can begin to solidify a position group that has been a question mark for too long.
But to do so, the Boilermakers will not only need improvement from Sean Robinson, a quarterback convert who played surprisingly well in 2012, inconsistent Will Lucas, and Joe Gilliam, the middle linebacker who took Beckford's spot, but several underclassmen, as well.
None of the three returnees - Antwon Higgs, who saw significant action at MIKE, could be back too - should feel comfortable enough in their starting positions.
Robinson and Lucas shared the starting assignment at weakside linebacker. It was a challenge for Robinson, who had moved from quarterback to defense at the start of spring practices, but he seemed to grow into the role, both physically and mentally. The sophomore finished the year with 27 tackles and three pass breakups, but wasn't available for the Heart of Dallas Bowl due to an ankle/foot injury.
Robinson, who started the second half of the season, felt like he was making significant strides while gaining experience.
"I'm a really long ways off from being as good as some of the linebackers we've had in the past," he said midseason. "
But as long as I can progress, listen to the coaches, and study film and work hard in practice, I think I won't have too much of a problem."
Robinson's injury prior to the bowl gave Lucas, who had started the season as the starter before he was supplanted by Robinson, a chance again. And he seemed to finish the year on an up, with nine tackles, including a couple for loss in the season-finale vs. Indiana, then three more tackles vs. Oklahoma State in Dallas. He or Robinson could move to strongside linebacker this spring, replacing the graduating Robert Maci, or Purdue could search for a newcomer there.
"It felt like a relief that plays were coming my way and I was making them," Lucas said following the Indiana game. "A lot of games, sometimes the plays don't come your way. But when they do, you've got to make them. And I felt good to make the plays."
At MIKE, Gilliam was far better at the end of the season than he was at the beginning, showing signs that he could become a play-maker. He had 57 tackles this season, including a sack, with a forced fumble. But he still shared time with Higgs, a fourth-year senior who is hoping to get medical clearance for a fifth-season.
In the spring, the Boilermakers will have only four other scholarship linebackers, with just one - Armstead Williams - having seen any measure of relevant snaps. Andy James Garcia, undersized at 6-foot and 220-pounds, and Jimmy Herman, a former high school safety, redshirted last season. Ruben Ibarra is a former JUCO transfer who played sparingly late in games toward the beginning of the '12 season but saw no action in the second half of the year.
At least two will join in the fall, as Purdue has 2013 commitments from Danny Ezenchukwu and Johnny Thompson.
However the corps is made up, it'll have a new position coach, as Marcus Freeman comes over from Kent State as part of Darrell Hazell's staff. And it's unknown how much new defensive coordinator Greg Hudson will implement a 3-4 scheme, if at all.
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