January 17, 2013
Looking Ahead: Offensive line
Although it improved in the second half of the season, Purdue's offensive line largely underperformed in 2012.
And now it'll have to deal with the graduation of its two longest-tenured starters, as center Rick Schmeig and left guard Peters Drey have exhausted their eligibility. But five players with starting experience return for 2013, plus a highly regarded group of five redshirted rookies, at least a couple of whom could be poised to make impacts as second-year players.
Purdue's offensive line, particularly its ability to pass protect, was a concern ahead into the season, and those concerns proved to be legitimate. Early in the year, with Drey still recovering from the back injury that cost him half the latter half of 2011, and with former JUCO Devin Smith slow to adjust to Division I football, the line seemed disoriented. Add in that Kevin Pamphile, then a notice offensive lineman, and Justin Kitchens, who was returning from offseason shoulder surgery, were rotating at left tackle, arguably the line's most critical position, and it's easy to understand the struggles.
In 2012, Purdue quarterbacks were sacked 25 times, ranking No. 60 in the country in per-game average. But multiple other pressures often doomed the Boilermakers' passing efficiency.
The line was improved in the second half of the season, especially in rush blocking. Why? Robert Kugler took over for Smith at right guard, and proved to be Purdue's best lineman, and Kitchens moved from left tackle to right, replacing Trevor Foy. Pamphile continued to struggle with penalties in the passing game at left tackle, but showed signs of starting to get it late.
Now, Purdue - with new offensive line coach Jim Bollman - can hope the experience will pay off in 2013. Seniors Pamphile and Kitchens, along with Kugler, three starters in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, return, plus Smith and Foy.
Kugler, a third-year sophomore, would seemed destined to move to center, taking over for Schmeig, leaving holes at the two guard positions. Smith might be an option, due largely to his size, but his footwork and agility, on pull-out blocking especially, proved to be a liability. Rising senior Cody Davis, who appeared to be the top backup guard in the bowl game when he subbed in for one snap, is a possibility too, although he's considered undersized.
But Purdue has some underclassmen possibilities, as well. In the 2012 recruiting class, the line was a priority for Danny Hope. And not just linemen, but actual offensive linemen, as the former head coach shifted his philosophy from recruiting line prospects, whether they be offense or defense, to seeking high school players with O-line experience.
The former had produced players like Pamphile, Kitchens and Foy, who came to Purdue as defensive linemen before switching over. But that adjustment took longer than perhaps initially expected.
The latter produced a '12 class that included five high school offensive linemen, a group that was relatively highly regarded.
"It's helped out in the sense that we didn't just go out and just sign big offensive linemen, they're still athletic linemen," said former O-line coach Shawn Clark toward the end of the season. "And it helps that they've been in a three-point stance before. They know what a blitz looks like, so you're not starting from square one and that helps out."
Two in particular might have a jump on spots on the two-deep, and maybe even with the first team. Clark, and others including Hope and defensive tackle Kawann Short, praised the scout team play of right tackle J.J. Prince and right guard Jordan Roos.
Prince, who is playing the same position he did in high school, says staying motivated during the redshirt year wasn't too hard.
"It's been pretty easy for me, because I think I'm making gains in the weight room," he said late in the year. "That's a really good sign that's motivating me. And I feel like I'm doing a little better in practice against the harder competition. All those little things are what makes it easy to be motivated as a redshirt freshman, because you know you don't have a game to look forward to, but you've got to treat every rep as a game."
Although Purdue has three experienced tackles returning in 2013, it would seem that nothing is set in stone, especially with Darrell Hazell's new staff takes the reins in the spring. That means Prince or Roos could get a spot, as could their classmates: redshirt freshmen Cameron Cermin, Joey Warburg and Jason King.
Roos, who missed part of his senior high school season due to a knee injury, says he'd like a chance as soon as possible.
"That's was my No. 1 thing, I wanted to play as soon as I could," he said in late November. "It didn't work out to be playing my true freshman year, but I have another year to get my knee right. I kind of didn't feel great about my knee earlier, but it's getting a lot better and I'm going to feel pretty confident going into next season with a fully healthy knee."
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