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April 18, 2012Ralph Bolden wasn't necessarily where he wanted to be this spring - watching most of Purdue's practices from the sidelines - but it did give him an interesting angle.
And he liked what he saw of the Boilermakers' offense.
"We look really damn good," said Bolden, who was limited this spring while recovering from his third knee surgery.
Bolden said he saw a shift in the unit's focus and energy after the steak and beans scrimmage, which the defense won on Ricardo Allen's pass breakup on the final play.
"It was so emotional and important to (the offense)," Bolden said. "It was a step to have in the spring to keep building on for the fall. I just feel like we're ahead."
It certainly helps to have two quarterbacks with starting experience taking most of the reps this spring. Caleb TerBush, a full-time starter for the first time last season, and Robert Marve essentially shared the reps at the position.
TerBush still was the No. 1 quarterback, but Marve also got plenty of chances to work with the top unit. With Rob Henry limited in team work until the final four practices of the spring, that meant a lot of work for TerBush and Marve. And improvement, said the coaches and both QBs.
From nearly the first spring practice, Danny Hope talked about how both players were "different," with TerBush surging with confidence after his performance and growth last season and Marve simply looking like a healthy player for the first time.
Coordinator and quarterbacks coach Gary Nord said he was impressed with TerBush's physical changes, adding about 5 pounds while also losing fat and adding strength. TerBush is faster and his arm strength is better, Nord said. TerBush also has continued to learn and gain confidence in the offense, understanding defenses better and knowing more of what decisions to make against certain schemes, Nord said.
That process of grasping the offense game in the season, getting his first starts, and kept progressing.
"As time went on, you learn from your mistakes," TerBush said. "That's probably one of the biggest things I'll be able to change is coming from the season and practice now, I'm not making as many of the little mistakes that I was before. That's good - it builds more confidence for the season to come so that way I can build on it from last year. As it goes on, you get more comfortable and it feels better."
Marve is better simply because he's been able to do more. For the first time since being at Purdue, he's looking at having a full spring, a productive offseason and a full camp in the fall. That has him excited, knowing he can made more strides, especially in the game management area.
"People don't understand - they just see the games, and they don't see the training behind it, they don't see the practices. So to get the reps for the first time in so long, it's amazing," Marve said after the scrimmage. "It's just a blessing. It's hard to say because it's been such a rough two years with the back-to-back ACLs to now feel like this. I feel great. I feel like I made some plays out here (in the scrimmage). But I felt like there's a lot of growing for me to do. Lucky for me, I get to play camp, too, so I'm looking forward to it."
Much of what the quarterbacks are able to accomplish, though, could hinge on how quickly the offensive line gains continuity in the fall.
This spring, the first unit featured Cody Davis at guard and Josh Davis at tackle, two players who have seen few game reps. Already, the team was having to adjust to replacing graduated starters Dennis Kelly and Nick Mondek.
There was quite a bit of shuffling up front in the spring, using Trevor Foy at left tackle instead of right, working Kevin Pamphile at both guard and tackle and even getting starting center Rick Schmeig some time over at guard. Robert Kugler, moved from tight end before the start of spring ball, was inserted immediately as the backup center and played with the No. 1 offense in the steak and beans scrimmage.
During the end-of-the-spring scrimmage, the first-team quarterback seemed to get forced out of the pocket on several occasions because it collapsed, and, at least early in the scrimmage, none of the running backs playing with the first team broke a long run.
Of course, that line isn't the group that likely will be the starting one in the fall. That likely will include Foy, Drey, Schmeig, Pamphile and Kitchens, though Cody Davis was a player who coaches raved about during the spring.
"We had a lot of rotation going on in the line, so we had a lot of different experience at different spots, so I feel like come season we're going to be ready for anything that comes our far as far as injuries," Foy said. "I think as is, we're a very athletic offensive line being that most of us are ex-defensive linemen.
"But I'm excited to see how we develop as leaders this summer, and I think that's going to be a key factor for us next year, is how many of us step up as leaders, regardless of who's playing, who's starting, who's rotating. Everyone needs to step up."
The same could be said for the receiving corps.
Antavian Edison is the team's most proven weapon, but O.J. Ross has shown he can make plays, too. Ross just needs to continue to improve academically to stay eligible. Hope said toward the end of the spring that Ross made strides in that area, but there's no indication as to whether it'll be enough to keep him on the team.
Without Ross in the bowl game, Gary Bush had a breakout game, catching six balls for 90 yards and a touchdown. Bush thinks that will help him moving forward to become one of the team's top three receiving options.
"I gained more confidence. I think I know I can do pretty well," he said. "I'm just going to keep going after that, just keep making plays, which I know I can.
"I feel like it's my opportunity. I have no choice but to step up because I'm like the oldest, me, Breeze (Edison) and O.J. are the only guys that have experience. The young guys will come along. They're doing well so far in the spring."
Production by a deep group of tight ends, which includes the team's tallest pass-catching options, could help the passing game, too.
But that group didn't only work on snatching passes and running better routes in the spring. There was an emphasis on the receivers becoming better blockers by being more physical on the perimeter.
"We've got some very good running backs who can break some long runs, so we have to make those key blocks on the edge," Edison said.
Purdue didn't show many - if any - two-back formations in the end-of-the-scrimmage. That could be because it was without its projected top fullback, Brandon Cottom (knee), who would be the lead in the I. But it also didn't even use split back formations, which typically can include both Akeem Shavers and Akeem Hunt or one mixed in with a receiver.
Shavers got banged up late in the spring and his production was limited - he didn't play in the scrimmage - but he's proven enough to the coaching staff that he can carry the load as a top back if that's needed. Bolden's goal is to play in 2012, but he'll only be about eight months off surgery by August.
But what's the likelihood of any one back getting 20 carries per game? It happened only once last season - in the bowl game by Shavers. So even if a workhorse role is what Shavers would like, it's more likely Nord will divide carries between Shavers, Hunt, Raheem Mostert, Edison and his quarterbacks.
"Honestly, that's what every running back wants: an opportunity to show what he can do and get 20 to 25 carries a game but also knowing we have each other's back is a good feeling," Shavers said.
"It's what I really want. I have no problem with it, and no problem with doing it. I think I'm built for it, so I'll just try to do what I can with whatever opportunity they give me."
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