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March 25, 2013
Jon Heacock inherited perhaps Purdue's most experienced starting unit.
Three of four are back in the secondary from 2012, including all-league cornerback Ricardo Allen and leading tackler Landon Feichter. Though the Boilermakers are installing a new defense, Heacock says he's noticed that veteran group make a difference in early practices.
"If something doesn't go quite right, they handle it a little bit better. They solve it while you're playing, and that's what veterans do," Heacock said on Monday after Purdue completed its fourth spring practice. "You can tell they've played. They're still learning, too. It's a process.
"I think the older guys handle the mistake a little bit better. They don't panic. They sort it all out and talk to themselves and correct it as they go."
Allen has started 36 games in his career, and Feichter and Taylor Richards started all 13 games together last season at the safety spots. Frankie Williams got near starter-like snaps considering how much nickel Purdue played - he entered that package as the extra defensive back and Allen slid into the nickel back spot in coverage.
That familiarity has allowed the Boilermakers to feel comfortable despite learning a new system, they said.
"I can tell personally things are running a lot smoother," Richards said. "Going into the offseason, we could actually reflect on how things went. We spent a lot of time in the film room, a lot of time out here just communicating, doing a lot of things off the field to be better on the field.
"I feel it will be a good season for us."
After starting the first practices with the third-string defense, Harris was working with the No. 2 unit at cornerback on Friday and then got a couple of reps with the 1s in place of Williams in early 11-on-11 work on Monday.
"He's doing a good job. He's had some good practices," Heacock said. "I've been pleased with him and encouraged. He's in class a lot, so he's missing a lot of meeting time. That puts him in a little bit of a minus, but he's got to be in class. He's an older guy, and he's doing what he has to do. But the other side of that is he is missing some stuff. But he's coming along."
Anthony Brown and E.J. Johnson have been working with the second unit at the safety spots, but Brown has experience playing cornerback as well.
That versatility seems almost expected with the way Heacock is teaching his unit.
"I think that's one thing we're trying to do this spring is all of our guys in the back end understand the concepts from which we're playing at.," he said. "It's not a coverage. It's not a number. It's not a color. It's not a name. it's a concept. So they can all play. If I give them a test, they need to be able to know what every guy is doing. That allows them that opportunity to play and they need to see themselves doing that."
On the field, he often stops drills and gathers his group together to re-iterate the intention or purpose of what they're doing. He's yelled at his players, too, to stress the importance of work ethic and learning the right way.
He evaluates every play, every day.
"I'm encouraged by them, that's for sure, the effort and the attitude," he said. "It's my job to get them going to the right spots at the right times, but I am very encouraged by what I see. Got a ways to go yet. It's still a learning process. Sometimes we get stuck trying to think too much and not play, but that'll come. Overall, I've been really encouraged by what they're giving."
But Heacock isn't only using the performance on the field to compose his depth chart.
He's evaluating every decision they make - even how they take notes or answer a question in a meeting.
"They're the last line of defense. So every little inch, every thing they do, all that stuff is constantly evaluated," he said. "I think that puts pressure on them to play with pressure. That's part of my whole deal, put them through such pressure that when the games come, they've already been through it and they understand what it's like. That's my job. That's what I'm supposed to do."
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