March 12, 2013

Spring: Five questions

Purdue has plenty of questions headed into its first season under new head coach Darrell Hazell.

Some are the obvious - who will win the quarterbacks job? Will anyone emerge at linebacker? - but others might take more time to flush out. Following, we look at some of the overriding questions facing the Boilermakers this spring.

Is There Enough Skill?
Offensive coordinator John Shoop has talked about his quarterback being a "facilitator" for the offense. But who will that QB - whichever one wins the job - facilitate to?

In the offseason, Purdue lost its top two running backs in Akeem Shavers and Ralph Bolden and its No. 1 receiving target in Antavian Edison. And the returning leading receiver, O.J. Ross, has been indefinitely suspended for the second time in his career. Considering he's been mentioned little - Shoop talked about Dolapo Macarthy, Charles Torwodzo, Gary Bush and Cameron Posey, but not Ross, in an interview last week - Ross' potential return is iffy at best.

Who does that leave?

The running back spot has big-play threat Akeem Hunt and power back Brandon Cottom, but neither seem suited to be an every-down back. Freshman David Yancey might get a chance this spring, a benefit of him having arrived earlier than some of his other '13 signees.

One of those summer arrivals, Keyante Green, might get a crack at playing as a true freshman; he's built like an early-down running back. But, he's not here now either.

Tight end Gabe Holmes is ready for a break-out season, just as he was a season ago. Will his potential be maximized as a senior?

The aforementioned receivers will get an opportunity for bigger roles, but outside of Bush's 41 catches last season, the rest of the bunch didn't exceed 30 total. Purdue needs one or several to emerge now; the question is will they, and who will it be?

What's The Scheme?
The early indications say that Purdue wants to be a physical offense that runs the ball consistently and effectively to set up a play-action passing game.

But how will that materialize? The offensive line would seem to be a key to the whole thing, but it was a mess a year ago. The Boilermakers need an infusion of youth there, something Danny Hope recognized a year ago when he signed five offensive linemen to his 2012 class.

A couple of those guys - perhaps guard Jordan Roos and tackle James Prince are the most likely candidates - must step into larger roles, but are they ready to do so?

If they can - and if Purdue's line develops into one that can control the line of scrimmage - then Shoop and Hazell likely can run the offensive scheme they prefer. But they've been willing to say that personnel will affect their decisions too.

How will the personnel affect the scheme in Year 1?

How will practices be structured?
As we saw in 6 a.m.'s, Hazell likes detailed, structured workouts that maximize time allotted.

There's little reason to think it won't be the same for spring practices. Gone, you'd have to think, are the days of defensive tackles fielding punts just for the heck of it or others trying out their place-kicking leg.

One would have to imagine that Hazell will keep the practices focused, with greater demand for discipline and perfection than in past years. How will the Boilermakers react to that type of change?

Conditioning, as it was in the offseason, likely will be a certain focus, as well.

Can Purdue generate a pass rush?
Kawann Short's team-leading seven sacks have departed, soon to the NFL.

The Boilermakers' remaining roster this spring - also taking away four sacks from three other graduates - that totaled only 11 quarterback takedowns in 2012. That's far too few.

The trend has been a negative one for the Boilermakers in recent years, with its defensive ends - once a bright spot regularly on the defense - generating few quarterback pressures.

Will Ryan Russell capitalize on his potential, after accumulating four sacks last season, the most among the returnees. Jalani Phillips has shown to be talented the last couple seasons, but raw from a football skills point of view, too. What does his future hold?

Defensive coordinator Greg Hudson has talked about tempered aggression. Does that mean linebackers, or even those in the secondary, could be used more to disrupt the offense?

Perhaps some answers will come this spring.

How will Purdue organize its special teams?
Hazell has talked of the importance of special teams under his watch, but when his assistant coaching staff was complete, he hadn't named one in charge of it all.

Instead, Kevin Sherman (wide receivers); Gerald Parker (tight end); Marcus Freeman (linebackers); and Jafar Williams (running backs) will share those duties. That's a change from under Hope, who dedicated one coordinator, J.B. Gibboney, to all the specialty units.

In the past few years, the Boilermakers special teams have been a mixed bag: good on kick returns, but poor on punt returns; good in coverage, but leaky in kick/punt blocking.

Will Hazell's be an effective approach? Better? Or could Purdue's special teams slip?

Purdue needs to find out answers at kicker, where Paul Griggs and Sam McCartney traded off duties a year ago, and punter return, which has been a sore spot for years.

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