December 18, 2013

Forward Thinking: Defense

Greg Hudson will build from the ground up.

In 2013, the Boilermaker defense was one of the worst in Purdue history, giving up 456 points in 12 games, an average of 38 per game. Other numbers, rushing and passing yards allowed, sacks, turnovers, etc., were equally as inadequate.

Hudson tried multiple schemes, switching from a four-man front to a three midway through the season in an effort to become more physical and get his best players on the field. But the results largely stayed the same.

Moving forward, the Boilermakers stay with the three-man front, feeling it gives them the most variation to confuse offenses. But whatever the look, they need it to be more competitive.

That might not come quickly but that's the goal.

"We better do it a lot faster than we did this year," Hudson said earlier this month, "because what we did was not acceptable for Purdue football in my opinion."

The Boilermakers need to get better in multiple personnel groupings, but perhaps none more so than at linebacker, where Purdue's had an absence of stars for nearly the last decade. The 2013 season was no different; The Boilermakers started eight different 'backers, including the guys who played Jack, an absolute sign that they were looking for answers.

"It is a productivity sport," Hudson said. "When you cross that white line, no matter what, you have to produce. Usually the leading tacklers are the linebackers and if they aren't then they aren't producing, I have to get them producing better."

All but Will Lucas, who led Purdue in tackles last season but experienced an up-and-down career, and Ruben Ibarra, a late contributor, will return. But Sean Robinson, Joe Gilliam and Ryan Russell have had bumpy careers.

Robinson might be the most consistent, but probably has a lower ceiling, too. Gilliam played well, bordering on great against Notre Dame, early in the season, only to level off then disappear late. Russell, who was a defensive end until starting to stand up midway through the season, hasn't lived up to the promise his displayed years ago in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl. Jalani Phillips, a Jack also, was hurt late in the season, disrupting his chance to show his potential at linebacker. Jules Williams and Collin Link made plays in the backfield at times, but not enough of them.

Perhaps this position, more than any others, leaves room for a freshman to contribute right away in 2014. And Darrell Hazell has two who appear physically ready, in commitments Gelen Robinson and Jawhaun Bentley.

Or perhaps one of the redshirted players - Danny Ezechukwu, Dezwan Polk-Campbell and Johnny Thompson - could factor in. But you have to consider that if they were close to ready, they would have been given every opportunity to play last season.

Andy James Garcia and Jimmy Herman are underclassmen options, as well, but the offseason, and a chance to get bigger and stronger, is critical to their development.

But whatever the personnel, Purdue needs better play here. In Hudson's system, with three down linemen, the linebackers are charged with filling into the gaps quickly, using good reads to get there, and making plays.

The Boilermakers will be young on the line of scrimmage, but not completely devoid of talent, either. Ends Adam Replogle and Evan Panfil got a taste of playing in 2013, but not enough to make a huge impact. And nose Ra'Zahn Howard can say the same.

But Purdue believes in the trio's potential. But rising sophomores know it's a big offseason, with more expected of them next year.

"We're just looking forward to getting bigger in the offseason," Panfil said. "I think this is a huge advantage to us that we got to play this year, just because now we have game experience and now we know what it takes to be successful out there on the field. We're looking forward to finishing the season, but we're also looking forward to this offseason just to get bigger, stronger and faster."

Nose tackle might be a little light on depth, with Michael Rouse III having played only the last few games of the season, after climbing up from being buried on the depth chart. Ryan Watson will be a junior already, having shown potential but not having played much in his first two years.

But the Boilers need pass rushers up front, after having only 14 sacks, the fewest since 1993, last season.

But who? Bruce Gaston, probably the best pass-rusher last season, is gone.

Antoine Miles redshirted last year, but might be destined to be a stand-up linebacker-type; John Strauser is playing some with his hand on the ground, but has worked out during his redshirt year with the Jacks. Only two players - DE Will Colmery and DT Keiwan Jones - are 2104 D-line commitments.

Panfil says his group will work to improve.

"We definitely see the potential in what we could be in the new few years and want to maximize that potential and be the best that we can be," he said. "And I think that's what's driving us right now."

Purdue's secondary is probably in the best shape, although it loses cornerback Ricardo Allen. Frankie Williams will enter his third season as a starter at corner, perhaps ready to take over as the No. 1. And Antoine Lewis got extensive playing time last season, as did rookie Leroy Clark.

But Purdue could use another cornerback or two immediately, one of the reasons why Hazell has recruited six defensive backs for the '14 class.

Safety appears in better shape, from an experience point of view at least. Landon Feichter, Taylor Richards, provided his legal issues resolve, and Anthony Brown have started, while Austin Logan played as a backup in 2013.

Were they great? No. But they were also asked to do much more than they should have been, trying to scramble to cover the mistakes in front of them.

"Probably the most consistent group was the secondary," Hudson said, "but we made it harder on (Jon) Heacock to get his job done because we had to put little guys out there and ask them to play big. We had to use the playground mentality. 'Who is the best guy? You are at the playground and who are you going to pick?'"

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