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July 31, 2012

Countdown to Camp: Breakout players

Leading up to Saturday's start of training camp, GoldandBlack.com will take an in-depth look at key areas of Purdue's football team.

Purdue has 15 players who started at least half of the team's games returning in 2012. But there still are several players who could be poised for breakout seasons.

Here are our picks:

Robert Maci
Based on sheer opportunity in the new defense, Maci could thrive.

He showed flashes of being able to rush the passer last season from his defensive end spot until a foot injury cut his season short in October. Purdue needs someone to emerge opposite Ryan Russell at end, and senior Maci could be that player.

But it could be Maci's potential versatility that has even more of an impact.

In new coordinator Tim Tibesar's system, one that is said to stress giving multiple looks with one personnel grouping to confuse offenses, Maci could be the perfect fit.

Maci played linebacker in high school and he worked there some during the spring, getting reacquainted with techniques and responsibilities. Coach Danny Hope thinks Maci's intelligence and experience allows him to play multiple positions, and Maci's 6-foot-4, 241-pound frame should hold up at both strongside linebacker and end.

Taylor Richards
With Albert Evans gone, the free safety spot is open and it'd seem to be there for Richards to snatch.

There likely will be competition in a secondary that's supposedly well-stocked with talent - E.J. Johnson, Frankie Williams and Normondo Harris are among the returning players who don't have a starting spot locked up - but Richards' bowl performance and reportedly solid spring could push him to the top.

Coaches like his aggressive style, both in not being afraid to hit and also in fighting for balls in the air, and his versatility to play either safety or cornerback.

The key for Richards, as with all young players, will be to consistently line up correctly and keep assignment mistakes to a minimum. But he said he felt comfortable in the new defense in the spring, so that could be a good sign.

Akeem Shavers
Shavers may already have had his breakout performance, rushing for 149 yards in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl in his second start, but he'll have a chance to emerge as a breakout player this year.

With Ralph Bolden not expected to be ready for the season opener while recovering from his third knee surgery, Shavers will move into the No. 1 spot.

Shavers' 22 carries in the bowl game were the only instance a Purdue back had 20-plus. Still, it could be unlikely that he's a workhorse as Purdue has seemed to prefer the by-committee approach at running back. Even Bolden has reached 20-plus carries only four times in his career.

Still, Shavers should get the most carries, and he's shown enough promise with his strength, speed and sheer will combination that it'd be hard to bet against him having a solid senior season.

Ryan Russell
This pick may seem odd: Isn't everyone already talking about Russell becoming another of Purdue's great ends?

But, looking back on Russell's first season, it was more potential than production.

He started the season slowly, not surprisingly for a player who was still learning how to line up correctly. As soon as he started getting comfortable, he injured his ankle against Penn State in mid-October and then tweaked it weeks later at Michigan. It was only during bowl practices that he was able to get healthy again, and that helped produce a solid game against Western Michigan with two quarterback hurries, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.

He finished the season with 33 tackles, 4.5 for losses including one sack, three forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.

With another offseason to add strength to his 6-5 frame and another season playing alongside Kawann Short, whose consistent double teams will mean more opportunities for linemates, Russell should dwarf those numbers in 2012.

Ben Knauf
Figured there should be at least one newcomer in this list. At this point, only players have seen what the young guys can do, and right now, Knauf has done enough in summer workouts and conditioning to get the Boilermakers excited.

Not only did Knauf clock one of the team's fastest 40 times (4.29), but he's also had teammates raving about his work ethic and ability.

With Antavian Edison expected to get some more work on the outside, Knauf could get snaps in the slot behind Raheem Mostert and possibly get on the field in the return game.




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