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August 13, 2013

Linebackers still improving; Day 11 notes

Considering Sean Robinson and Andy James Garcia have gotten the majority of snaps with Purdue's first-team defense at the outside linebacker spots, it'd seem logical they'd be on the field for the opener at Cincinnati.

And it'd seem, with Joe Gilliam's timetable tight to return from finger surgery in time, that middle linebacker would be the biggest question over the next two weeks.

Linebackers coach Marcus Freeman, though, said that's not necessarily the case.

As all of Purdue's coaches have stressed throughout camp - and in the spring when they first arrived - all positions are in competition, Freeman said. Perhaps even moreso with his group, one that doesn't have much starting experience or depth.

"We're inexperienced, definitely inexperienced, but we're getting better. That's the biggest thing is the guys are working hard every day," Freeman said after Purdue's 11th day of training camp.

"Nobody has a solid spot. There's guys you expect to be out there on Aug. 31, but there is no solidified linebacker spots. None. Not one. Everybody knows that in that room, that we are evaluating every day, every practice, every meeting for the guys we can count on."

There's no doubt, though, that the middle position has been the most intriguing spot since Gilliam was sidelined. By many accounts, Gilliam had made great strides at the position and was seeming to settle in after being a full-time starter for the first time last year.

Since that injury, though, Purdue has had to shuffle.

Will Lucas and Jimmy Herman have each spent time working with the first team. Lucas had spent his career for the Boilermakers as a starter at weakside linebacker before the coaches switched all those weakside guys to the strongside for camp. Now, he's inside the box.

"He seems a lot more natural inside," Freeman said of Lucas. "I think us as a staff think you put Will inside, and he kind of sticks out a little bit. That's where he likes to be, in the box, being physical and making plays. He's done a really good job of just stepping in there and knowing what to do and making plays. But, just like the rest of us, he has a long way to go in a little bit of time."

Lucas isn't the only one learning, though.

Herman made the switch to the middle last year, and he's been trying to adapt. He seems to be one of the Purdue's most active players, though, showing nice range and athleticism. He had a leaping interception of Rob Henry's pass in the morning practice Tuesday.

After that play, Freeman was excitedly yelling "Jimmy." That's a common refrain from Freeman, following that either with praise or instruction.

"We joke we're going to stop calling him Jimmy. We don't know how many great middle linebackers are named Jimmy," Freeman said. "I'm trying to get used to calling him Jim or Herm or something else. He's young, and if you're not coaching him on something, I'm not doing my job. If I'm not yelling, 'Jimmy, do this or do that,' I'm not doing my job. But he's doing an excellent job being young and never being in that position and we're just coaching him up. Getting better every day, every rep."

Making most of reps
Antoine Lewis may be sitting behind starters Ricardo Allen and Frankie Williams and nickel back Normondo Harris on Purdue's depth chart at cornerback, but he's quickly proven to make the most of his opportunities.

The same was the case last season when Lewis had two interceptions despite being behind on the two deep, and he's shown up this camp by being active and ball-hawking.

He says it's partially a product of being more disciplined and learning the position.

"I have good speed, but I noticed in the spring that my speed would be used against me," he said. "I would run myself out of position on pass plays, even on run plays. I watched myself and I was just like, 'Darn, that just didn't make sense what I did right there.'

"So the game has slowed down for me a lot, and I'm trusting my technique more than my physical abilities. That's the reason why I'm around plays more now."

Lewis said it also helps playing receiver in high school and having that desire to have the ball in his hands.

"As defensive back, I have my technique and I have my assignments before the snap, but at the end of the day, we all want the ball," he said. "So I try to do my coverage, but when the receiver thinks he's open that's when I use my speed and just try to close on the ball."

Not even a hint
Darrell Hazell didn't offer any glimpse into the quarterback depth chart on Thursday, despite Henry getting all of the reps once again with the first-team offense.

"We have not made a decision on the quarterback," Hazell said.

Asked if he still had the target date of Saturday, two weeks before the season opener, to announce who will start against Cincinnati, Hazell said "probably Sunday." And then added "Monday and Saturday" to the list before settling on "the weekend."

Austin Appleby and Danny Etling have been getting reps with both the second- and third-team offenses.

Injury update
Projected starting left guard Devin Smith could be out two weeks with a right knee injury, Hazell said.

Smith was hurt during Monday's practice, and Jason King slid into work with the first-team offense.

Bruce Gaston tweaked a hamstring in the morning practice, but Hazell said Gaston will be fine.

Offensive tackle J.J. Prince has been sidelined the last two days, too, but Hazell said he's day-to-day after "taking a shot" a couple days ago.

Rouse moves
Michael Rouse III has never played offense, he told Purdue's coaching staff when they approached him about switching from the defensive line. But he was game to try the move, which may or may not be permanent.

Hazell said he thinks Rouse has a chance to help the team this season if he can pick up the position quickly.

"If he can pick it up, he can help us. He's a big body, can move," Hazell said. "Right now, he doesn't know a thing. The right guard is telling him what to do, 'Block that guy.' I don't know how sophisticated that is or how long he can get away with that."

A decision could be made by this weekend as to whether Rouse will stick with the offense or move back to defensive tackle.

Not weighing in Hazell's decision: How the roster shakes out for 2014 when Purdue would have only three scholarship tackles.

"We're trying to win in 2013. We owe it to the seniors," Hazell said.

After coming in as a corner, then playing nickel back and then getting moved to safety, Anthony Brown finally is settled in. He's working with the No. 2 defense at safety, though the Boilermakers no longer define the positions as "strong" and "free."

"I like this defense. It's very creative," Brown said. "We've got a lot of different stunts and blitz packages that we have. I can't wait to see how it is on game day."

Count Brown among the growing list of defensive backs who mention freshman Dan Monteroso as a receiver who has stuck out in camp. "He came in ready to play right off the bat," Brown said.

Lewis opted for leading returning receiver Gary Bush and big man Shane Mikesky.

"(Bush is) a baller and as he's gotten older, he's gotten stronger and wiser. So he's a tough matchup," Lewis said. "A lot of those Xs are the bigger-body guys, but (Mikesky) ran track. He has that deceptive stride so he pulls away from guys last-second, so it's pretty hard to gauge how fast he's really running."

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