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April 2, 2009

Sophomores must shine for offensive line

For a variety of reasons, freshman offensive linemen don't often play right away.

But in Ken Plue's and Dennis Kelly's cases, they were needed to last season.

Now, though it may have been a shock to their systems at the time, the two sophomore projected starters are better off for it.

"That (experience) is huge," said head coach Danny Hope, both players' position coach last season, "because they need to be winning players for us to win.

"Both those guys were novice players last year. They played well, but they didn't play winning football on a consistent basis. ... The experience they got last year will allow them to be winning players for us in the 2009 season."

Plue was the rare instant-impact rookie offensive lineman, starting the season's final six games at right guard. Plue and Jordan Grimes were the only two true freshman offensive linemen to start games in former coach Joe Tiller's 12 years at Purdue.

"Certain things were difficult right away," Plue said, "but coaches and players helped push me through it to be the best player I could be. Their support helped me a lot."

Now, though only a true sophomore, experience may not be an issue for the 6-foot-7 lineman. He was on campus last spring after enrolling early; now, he has 12 games worth of experience behind him, too.

It's almost as if he's a sophomore with a junior's experience.

"Now," Plue said. "I feel like I have a better idea of what to do and where to be. I don't feel new to it anymore. I feel good in my spot."

For more reasons than one.

In addition to the wisdom and savvy gained from playing, Plue's improved physically, he believes.

After he reported at a door-frame-stuffing 365 pounds, he weighed a paltry 325 as of Wednesday, noticeably different, for the better.

"I feel really great," said Plue, who learned on the field the need to trim down, as well as from his coaches' prodding. "I feel like I have more stamina on the field, like I can go play after play after play. I don't get tired as quickly. I feel a lot quicker and I don't feel like I've lost any strength even though I've dropped weight."

Hope has talked about Plue becoming a "dominant player" in the short term, and thinks the weight loss might be a step in that direction.

"The weight loss for Kenny is huge, because it allows him to sprint to the football," Hope said. "He runs well and he has great hustle, not just for a big man for any size player. Now that his weight's down, he can really hustle down the field and make some plays."

While Plue and Kelly have so much in common now that they're both sophomore starters on a renovated offensive line, they could not be more different in other senses.

Plue arrived early last spring; Kelly wasn't even supposed to join the team until right now, originally recruited as a greyshirt.

While Plue's dropped weight, Kelly, a former high school tight end, has been working to add it.

Plue knew from the very first snap last season he'd be playing; Kelly was pulled out of redshirt midway through the season, thanks to injuries to older players. He played in the season's final five games.

Kelly played in those games as a reserve, adding depth and gaining valuable experience, as his coaches certainly had 2009 in mind, on some level, when they ushered him onto the field.

"Learning the playbook was a challenge, because everyone else was so advanced," said Kelly, now 6-8 and "just south of 295" pounds. "I was trying to catch up on basic plays and fundamentals in our blocking scheme. I was trying to just make sure I wasn't letting the other offensive linemen down and holding my own."

Now, though, Kelly's probably moved past the "just trying not to screw up" phase, thanks to those Saturday afternoons in late 2008.

"I can definitely tell the difference," Kelly said. "I feel faster and like I'm more into the game. If I hadn't played, I'd be trying to catch up and getting used to playing at this level."

Kelly's career's been a whirlwind.

Originally recruited on the greyshirt plan - he was to enroll as a part-time student for the fall, then join the team in January - that arrangement changed when he developed physically faster than expected. Even then, he expected to redshirt.

"It's kind of funny," Kelly said, "going from a six-year plan to a four-year plan."

And he's gone from long-term prospect to nearly immediate starter. While Plue reclaims his No. 1 spot at right guard, Kelly's the projected starter - he's tops on the depth chart this spring - at left tackle.

"It's a good opportunity," Kelly said. "I just have to capitalize on it."

Hope, who knows the offensive line personnel better than any other group on his team, said both Plue and Kelly are a "million miles ahead" of where they were last season.

"I see great futures for those guys," Hope said, "but it needs to be now."


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