Deep offensive line looks to be more physical in run game
It all begins up front for an offense. Purdue knows that, which is why the line is a point of emphasis this spring.
How good is the latest version of the line? It’s a question that has nagged Purdue for several seasons. The front still has something to prove, but there are more viable options that at any other time in the Jeff Brohm era.
"We feel pretty good that we've got probably the most depth we've had since I've been here," said offensive line coach Dale Williams.
The line must pave the way for a rushing attack that needs to improve after ranking last in the Big Ten each of the last two seasons. And it's about being more physical ... and nasty.
"What being nasty in the run game means is moving the man across from us against his will, where we want him to go," said super senior tackle Greg Long. "We're trying to press everybody. We're not gonna take any BS from anybody. We're gonna take that man in front of us and put him in the ground. I'm gonna make big holes for our running backs."
Williams knows the importance of amping up the run game.
"The guys know that we've got to become better at it and we've emphasized it with each one of the offensive linemen, the tight ends, the running backs," said Williams. It's a whole group of guys that have got to get it done together. So, we have been emphasizing it."
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How important is developing the line? Brohm promoted senior analyst Neil Callaway to a full-time position as assistant offensive line coach to help Willliams. The 65-year-old Callaway has years of experience, coaching lines at places like USC, Alabama, Auburn and Georgia. He was Brohm’s line coach for two years (2014-15) at Western Kentucky.
"Coach Callaway has just been really helpful," said sophomore center Gus Hartwig. "He knows so much about the game. He knows so much, there's nothing he hasn't seen. So, there's questions and he'll be able to answer them. Seeing him out there and being able to coach you up on the field has really helped out."
Purdue is operating this spring without arguably its best lineman: Cam Craig. The sophomore guard/tackle is out recovering from a shoulder injury suffered in the first game of 2020. Last year’s starting center, Sam Garvin, also is out with injury.
Still, there are plenty of options to work with this spring. One player the staff likes a lot is Tyler Witt, a grad transfer from Western Kentucky who reportedly is the strongest lineman on the team. Yes, Witt lacks ideal height (6-2), but the Joliet, Ill., native is a good bet to win the starting right guard spot. He made 43 career starts for WKU, where in 2016 he was recruited by Brohm.
"He's played a lot of football, brings a lot of experience," said Hartwig. "He's seen a lot of stuff, so you can kind of tell that he'll see this and he can kind of play off it, like better than some guys who haven't really played as much. He's really physically super strong. He's the guy who will move a guy. He's really physical."
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The left guard could be sophomore Spencer Holstege, who started the final five games of 2020 after Craig was hurt. Holstege graded out as the team's best pass-blocking lineman in 2020, per PFF metrics.
Speaking of Craig, he could end up filling the left tackle spot that was held by Grant Hermanns, who made 33 career starts and now hopes to be selected in the 2021 NFL Draft. He was Purdue's highest graded lineman per PFF metrics in 2020 and was consensus honorable mention All-Big Ten.
But the man filling Hermann's left tackle spot this spring is Long, who arrived from UTEP prior to last season as a grad transfer and earned honorable mention All-Big Ten by the coaches. He started all six games last season at right tackle, where he may move back. Long could have left after last season but opted to return.
"I have a lot to prove to myself, and a lot to do for my family," said Long. "And if I want to succeed, this is the place to be. That and I love to compete, and this is a very high level of competition. And so, very easy decision (to come back)."
One player who has many people excited is Hartwig, who last season became the rare true freshman lineman to start in the Big Ten. Hartwig started the final three games in 2020 at right guard. This spring, he is working at center with Garvin out. And, don’t be shocked if Hartwig hangs on to the job this fall.
"Obviously, the goal is to come in and play," said Hartwig. "But, realistically, when I was looking back, I thought, OK, maybe I get in a couple games, still keep a redshirt, get in a couple games if we're winning big or if we're behind, get a couple of reps there. But I didn't really come in expecting to start three games."
Purdue has plenty of veteran options to work into the rotation, if needed. At tackle, Purdue has juniors Eric Miller and Will Bramel along with sophomore Dave Monnott. And senior Mark Stickford—who is out this spring—has been moved from guard to tackle. Other options at guard are senior DJ Washington, who started one game at right guard last year, and sophomore Kyle Jornigan, who started the first two games of 2020 at right guard.
"We think we can have two good offensive lines if we got everybody healthy and everybody's competing and ready to go," said Williams.
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