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It was a poorly worded question that was asked Tuesday evening of defensive coordinator Brock Spack when it was suggested that he can’t put his "posse" front on the field on early downs.
"We can’t?" Spack said. "Why not?"
Well, maybe he can.
On Sunday against Syracuse, in obvious passing situations, defensive ends Ray Edwards and Anthony Spencer moved inside to defensive tackle positions. They were joined then on the edges by fellow ends Eugene Bright and Rob Ninkovich, making for an imposing foursome of pass-rushers.
The foursome is known as the "posse," a nickname the coaching staff conceived while coaching the Cowboys of Wyoming in the mid-‘90s. The term’s phonetic likeness to the word "pass rush" and its obvious association with cowboys led to its birth.
Now, the moniker has moved with the coaches from Laramie to West Lafayette, though the talent involved has improved immeasurably over those days out west.
Purdue used a "posse" front in ’98, when defensive end Chukie Nwokorie would come in as a tackle alongside David Nugent, with fellow ends Chike Okeafor and Rosevelt Colvin on the edges.
This season’s group is different from ’98 in that it features four players who are true ends by trade. But they’re not necessarily your typical Purdue defensive ends.
"We haven’t had (defensive ends) like Spencer and Edwards," Spack said. "They’re big enough and strong enough to go inside."
Over the years, the Boilermakers have been reputed for a tradition of fast, quick ends, players who weren’t always the prototype physically for their positions.
Edwards and Spencer, though, are bigger — both in the 270-pound range — and stronger — they’re both 400-plus-pound bench-pressers — than their predecessors. But that’s not to say they’re not still fast and athletic.
"We’re pretty big guys, so we can hold our own in there," said the 262-pound Spencer, a 425-pound bench-presser. "It’s fun. There’s more double teams and it’s a little more grueling, but that’s all right. … It’s hard, but it’s not as hard as I thought it’d be."
Spack said Edwards and Spencer bring a more finesse-based rushing style than tackles Brent Grover and Brandon Villarreal might.
With a cool nickname and a chance to do what every end instinctively wants to do most — sack the quarterback — the "posse" generally takes the field with tremendous enthusiasm, according to Bright.
"As a defensive end, you definitely want to get after the quarterback," Bright said. "That’s the main goal."
It’s important, though, for each of the players to not get too wrapped up in "pinning their ears back," as Coach Joe Tiller would say, and getting after the passer. It won’t be long until someone runs a draw or throws a screen to try to exploit over-pursuit.
"I think we could defend the run just as well as the pass," Bright said. "It’s always, ‘Run first,’ when we line up. It’s definitely on our mind, so it’s not like we’re just worried about rushing the quarterback."
Spack said the unit has been tested in practice.
"We run on them in practice all the time," Spack said. "They’ve done well with it. But it’s practice. We’ll see."
This year’s "posse" unit’s been assembled for two primary reasons:
o To get maximum pressure on the quarterback when need be, independent of whatever blitzes may be called. Last year, in third-and-long, Purdue deemed tackle Craig Terrill such a strong pass-rusher, that he played every down.
o To give Grover and/or Villarreal a much-needed breather at a position where the Boilermakers are perilously thin. Spack suggested you may see an end rotate in at a tackle here and there, regardless of down and distance.
The 2004 version of the "posse" made its impact known immediately, getting tremendous rush on Orange quarterbacks when asked to on Sunday.
On its debut snap, it registered a sack. The play was officially credited to Edwards and Spencer, but Coach Joe Tiller remembers watching the tape and noticing something funny.
"I think (Spencer) was the last (of the four) to get to the quarterback," Tiller said.
The coaches obviously hope they’ll see more of that type of impact.
And it may not necessarily be limited to third-and-long situations.
"You might see those guys more," Spack said. "We’ll see."
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