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For Purdue defensively this season, it should all start up front.
In junior ends Anthony Spencer and Ray Edwards and fifth-year senior tackles Brandon Villarreal and Brent Grover, the Boilermakers have one of the most talented and experienced defensive lines in college football, or so it is thought.
Spencer and Edwards — who combined for 20.5 tackles for loss, 15.5 sacks and five forced fumbles a year ago — are both big, powerful and athletic, each equally effective, arguably, against both the run and the pass.
The tackles have a combined 46 starts between them.
Villarreal is a menace in the backfield, making 17.5 tackles for loss last season; Grover is disruptive at the line of scrimmage, using his instincts and massive hands to knock down a team-high-tying eight passes in 2004.
This foursome could be even more effective this season, thanks to depth that will lessen the physical demands placed on the starters. That was especially an issue at tackle last season.
"The more guys you get on the field up front," Coach Joe Tiller said, "the better chance you have of winning the game at the end.
"Your defensive front probably has more to do with you're winning or losing a game than any other part of your football team."
At end, senior Rob Ninkovich — who Tiller would like to redshirt, knowing that he probably won't have that luxury — and sophomore Eugene Bright are both solid pass-rushers, and both are said to have improved all-around over last season.
Ninkovich tied for the Big Ten regular season lead with eight sacks off the bench as a junior; Bright had a sack and three tackles for loss in limited duty as a redshirt freshman, but is said to be in line to be much more of a contributor now.
Tiller has said that Ninkovich will likely play as many snaps as either starter.
At tackle, redshirt freshmen Ryan Baker, Jermaine Guynn and Jonathan Patton each enter a unit that only played three players last season, not counting pass-rush situations where ends moved inside. The other tackle who played last season, Dan McGowen, has moved to the offensive line.
Baker and Guynn (before injuring his knee) were set in a six-man rotation as the preseason wore down, though Purdue may not use more than four tackles regularly.
Additionally, true freshman Alex Magee had a terrific preseason, from start to finish, and has secured a spot in the Boilermaker two-deeps. Classmates Jared Zwilling and Mike Neal weren't far behind — Tiller has repeatedly gushed over all three rookies — but there's only room for so many tackles on the field right away.
Expect to see Baker and Magee — and possibly Guynn when he's healthy again — on the field early and often as Purdue seeks to help Villarreal and Grover keep their legs under them come the fourth quarter.
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