Purdue boasts deep well of talent at tight end
While questions may persist at positions like defensive tackle, kicker and cornerback, there are no worries about a tight end spot that back in 2019 produced the Big Ten Tight End of the Year in Brycen Hopkins.
Purdue is fortified by three viable options who all can contribute: junior Payne Durham and sophomores Garrett Miller and Kyle Bilodeau. Rounding out the deep unit are former quarterback Paul Piferi and ex-linebacker Jack Cravaack. Incoming freshman Drew Biber will arrive this summer.
“I would define it as the healthiest competition I ever have been a part of,” said Durham after practice on Monday. “It makes us all so much better. If one of us goes and makes a big play, all the other ones are, ‘Let me get in, let me go make that big play. I can do that, too.’ It pushes all of us to be better from the hours we are practicing. Every time after that, we all are just the best of friends.”
The position was impacted by a change to the coaching staff implemented this offseason. There no longer is a full-time assistant dedicated exclusively to tight ends, as Ryan Wallace has been moved to an off-field position as an offense/special teams assistant. Wallace still will have involvement with tight ends, but they now fall under the purvey of offensive line coach Dale Williams.
"Really, not much has changed, to be honest with you," said Durham. "It's a new face in the mix. We all obviously knew Coach Williams before, we all like Coach Williams. A benefit of it is we're learning more as a group, offensive line and tight ends, instead of separate. I think that's gonna help us. It's been good. We've adjusted well."
The tight ends all are working on blocking, knowing they need to play a big role up front in helping the offense improve a run game that has lacked consistency in recent years.
“As a group, we are trying to get them to be more physical,” said Williams. “We want them to be big-time players in this offense.
"When this offense is going, there is a tight end in the game, and the tight end is a big part of this offense in the run game. We want to have a tight end. We want to. ... ”
The 6-5, 255-pound Durham is the bellwether at the position. Does he consider this his job to lose since he is a returning starter?
“No,” he said. “It never is. You can ask me that in fall camp, too. It never is. We are all hard workers. We all love this game. Anything can happen in football. … I would never say it’s my job to lose.”
Williams has liked what he has seen of Durham, who had four starts in 2019 and six last season.
“Payne Durham has looked good,” said Williams. “You can tell who has played football out there. It doesn’t matter what position. But Payne Durham has played a lot of football here, so he is further ahead than the other guys. Payne’s looked good."
Durham is the most experienced tight end, so that gives him an edge vs. his competition. He has been productive, too. He made 16 catches for 166 yards and three touchdowns in a 2020 season abbreviated to six games due to COVID.
Durham has seven career TD catches on just 25 receptions. Not bad. Of course, he should have had another touchdown grab, but his late-game scoring reception at Minnesota that likely would have led to victory last year was negated by a controversial offensive pass interference call.
“(Jack Plummer) makes jokes to me about it sometimes,” said Durham, who lives with the Purdue quarterback. “I don’t find it very funny. It gets brought up quite a bit around the house. Yeah, it still haunts me, for sure.”
Miller displayed his vast potential in 2020, often lining up with Durham in two-tight end sets. The 6-5, 255-pound Miller made two catches for 48 yards and TD in 2020. The long-haired Texan turned heads with his 40-yard jaunt to pay dirt vs. Northwestern in Ross-Ade last year. But he is out this spring due to injury.
The 6-5, 250-pound Bilodeau is playing this spring. And, he needs to impress. Bilodeau has had some issues staying healthy, which has held him back. Remember: This was a four-star recruit. This figures to be a big season for Bilodeau, as he tries to crack the rotation. Competition for playing time will be fierce.
“This is a big spring for Kyle,” said Williams. “Kyle wants to get on the field. He wants to show everyone he can play here at Purdue. … He knows it’s an important spring.”
It's also a spring where blocking better can't be emphasized enough.
"We've focused on run blocking," said Durham. "It's no secret we gotta run the ball. It's gotta be automatic. ...
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