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Defense: The three burning questions this spring

Markus Bailey leads the charge for a linebacking unit that has a lot to prove. (Tom Campbell)

The defense went from a strength in 2017 to a vulnerability last season. The unit had struggles across the board. The line couldn't get a consistent rush, the linbackers lacked depth and proven commodities and the secondary often sprung leaks in coverage. Purdue takes the lid off of its 15 spring practices (including a game on April 6) on Monday. Questions loom on defense. Here are my Three Burning Spring Questions for the defense.

Who will rush the passer?

The search is on for pass rushers for a program that bills itself as the “Den of Defensive Ends.” Is the next Rosevelt Colvin, Cliff Avril, Anthony Spencer or Shaun Phillips on the roster? At this point, any reasonable facsimile would do for a team that needs to put more heat on signal-callers. Last season, Purdue ranked No. 7 in the Big Ten in sacks with 25 in 13 games (1.9 pg). The leader in sacks? It was senior linebacker Markus Bailey with 5.5. Junior Derrick Barnes showed flashes in 2018 after moving from linebacker to the "Leo" spot, a hybrid linebacker/end position. If sophomore Robert McWilliams can bulk up, he could help. But the staff will look to a raft of youngsters led by true freshman George Karlaftis, who arrived on campus with a fat scrapbook. He already is here ready to impress. And keep an eye on redshirt freshmen Willie Lane, Branson Deen, Jack Sullivan and Jack Cravaack.

Can Purdue cover?

The cornerback slot has something to prove and will be dominated by youth. Sophomores Kenneth Major and Dedrick Mackey project as the starters. Major played a big role last season and looks primed to be the bellwether at this spot for years to come. Behind those two figures to be a pair of redshirt freshmen in Jordan Rucker and Byron Perkins. Sophomore Jacob Abrams is in the mix, too. It wouldn’t be a shock to see incoming freshmen Cameron Allen and Nyles Beverly impact when they arrive this summer. Another dynamic: This group has a new coach. Derrick Jackson left to be defensive coordinator at Northern Illinois. Purdue hired veteran Greg Brown from Auburn. The 61-year-old coached DBs at Purdue in 1989 and 1990 and is a noted teacher, which is exactly what this youthful position needs.

Is depth at linebacker OK?

This was a huge concern last season. It didn’t help that Derrick Barnes had to move to the “Leo” spot to help generate a pass rush. There are a few more bodies in 2019, but they are unproven. The staff has a stalwart in senior Markus Bailey. He will be among the Big Ten’s best after opting to return to school after contemplating turning pro. Junior Cornel Jones is back. He proved to be a playmaker in 2018, but he still needs to mature. He is out this spring recovering from foot surgery. Sophomore Jaylan Alexander appears ready for a larger work load but is a work-in-progress. Another youngster to watch: redshirt freshman Jack Smith. This summer, the linebacking unit will get a huge boost from the arrival of grad transfer Ben Holt from Western Kentucky. The son of Boilermaker defensive coordinator Nick Holt, Ben is a sawed-off (5-10) dervish who plays at 100 mph. The senior will be plug-and-play help.


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