Around the B1G West: Purdue
Jeff Brohm's third season at Purdue didn't go as planned.
The Boilermakers saw their modest two-year bowl run come to a halt after a 4-8 season that fell short of expectations. Injuries played a big factor in the disappointing year, as the Boilermakers saw many key players get hurt. That caused the staff to force-feed myriad youngsters who had to learn on the job. It's hoped the baptism-by-fire helped speed the learning curve. We shall see.
Brohm also radically altered his staff, hiring a new defensive coordinator/linebackers coach (Bob Diaco), special teams coordinator (Marty Biagi) and defensive line coach (Terrance Jamison). And in the offseason, Brohm's top strength coach left for the NFL's Rams.
Brohm didn't change offensive line coaches, but he tabbed sage Neil Callaway as a senior analyst to help develop a line that has a lot to prove. How anemic was the run game last season? Purdue averaged a meager 2.9 yards per tote and managed nine rushing TDs. Both totals ranked last in the Big Ten. And then there is this: Purdue rushed for only 999 yards in 2019, failing to reach the 1,000-yard plateau for the first time since 2013 (805) and just the second time since 1990 (612). Fifth-year senior left tackle Grant Hermanns must be the bellwether up front and set the pace.
Three prominent storylines
Can the defense improve?
The Boilermaker defense struggled last season under coordinator Nick Holt, ranking 12th in the Big Ten in rushing defense (192.5 ypg), 13th in passing defense (243.8 ypg), 13th in total defense (436.3 ypg) and 12th in scoring defense (30.6 ppg).
The season got off to a rocky start, as the defense melted down in a stupefying 34-31 season-opening loss at Nevada. It was mostly downhill from there.
Jeff Brohm hired veteran Bob Diaco from Louisiana Tech to run the defense. He is installing a 3-4 scheme after Purdue had operated from a 4-3 alignment under Holt. Will it stop the bleeding?
Who will be the quarterback?
Purdue will have a season-opening starting quarterback not named "Elijah Sindelar" for the first since 2016. Sindelar is gone after an injury-ravaged (concussion; collarbone) fifth-year senior season. The electrical engineering graduate could have returned for a sixth season but opted not to.
Now, sophomore Jack Plummer and junior Aidan O'Connell are battling for the job. Plummer showed a solid arm and the ability to extend plays with his feet in six starts in 2019, completing 59.8 percent of his passes (144-of-241) for 1,603 yards with 11 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
O’Connell hit 62.8 percent of his passes (103-of-164) for 1,101 yards with eight touchdowns and four picks and started the final three games after Plummer's season ended with an ankle injury in the ninth game vs. Nebraska.
Is Rondale Moore still Rondale Moore?
Purdue will welcome back electric sophomore wideout Rondale Moore after his 2019 season was truncated to four games following a hamstring injury suffered vs. Minnesota on the same play quarterback Elijah Sindelar's season ended with a broken collarbone. It was a surreal scene on the Ross-Ade Stadium turf.
Moore was a consensus All-American as a true freshman in 2018, making 114 receptions for 1,258 yards and 12 touchdowns. He is a rare combination of quickness, speed, toughness and strength that can be deployed in a number of ways in the slot.
Bottom line: Every time Moore touches the ball, he can score ... and often does. He may be the deadliest weapon in the Big Ten.
Three biggest departures
Brycen Hopkins, tight end
Purdue has seen few better tight ends than Brycen Hopkins. He leaves West Lafayette as one of the school’s best ever at the position, joining the ranks of Dave Young, Cliff Benson, Tim Stratton and Dustin Keller. Not bad for a two-star recruit.
The 6-5, 245-pound Hopkins was a consensus first-team All-Big Ten pick in 2019 as a fifth-year senior and was named the league’s tight end of the year. He finished the season with 61 catches for 830 yards and seven TDs. Those totals led all Big Ten tight ends. The Nashville native left campus with 130 career catches for 1,945 yards and 16 TDs.
Markus Bailey, linebacker
Markus Bailey's final season didn't go as planned.
As a fifth-year senior and co-captain, he saw his last campaign in West Lafayette ended by a right knee injury suffered in practice after the second game of the year. This, after he sustained a left knee injury his freshman season at Purdue in 2015.
The 6-1, 240-pound Bailey started 40 games and tallied 327 tackles with 28 TFLs and 13.5 sacks while at Purdue. Bailey also picked off six passes in 45 career games. In the process, Bailey helped get the Boilermaker program back on track under Jeff Brohm the past three seasons.
Ben Holt, linebacker
The son of former Boilermaker defensive coordinator Nick Holt, Ben Holt arrived as a grad transfer from Western Kentucky. And he proceeded to finish second in the Big Ten in tackles with 114, averaging 9.5 per game last season.
Holt also had six TFLs and a sack. The 114 stops tied for the third-most by a Boilermaker in the last 20 years. Holt earned honorable-mention All-Big Ten honors from the coaches and media.
Three key returnees
George Karlaftis, defensive end
Purdue has a bona fide star in sophomore defensive end George Karlaftis. He earned Freshman All-American honors after ranking first among Big Ten freshmen in sacks and 11th overall in the league with 7.5 in 2019.
And the West Lafayette High School product was third in the league in tackles for loss with 17.0. How good can he become? Karlaftis has a thirst to be the best. But he needs to adapt to a new 3-4 defense.
David Bell, receiver
With Rondale Moore out for most of last season with a hamstring injury, Purdue turned to David Bell. And he delivered … big-time.
Bell tied for the Big Ten lead in catches with 86 that went for 1,035 yards and seven touchdowns to earn Freshman All-American honors and Big Ten Freshman of the Year accolades working on the outside. The sophomore is a smooth operator who has great hands.
Lorenzo Neal, defensive tackle
Purdue welcomes back massive tackle Lorenzo Neal, who sat out 2019 recovering from knee surgery. He’s a big, active and veteran presence who can be a difference-maker and one of the best in the Big Ten. The 6-3, 315-pound Neal will be a perfect nose tackle in a 3-4 scheme. Is the fifth-year senior healthy and ready to go?
Three big additions
Bob Diaco, defensive coordinator/linebackers coach
Jeff Brohm hired veteran Bob Diaco to run the defense.
Diaco, who spent 2019 at Louisiana Tech, comes to West Lafayette armed with lots of knowledge. He has been defensive coordinator for some good coaches over the years, including Brian Kelly at Central Michigan (2005), Cincinnati (2009) and Notre Dame (2010-13). Diaco also was head coach at UConn (2014-16).
He is installing a 3-4 scheme. Will it be effective? Fingers are crossed.
Marty Biagi, special teams coordinator
Marty Biagi was lured from North Texas and will be the fourth special teams coordinator in four years under Jeff Brohm.
Purdue's special teams have been a mixed bag in recent seasons, especially the return game. The Boilermakers finished 11th in the Big Ten in punt returns (5.6 ypc) in 2019 and last in kickoff returns (15.8 ypc). Purdue last ran back a punt for a TD in 2009 (Aaron Valentin) and a kickoff in 2013 (Akeem Hunt).
Biagi is one of the brightest young minds in the game. He needs to figure this out.
DaMarcus Mitchell, linebacker
New defensive coordinator Bob Diaco will coach the linebackers. And he will have to assemble a puzzle without three veteran components: captain Markus Bailey, Ben Holt and Cornel Jones.
That's why the early arrival of JC transfer DaMarcus Mitchell was critical. He has to start ... right now. The 6-4, 245-pound Mitchell was committed to Diaco at Louisiana Tech before flipping to Purdue after Diaco left Ruston, La., for West Lafayette. Mitchell has been lining up at an outside linebacker spot called "Cat" which plays in the boundary. He needs to be a plug-and-play force.
Also, keep an eye on fellow linebackers Jalen Graham and Derrick Barnes. This spring, Graham was playing an outside linebacker spot called "Dog" after being a safety/nickel as a true freshman in 2019. And Barnes has moved back to linebacker after being a defensive end last year. The senior was working at an inside linebacker slot.
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