Purdue enters the spring with plenty of bodies with experience defensively, but plenty of questions about what to do with them. The Boilermakers ranked a woeful 111th out of 123 FBS teams with 38 points allowed per game in 2013. They allowed 235.4 rushing yards and nearly 460 total yards per game, which ranked 114th and 104th, respectively, last season.
The Boilermakers have players from the front seven and players from the secondary returning who all saw plenty of playing time in Darrell Hazell’s first season at Purdue, but the results they showed last fall don’t necessarily bode well for the immediate future.
“There just aren’t that many guys you can point to and say this guy is a starter,” Gold and Black Illustrated editor Alan Karpick told ISD. “If you look at the entire group defensively I’m really hard pressed to say anyone who’s a frontrunner for a job.”
Case in point is a secondary whose only significant loss is cornerback Ricardo Allen. The All-Big Ten cornerback was Purdue’s fifth-leading tackler with 53 and also ranked seventh in the nation with six interceptions. Allen actually became Purdue’s fifth defensive back though when they went predominantly to a 4-3 defense midway through the season.
The unit allowed 224 passing yards a game for a No. 55 national ranking. They return Taylor Richards, who had an off the field issue last year, as well as Anthony Brown, Frankie Williams and Antoine Lewis, who all started at times last year.
“I think there’ll be an interesting battle in the secondary with who’s going to get a chance to play a fair amount,” said Karpick. “But, when you have a defense that’s struggled like Purdue’s, there’s going to be a lot of battles for spots, because it’s really open in a lot of ways.”
Linebacker is Purdue’s top area of concern. It’s the area where the team had some of its biggest struggles in 2013 and where they lose their leading tackler – Will Lucas (73 tackles). Ryan Russell, who plays Purdue’s ‘Jack’ position, which is a combination of linebacker and rush end, is a player who Karpick says has not lived up to his potential, but he will be back.
Hazell’s first full recruiting class earlier this month ranked 49th per Rivals. Gelen Robinson is expected to step in at linebacker. Robinson is the son of former Purdue basketball star Glenn Robinson. His brother, Glenn Robinson III plays basketball at Michigan.
“He’s a four-star guy and the top recruit in his class,” said Karpick. “He’s going to come in have a chance to start. He and Ja’Whaun Bentley will both play; I don’t think there is any question about that, because they’ve really struggled in that position.”
Jack Replogle and Evan Panfil are two defensive ends who saw playing time as true freshmen. Fellow freshman Ra’Zahn Howard (6’4, 315 pounds) saw time at defensive tackle as well.
“I think the talent pool is down,” Karpick said. “I think (Hazell) inherited a difficult situation. There is some debate about that here. The cupboard is not completely bare, but it is pretty bare. Everyone was looking at 2013 just with the schedule and everything else as being a very, very difficult season and that’s exactly what it turned out to be.”
Purdue’s only win last season was a 20-14 squeaker over FCS foe Indiana State a week before their narrow 31-24 loss to Notre Dame. They hung tough in a 14-0 loss to eventual Rose Bowl winner Michigan State in mid-October, but the Boilermakers yielded at least 55 points three different times in 2013.
“It’s make or break in terms of fan interest,” Karpick said of the situation Hazell faces heading into his second season. “It was very depleted towards the end of the season last year and it’s not an extremely attractive schedule when you don’t have Notre Dame, Ohio State, Penn State or Nebraska – teams that tend to bring people into West Lafayette. That’s a real problem. You want to have some fans at games and that’s going to be a building process.”
The Boilermakers were outscored by an average of 23 points a game in their 1-11 first season under Hazell. It was even worse in the Big Ten when they lost six of their eight conference games by an average of 31.5 points.
“They will have to take a huge step forward if they’re even going to be competitive in the league,” Karpick said of the Boilermaker defense. “They weren’t competitive last year at all. I think spring is big for them to work hard to change the mindset.”
Purdue opens the season with back-to-back games against Western Michigan and Central Michigan before playing Notre Dame in the Shamrock Series game in Indianapolis on Sept. 13. They don’t leave the state of Indiana until an Oct. 4 game at Illinois.