How will Darrell Hazell's first season in West Lafayette go?
Now that we know who the next Purdue Football coach will be it is time to speculate on what kind of team he will have. In terms of talent left over from past recruiting classes there is little question that Danny Hope left behind more than Joe Tiller. Coach Hazell will also have a situation very similar to his predecessors in that he has an experienced, senior quarterback at the ready if needed.
So, let's do a quick rundown of what is returning:
There are already calls to start Austin Appleby from day 1 out of his redshirt. True freshman Danny Etling will also be in the mix. It would not surprise me if Rob Henry becomes the starter in an attempt to win immediately. Would you rather suffer through the growing pains of Appleby or Etling or have a chance by putting someone under center who has been there before?
Hazell's offense at Ken State has two 1,200 yard rushers this year, but the year before his team passed more than it ran. I think this means coach Hazell will favor the run or the pass based on what he has at hand. Purdue has run the ball well this year when it committed to the run, but the Nordfense tried to force three quarterbacks and a ridiculous number of screens in like square peg into a round hole. Purdue cannot get rid of the Nordfense fast enough.
Like Tiller with Billy Dicken and Hope with Joey Elliott, Henry brings senior leadership to the most important spot on the field. Even at 5-7 Elliott was one of the better quarterbacks in the league in 2007. Even if Henry is not the quarterback I expect him to be used in a wildcat role kind of like Justin Siller.
As mentioned, Hazell has two 1,200 yard backs this season at Kent State, so he knows how to use them. If Keyante Green stays in the recruiting class he could be very good from day 1. Akeem Hunt will likely be the starter with Brandon Cottom getting more carries, which is never bad. Robert Gregory and Jonathan Curry are also coming off of a redshirt.
Some have been concerned about Hazell being more run-oriented, but who cares as long as it is successful? Do people not remember that Saint Drew had a near 1,000 running back in Montrell Lowe? I am more interested in balance than anything, and the backs, specifically Hunt and Cottom, can bring that.
O.J. Ross and Gary Bush bring the speed. Year two of Dolapo Macarthy could see us use a big outside receiver more. Shane Mikesky and Charles Torwudzo are also there for depth purposes. Raheem Mostert can factor in here and we have four guys (Aloyis Gray, B.J. Knauf, Cameron Posey, and Jordan Woods) coming off of redshirt. At one time it was though Posey would even play as a true freshman. There is definitely depth and talent here to use.
Purdue only loses two starters, but Hope recruited several interesting offensive line prospects in the last few years. Robert Kugler will hopefully have a seamless transition to starter in place of rick Schmeig. Losing an experienced guy like Peters Drey sucks, but Cameron Cermin, Jason King, Jack DeBoef, and Jordan Roos are all young guys with a lot of promise.
Obviously losing a guy like Kawann Short is a huge loss. The guy could be a first round pick in a few months and was nothing short of dominant for parts of his career. Bruce Gaston and Brandon Taylor are good tackles, but Short is a special talent.
On the end Ryan Russell can hopefully shake off injury and fulfill his promise. Greg Latta had some good moments this year and Ryan Isaac will still be in the rotation as well. Don't forget four-star freshman Ryan Watson, who has played sparingly this season. He'll have more experience next season and could make a jump.
This has consistently been a weak spot and one that I hope hazel makes a priority. Will Lucas has been very good as the only returning starter, but a lot of guys have rotated in and out at the other two spots. Will it be Joe Gilliam? Sean Robinson? Ruben Ibarra? Armstead Williams? Jalani Phillips? Will redshirts Andy Garcia and Jimmy Herman have a bigger role? As has been the case for many years, this will be a question until we finally see consistency.
Ricardo Allen is going to be very good again, but he'll be more tested with the loss of Josh Johnson. Landon Feichter leads the team in tackles and the Big Ten in interceptions as a sophomore walk-on, so if he can put on some more muscle in the offseason I really like his potential as a Stu-like safety. Much of the rest of the two-deeps in the secondary is back with Taylor Richards, Normondo Harris, Antonie Lewis, and Frankie Williams all having experience. Anthony Brown also played as a freshman.
All four specialists will be back, so hopefully we can prevent the seven blocked kicks that occurred in the first six games. Cody Webster could be the best punter in the Big Ten. The Sam McCartney vs. Paul Griggs battle may continue, but that is fine. Both have gotten better as the year went on.
If I were to rate the players lost in terms of most significant to least I would go with Short, Robert Marve, Josh Johnson, Antavian Edison, then Drey and Schmeig. Outside of those six the rest weren't really starters, but instead were mostly career backups. Short will be the hardest to replace, but you replace Marve with Henry or Appleby, Johnson with Harris or Williams, and Edison with Macarthy. There isn't a huge dropoff from anyone except from Short. Akeem Shavers is in a strange position because we didn't use him as much as we should have, so it is hard to judge.
Hazell is going to want to bring in his own staff, so I think any holdovers will be unlikely. Patrick Higgins could come with him as an offensive coordinator based on the way he called the last three games and what he does in the bowl game, but I don't know. This is a complete overhaul unlike the Tiller-to-Hope transition. I am betting we see some new faces.
If you believe that Hazell is an improvement in general coaching (and we all do) there is a lot of promise from some immediate success because of the talent returning. Ohio State fans have been very complimentary of this hire because they like Hazell as an assistant under Tressel for six years. That's a nice pedigree to have.
This is going to be tricky. The non-conference features the first ever BCS bowl team from the MAC with a hell of a quarterback in Jordan Lynch, the possible defending National champion in Notre Dame, a BCS conference winner in Cincinnati (on the road), and one of just two teams that has beaten the possible two-time FCS champ North Dakota State in Indiana State.
In the conference we lose Michigan and Minnesota for Nebraska and Michigan State, which really is not a favorable trade. Michigan State was better than Minnesota and Nebraska was good until their defense stayed home from Indianapolis.
Purdue absolutely should win games against Indiana State, Illinois, and Iowa, but from there everything is a toss-up. Getting Ohio State at home is nice since we own them at Ross-Ade, but we don't have their bizarre kryptonite in Danny Hope anymore. I don't think it is an automatic loss and neither is Notre dame given the way we competed (and probably should have beaten them) on their home fields this year.
Realistically I don't think there is any reason to think a bowl game is impossible. There is a lot of talent here and experience at every position as you can see. Hazell's toughest decision is the Henry vs. the young guns battle at quarterback.
Hazell must get many of the same players to perform better on a team that was already relatively close from a talent standpoint. There is more talent here than when Tiller took over in 1997 and went 9-3 with players that were 3-8 the year before. Even Hope had a bump with less talent in 2009 to 5-7 (and really, it wasn't that far from a crazy 10-2) from a 4-8 team the year before. I think 1-2 win improvement in year one is not completely out of the question if the right decision is made at quarterback.
Personally, I like Henry's leadership and experience to give us the best chance at immediate success, but I admit I could be wrong.