As requested, the season preview gets a bonus installment today to discuss the coaching staff. After doing 12 in-depth previews and then a look at every unit on the field I would be remiss if I didn't discuss a coaching staff that is breaking in several new assistants at major spots. Some other assistants have shifted over from other spots as well.
Coaching seems to be a divisive issue for most Purdue fans. Some people want Danny Hope fired approximately two years ago. Others think he is fine. Still others view this as a year where he has to have a breakthrough before facing the axe. I'll discuss my view first.
Head Coach - Danny Hope - 4th season (16-21 record)
Yes, the overall record is far from stellar, but I am still stunned at how quickly and viciously people have turned on coach Hope. Consider his previous three years:
2009 - A team that lacked a lot of natural talent finished 5-7 and beat both Michigan and Ohio State in the same season. It also came within a play of beating Oregon, Notre Dame, and Northwestern while two more losses were within a possession. The only true blowout was a 37-0 loss at Wisconsin. Let's not forget: This was a team some predicted to finish 2-10 and, in reality, wasn't that far off from finishing 10-2. Losing at home to Northern Illinois was a bad loss, but at least the Huskies were a bowl team.
2010 - This had another loss to a MAC team as a black eye, but the entire season was marred by injuries to seemingly every key player. Ralph Bolden, Keith Smith, and Robert Marve, only the top three projected offensive players, played in a total of zero Big Ten games and only six games combined overall. At one point true freshman Sean Robinson started at quarterback. Somehow Purdue started 4-2 (would have been 5-1 without the Toledo debacle) before completely falling apart. This team committed the unforgivable sin of losing at home to Indiana in the Hoosiers' only Big Ten win in the last 21 conference games. The tide really turned against coach Hope this season, but I think he deserve a pass for a team that still lacked a lot of talent and was decimated by injuries.
2011 - With Hope finally getting some of his own recruits in key positions and a number of players returning from injury a bowl game was the expectation. Almost everything you read at this time last year deemed that 2011 would be a success if Purdue went 6-6 and reached the postseason. Well, that's exactly what happened, but even more people turned against coach Hope. Why? I have a few theories:
- The loss at Rice was a bad, bad loss in which play calling, especially in the final few minutes, was a major question mark. Even then, the game is still a win with better blocking on the FG attempt by Carson Wiggs. When you lose a non-BCS game for three straight seasons, however, that is a major black eye, and one that must be avoided in 2012.
- The Notre Dame game was a virtual no-show in terms of having a winning game plan. The team rolled over and died on national TV in prime time during a night game. That's unacceptable.
- Once again, we were thoroughly trounced at Wisconsin. It's asking a lot to beat the Badgers every year, but I know most fans expect to at least be competitive against the best of the conference. Against the Big Ten's two BCS representatives in consecutive weeks Purdue was beaten by a combined 98-31.
Purdue did get to, and win, a bowl game though. The Bucket was brought back to where it belongs in a game that was very lackluster. Purdue was mediocre in every definition of the word. In the seven wins it did just enough while having a couple close losses and four not-so close losses. Still, the goal of reaching the postseason was accomplished even though it came at the expense of a very top-heavy Big Ten and milquetoast rest of the conference since Purdue, Ohio State, Illinois, Northwestern, and Iowa were all 6-6 in the regular season.
It was progress, and as long as Purdue shows progress, even slow progress, Coach Hope will still be around in 2013. Those who think Morgan Burke is going to fire Hope if we have another 6-6 or 7-5 season are kidding themselves. The schedule itself projects 6-7 wins with layup games like Eastern Kentucky, Eastern Michigan, and Indiana as well as easier home games against Marshall, a decimated Penn State team, and not-that-hard road trips to Minnesota and Illinois. As good as everything looks on paper and with his best recruiting class yet there is no excuse for Purdue to miss the postseason this year.
Is an 8-, 9-, or 10-win season in the cards? I don't think so, but there are enough pieces there to think it can happen with a few breaks (of which we're SOOOOOO due). Coach Hope's game-management skills are still honestly a question as exhibited in the Rice game and the Notre Dame game of 2009, but this will also be his healthiest and most talented team to date. That can go a long way. The dual-quarterback strategy is infuriating, but at this point nothing is going to deter him from it, so we might as well look for ways to use it to our advantage while hoping Caleb TerBush or Robert Marve takes the choice out of his hands.
As it stands a 7-5 season is still progress, and that's roughly what I expect. This team is more than capable of passing that, so think of it as a handicap of expectations.
Assistant head Coach/Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks - Gary Nord - 4th season.
Nord's offense in season one with Joey Elliott was balanced and kept people on their toes. It helped a lot that Ralph Bolden was ripping defenses apart to start the year and Joey Elliott submitted one of the most underrated seasons at quarterback in Purdue history. Because of injuries and quarterback jostling the same has not been achieved. The passing game rarely throws down field, but the running game has still be effective.
What Nord needs is improved quarterback play. He has lacked that luxury with Robert Marve's injuries and the relative new-ness of TerBush, Rob Henry, and Robinson, who were all in their first year of starting when they made their starts. Whomever wins the starting QB job needs to be light years better on the field to draw the heat from Nord. What he needs is consistency, and that's why I don't understand the jostling a quarterbacks.
Tim Tibesar - Defensive Coordinator/Linebackers - 1st Year
I am very curious to see how Tibesar's defense does. He is implementing some new ideas and new schemes that previous coordinators have. As far as I am concerned he will be a success if we remember to cover the middle of the field on 3rd and 15.
Tibesar is bringing in elements of the 3-4, which is a different look that not many in the conference run. Purdue had success when it offensively brought the forward pass to the conference and no one knew what to do, so I suppose it is possible that something different on defense could be equally beneficial.
Tibesar has the tools too. Kawann Short is an All-America level talent at defensive tackle and both Ricardo Allen and Josh Johnson are all-Big Ten caliber defenders. His defense has plenty of experience, but it needs to produce by stopping the running game and getting off the field on third down.
J.B. Gibboney - Special Teams Coordinator - 4th Year
Gibboney's responsibilities on the field are either feat or famine. Carson Wiggs was a hell of a weapon and Raheem Mostert is one of the best returners in the nation, but kickoff and punt coverage are still an adventure. Punt protection somehow makes it easier for rushers to block punts with three up men.
Still, our kickers are pretty good and word from the weekend is that redshirt freshman walk-on Sam McCartney might even be challenging for the starting job. The man knows what to do with kickers.
Greg Burns - Defensive Backs - 1st Year
Burns enters his first season having spent the last four years at Arizona State. He has Allen and Johnson as well a ton of younger talent to work with in his bailiwick. He worked with USC when they won National titles in 2003 and 2004, so his hire could be a very underrated one.
As with many positions on this team, talent is not the question. Johnson and Allen could be the best corner pairing in the conference, so if he develops the rest of the players under his charge they can only help the defense get even better.
Shawn Clark - Offensive Line - 4th Year
From a pure talent standpoint Clark is facing the largest questions this season. The offense must replace three starters on the line and it seems as if there is no definitive rotation yet. Some guys are a bit undersized, and in a physical league of excellent defensive lines and linebackers your line has to be excellent.
The offensive line is my biggest concerns for this season. If it is on it can make good offenses look great. If it is off nothing can happen. We could have Brees, Alstott, and Keyes in the backfield with Stratton, Stubblefield, and Chris Daniels as receivers but it means jack if the line can't block. Kevin Pamphile and Trevor Foy at tackle need to be especially strong.
Patrick Higgins - Wide Receivers - 2nd Year
This is another area where the assistants need to find someone to emerge. Charles Torwudzo and Shane Mikesky are the best candidates to give us the big physical receiver we've been looking for since Chris Daniels left. The speed is there with O.J. Ross, Antavian Edison, and Gary Bush too. What they need is production and depth.
Cornell Jackson - Running Backs - 4th Year
I don't envy Cornell Jackson. He has two proven backs in Akeem Shavers and Akeem Hunt, then a lot of questions. Brandon Cottom and Ralph Bolden are coming back from knee injuries. Robert Gregory is a converted quarterback. Then you have Rob Henry, Mostert, and Edison that will likely get carries.
Still, we rushed for 181 yards per game last year and the running backs, no matter who we put back there, have produced. That's a testament to Jackson doing an excellent job.
Donn Landholm - Outside Linebackers - 4th Year
Landholm really got demoted. He started as defensive coordinator, then got moved to co-defensive coordinator before finally getting sent down to outside linebackers. Frankly, the less say he has in middle of the defense the better. Now Landholm is in charge of a group that will sometimes be up in rushing the QB and run protection and other times be handling slot receivers on passing routes depending on the 3-4 vs. 4-3 formation. Yikes.
Kevin Wolthausen - Defensive Line - 1st Year
It is the first year for Wolthausen and he needs to only carry on the tradition at Purdue's most consistent producer of NFL talent. Ryan Russell, Bruce Gaston, and Short give him the talent, but he too will be working with Landholm and Tibesar in the new 3-4 vs. 4-3 shifts. Because Short is one of the best in the game of college football Wolthausen should have an easier job this year than most.