With eight commitments in the Class of 2014 for football Purdue has a decent start on what will be a pivotal class. It ranks 78th nationally according to Rivals and out of the top 40 according to ESPN. It will likely be lower ranked because it is going to be a smaller class. There are only 11 scholarships left to give out, as Purdue is a young team with 18 seniors on scholarship and one additional spot currently open by my numbers.
There is little margin for error with these final 11 spots, and Purdue has to finally address some glaring needs that have gone unaddressed for most of a decade. I am mostly talking about the positions of linebacker and safety.
It is no secret that Purdue's defense has been awful so far, especially against the run. Much of that comes from having a group of linebackers that are considered to be the worst in the Big Ten. Teams are also gashing the Boilers up the middle because Purdue lacks a true, hard-hitting safety to help cover the middle of the field. Why is third and Long always open (and almost always converted) over the middle? It is because the group of linebackers and the safeties have been terrible compared to the rest of the Big Ten.
It is a simple fact that you cannot survive in the Big Ten without good linebackers. Purdue hasn't been able to brag about good linebackers since Landon Johnson and Niko Koutouvides were on campus. It has shown too. There has been a steady parade of under-seized guys, walk-ons, and players playing out of position that have risen to the top of the depth chart mostly because the recruited linebackers have been a disappointment.
I don't understand why it has not been addressed before now, either. Drue Tranquill and Gelen Robinson appear to be the best players we have gone after defensively in some time, but they are not even guaranteed to be linebackers. Last year's recruiting class included three linebackers, but all three are redshirting and were very lowly rated. The 2012 class had two linebackers in Andy James Garcia and Jimmy Herman, but they would likely fall into the category of undersized. The 2011 class had Jalani Phillips (now at DE), Kaulana Judd (never played) and Armstead Williams (starting). A pair of starters in Joe Gilliam and Will Lucas were in the 2010 class, while the 2009 class lacked a single linebacker even though it was a huge void even then.
Purdue has been trying to get by on mostly two star guys at a position and in a conference where you need four-star talent to merely survive most weeks. Recent starts such as Chris Carlino, Dwayne Beckford, Nnamdi Ezenwa, and Dan Bick were all two-star guys that played hard, but were still exactly what they were: less talented players. When Purdue has gotten talent it has not worked out.
Purdue has recruited three guys at linebacker who were rated as a 4-star talent or better in the last 10 years, which is the length this weakness has been obvious. Jeff Lindsay was originally a linebacker and ended up at tight end, Brian Ellis was a JuCo guy that didn't qualify academically and never played, and Kyle Williams was certifiably batshit crazy and is currently in prison.
It is astounding that there has been such a dearth of talent to where even a three-star developmental guy is an improvement. Even then, the players have no developed and the defense has suffered greatly for it.
At safety it has almost been worse. I like a player like Landon Feichter, who is tough as nails and was overlooked by many in recruiting, but the fact is that he is the third walk-on, joining Logan Link and Frank Duong, that has been forced to start at safety because scholarship guys have grossly underperformed. When you consider that Bernard Pollard is currently one of the most feared safeties in the NFL and he came from Purdue it is a shame we weren't able to capitalize on the run he and Stu Schweigert had.
I just can't believe that this position is so important, but so under-recruited that E.J. Johnson can be a good looking HS prospect, but he gets passed by a walk-on and eventually switches to offense.
So far, coach Hazell seems to at least be trying to address this issue. With a bye this week it is a critical week to help nail down some of those guys. According to the Rivals list of official offers, Purdue has at least offered the following four-star or better linebackers and safeties that have not committed yet:
Clifton Garrett - Joliet, IL
Nyles Morgan - Crete, IL
Rashaan Evans - Auburn, AL
Bishard Baker - Bellevue, WA
Montae Nicholson - Monroeville, PA
Here are some additional names on the ESPN list:
Brandon Lee - Indianapolis, IN
T.J. Posey - Gadsden, AL
Vincent Jackson - Tampa, FL
Nile Sykes - Lombard, IL
These are nine choice targets that Purdue needs to go after before anyone else. In the long run the offense appears to be fine (as long as freshmen receivers can stay away from Kohl's). There are some solid and promising freshmen linemen, we have two freshmen quarterbacks with an excellent on the way, and we have a ton of promising receivers and running backs. That side of the ball appears to be set.
The defensive side of the ball, however, is a mess and while Robinson and Tranquill are expected to be great, they can't be stand alone saviors. In 2010 Purdue had a first round draft pick and the best defensive player in the Big Ten in ryan Kerrigan but still had a terrible defense. Now he is tearing it up at linebacker in the NFL instead of defensive end.
Perhaps that has been part of the problem. Purdue has taken its best guys and put their hand in the dirt with the mission of getting to the quarterback at the cost of giving up the middle of the field.
Clearly, something has to change. It is getting quite ridiculous that I have no confidence Purdue can get a stop on Third and long because a tight end will inevitably roam uncovered over the middle. It causes our corners to give 10 yard cushions and generally throws everything off because the middle of the defense is a black hole for talent.
I think Morgan, Garrett, Lee, and Sykes have to be the priorities. They are relatively local kids that Hazell and co. have to be on every single week until they commit. That allows us to keep Tranquill at safety and it becomes a huge boost in talent for a defense that is currently a mess.