Less than a week into fall practice the defensive line has suffered the most attrition of any unit on the team. Fortunately, it is one of the units that could most afford the attrition. There are two definite starters and two open slots. One of the open spots was only filled by a guy that was a second round draft pick in April, so the losses are not small.
Their task is simple: shore up a run defense and improve a pass rush that was not that great outside of Kawann Short wrecking havoc last year. That's all.
The two definite guys are Gaston and Russell. Russell has been labeled as "next" in the Den of Defensive Ends and had a decent junior season with 37 tackles, 8.5 for loss, 4 sacks, and a fumble recovery. As a redshirt freshman in 2011 Russell had three forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries, one of which he almost returned for a touchdown in the Little Caesar's Bowl before being caught from behind and fumbling it back. Many project this year as the year he jumps into the conference's elite at the position.
Gaston has been the steady hand next to Short at tackle for three seasons and now he is the elder statesman. He has 32 starts in 38 games for his career and had a respectable 28 tackles last season. His better year was also 2011 with 7 tackles for loss and three tackles. He wasn't as good as Short at getting into the backfield, but is one of the few players on Purdue's defense that is seriously being considered for all-Big Ten honors. Last season he also forced and recovered two fumbles.
The other two positions are up for grabs, especially after Brandon Taylor left the team due to academics. Taylor was a part-time starter and regular contributor that was considered the leader of the second defensive tackle spot. Now, he leaves it open for a trio of players. Watson appears to be the leader of that group. He is a former 4-star commit at defensive end that has the size to move inside at tackle. He finished last year with two tackles after playing as a reserve in nine games as a true freshman. Watson was generally regarded as the top recruit of the 2012 class.
As for Latta, he enters his second an final season as a JuCo transfer after playing in all 13 games as a reserve in 2012. he finished with 12 tackles and a sack, but the sack came at a key moment in the game against Notre Dame. This is only his third season of football period, but he has nice size for a defensive end and could be a bit of a surprise. I'd have to say his starting spot is in pencil at this point.
This si where the loss of Taylor really hurts. He was a part-time starter with a wealth of experience that could go in and give the starters in the middle a breather without a huge dropoff in production. While Rouse and Isaac both have played in the past, they aren't as good as Taylor.
Isaac has the most experience with seven starts last season and 25 career games. That has led to 30 career tackles and a sack. One of his best games was an four tackle effort in last year's bowl game. To this point Isaac has been a quality player in terms of depth and it looks like this role will continue.
Rouse was one of the youngest tackles that played last season, as he got into nine games as a redshirt freshman. He definitely has the size to be one of Purdue's tackles of the future, especially with Gaston being a senior this year.
At the end positions there is not a lot of experience at all. Phillips is coming on well in his junior season and even notched two sacks in addition to 23 tackles last season. He started the game against Eastern Michigan and had five tackles at Minnesota, but that Minnesota game was pretty much a disaster for the defense as a whole.
As for Williams, he presents the most intriguing case on the entire team. He is walk-on that has impressed the coaching staff in practice to the point of making the current two-deeps. He is listed as a linebacker but is much more likely to play on the end. He was spotted by the previous coaching staff on the Purdue club rugby team and only played one year of football at North Central in Indianapolis. He has an odd back story incoming from rugby, but the current staff does seem to believe in him, so there is some talent there.
Finally, McDaniel is back on the defense after the Hope regime moved him from defense to offense. His second position switch moves him back to defensive tackle where the coaches have said he can very much be a contributor in his final season. He has one career tackle and has played in a handful of games on both sides of the ball. It is possible he could even earn starter's minutes.
Reserves and redshirt candidates: John Strauser - Fr., Johnny Daniels - Fr., Jake Replogle - Fr., Antoine Miles - Fr., Will Schott - Fr. (RS, walk-on), Chuck Ayres - So. (walk-on), Thomas Brown - Fr. (walk-on), Ra'Zahn Howard - Fr., Evan Panfil - Fr.
There is a TON of youth here, as coach Hazell's first recruiting class was very heavy on the defensive line. There are some interesting candidates as far as who will play and who won't too. Strauser is a possibility after he enrolled early and got a jump by going through spring practice. Replogle is the youngest of now four defensive linemen from the same parents, as his older brothers were the rare good defensive players at Indiana. Howard had a year of prep school and is a little more seasoned, but has missed all of practice so far awaiting a sickle cell test.
Even the walk-ons are intriguing. Schott is a former state high jump champion that played for a pretty good program. At the very least he could be a special teamer at some point in his career.
T-Mill's Depth Chart:
Starters: Russell, Gaston, Latta, Watson
Key contributors: Phillips, Rouse, Isaac, McDaniel
Likely to redshirt: Daniels, Miles, Panfil, Howard