Linebacker has been pretty much a void for the last decade in West Lafayette. Ever since Landon Johnson, Niko Koutouvides, and Akin Ayodele all left the Boilers have struggled mightily to have Big Ten caliber linebackers in a conference where excellent linebacker play is essential to success. It is why Purdue has been vulnerable for ages on third and long over the middle of the field and why Purdue's run defense gets flattened by the likes of Wisconsin every season.
It is not a secret to anyone else, either:
Here is all you need to know: The Boilermakers' top linebacker is a former quarterback: junior Sean Robinson. Enough said. This position has an abyss for nearly a decade, with an alarming lack of production and playmaking ability. Robinson will play on the strong side. Look for fellow junior Joe Gilliam in the middle, but he'll be pushed by redshirt freshman Jimmy Herman. Senior Will Lucas is on the weak side-for now. Redshirt freshman Andy James Garcia will be a factor.
When almost every other school in the conference regularly sends linebackers to the NFL and Purdue has not had a drafted linebacker in 10 years it is a major problem. I don't know if there is an answer this year, either, other than to wait for Gelen Robinson and Drue Tranquill.
Starters: Will Lucas - Sr., Joe Gilliam - Jr., Sean Robinson - Jr.
This is the starting unit for now, mostly because they are the most experienced guys out there. All three played extensively last season and even started a good number of games. They were also part of a unit that regularly got shredded by good offenses and gave up close to 200 yards per game on the ground. Purdue had almost zero push into the backfield from its linebackers with just 10 tackles for loss and one sack from the three starters combined. That means all their plays are made down field, something that quickly kills teams in Big Ten play.
Lucas is the most experienced of the bunch, but is a bit short by Big Ten standards. He has been a regular contributor for the past three seasons but inconsistency has been a major factor in his game. Last year he was second on the team in tackles with 66 and had an interception to go with two fumble recoveries. He has already been pushed by a redshirt freshman this season, however, and may not even begin the year as the starter.
Gilliam is a player that came to Purdue from a school with very little history. Before his junior year of high school, when Southport went 9-2 while inning their conference, Southport had only won 13 games over the previous 12 seasons. He helped change all that with two very active years before coming to Purdue. Last season he started every game in the middle after Dwayne Beckford had a dumbass attack and got arrested (again) and kicked off the team just before the opener. He finished with 57 tackles and a forced fumble. Gilliam supposedly had a good spring and will be counted on heavily to do something positive in the middle.
Robinson enters as Purdue's "best linebacker", which is impressive considering he only moved to the position from quarterback last year. He has very good size for the position at 6'3" 240 pounds. After learning on the job last season it is hoped that he can continue to improve. He was also the team's Specail Teams MVP and got a lot better as the year went on.
Purdue has virtually no proven depth at all behind the three listed starters, and these reserves still could see more playing time than the starters. Garcia has already made a major move and has passed Lucas to play with the No. 1 defense for a few days of camp. In high school he was a four-year starter at Hialeah High and former teammate of Carlos Carvajal. As a senior he had 111 tackles and so far he has been very impressive in camp.
Herman is in a similar boat to Garcia. He is a redshirt freshman that really needs to develop more, but has played well enough in the spring and so far in the fall to earn some consideration. Herman is big at 6'4", 220 pounds, but could use another 10-15 more pounds on him. He is also a former safety, giving him some good skills in space to use.
Williams is one of the few reserves with actual game experience. He played in 11 games last season and had eight tackles with four coming in the bowl game. He was a pretty highly rated outside linebacker prospect out of Pennsylvania and there is a lot of promise because he already has some good size for the position.
Finally, Ibarra is entering his second year as a JuCo player that was brought in to provide depth. He finished last season with two tackles in one game, which was the season opener against Eastern Kentucky. He is already out for two weeks with an ankle sprain. In 2011 his school won the junior college national championship with him making 68 tackles and recovering two fumbles.
Freshmen and Walk-ons: Garrett Hudson - Fr., Evan Pulliam - Fr.(RS, walk-on), Johnny Thompson - Fr., Dezwan Polk-Campbell - Fr., Danny Ezechukwu - Fr., Collin Link - Jr.(walk-on), Tylor Foster -Sr.(walk-on)
There are very good odds that at least one freshman does not redshirt and sees significant playing time. Already Ezechukwu has been brought in on 3-4 looks and Hudson has been praised for his intelligence. Ezechukwu already had more size than most of the guys that have been here awhile and Polk-Campbell's height can be an asset.
Unfortunately, none of these guys is a breakout star, which is what Purdue desperately needs at the position. It is thought that both Tranquill and Gelen Robinson, who are still seniors in high school, could not only start at Purdue, but be their best linebackers right now.
Hopefully there will be some pleasant surprises. Robinson has high expectations coming into this season and Gilliam has show great improvement. This will help. With no depth, however, they have to be both good and 100% healthy. Purdue is the dreaded undersized and inexperienced at the position, meaning there are more ifs than answers.
T-Mill's Depth Chart:
Starters: Gilliam, Robinson, Garcia
Reserves: Lucas, Herman, Williams
Freshmen likely to play: Ezechukwu, Hudson