Spring practice has been underway for quite a bit already, but all the news of basketball has kind of clouded it. Let's face it, when your football team goes 1-11 there is not a lot to talk about. Every area of the game needs to improve and arguably the three best players (Bruce Gaston, Ricardo Allen, and Cody Webster) are all gone.
Some areas need more improvement than most, however, and that is where the primer starts:
Offensive Line - Purdue entered last season with four senior starters on an offensive line that was expected to be a strength. Instead, it was nothing short of an absolute disaster:
- Purdue was probably the worst team at rushing the ball in the country with 805 total yards and just six rushing TDs. Purdue did not get a rushing touchdown from a running back until the Illinois game, which was the second-to-last game of the season.
- The line couldn't pass protect either, as it gave up 38 sacks for a loss of 265 yards.
- The leading rusher was Akeem Hunt with 464 yards. That was good enough for 22nd in the Big Ten.
- The top 10 individual rushers in the conference rushed for more yards than Purdue had as a team.
Simply put, the line sucked. There is one definite starter returning in center Robert Kugler, but the other four positions are up for grabs. If the line can play demonstrably better it opens the door for a quick turnaround. It allows for the ground game to get going, for Danny Etling to have time to throw, for points to be scored, and (in theory) for the defense to be kept off the field.
It will be hard to see if there is an immediate answer with a number of pieces not getting to campus until the summer. David Hedelin, a 4-star tackle, is a JuCo transfer that will probably start from day 1 out of necessity, but he is facing a possible suspension for playing for a club team in his native Sweden.
At guard both Jordan Roos and Justin King earned starting jobs last season as redshirt freshmen and are expected to have the lead for starting spots again. Their consistency will be huge, but if they continue to mesh well with Kugler the interior of the line will be set.
Unfortunately, the tackle spots are a mess. Hedelin may not be able to even play until October and JuCo tackle Corey Clements is a project at best. Senior Jack DeBoef probably gets a look by default because of his experience, while Jason Tretter is coming out of a redshirt year. J.J. Prince and Joey Warburg are also sophomores entering their third season in West Lafayette, so hopefully one of them can play.
It is just a shame that Danny Hope was an offensive line coach by trade and he left us bereft of talent. The recruiting class of King, Roos, Cameron Cermin, Warburg, and Prince were supposed to be ready by now, but it appears they are not the answers, at least at tackle.
Linebackers - Sean Robinson has moved to middle linebacker, a position that has been a black hole for over a decade now and continues to be a weakness in a league where no good teams are deficient at middle linebacker. Jawhaun Bentley and Gelen Robinson won't be here until the fall and they could start from day one, so the spring is a chance for the overlooked older guys to step forward. Danny Ezechukwu, Johnny Thompson, and Garrett Hudson are coming off of their redshirt years, while Collin Link is now on scholarship. Jimmy Herman and Andy James Garcia often got trucked a lot last season and simply did not look like Big Ten caliber linebackers.
Look for Robinson and Joe Gilliam to emerge as favorites to start, but everything else is a major question. We're basically hoping Bentley and Robinson are day one saviors.
Quarterback - Danny Etling is the starter, but will Austin Appleby push him? Appleby is not going anywhere and has said all the right things here in the offseason about wanting to be a leader on this team. In very limited action Appleby looked good, leading a late touchdown drive against Iowa last season. Yes, it was against the Iowa second string that barely cared as they were up big, but Appleby did move an offense that struggled to move under any circumstances.
I still Etling is the guy, however, unless there is an injury or Appleby honestly beats him. Hopefully the competition makes both better, because we know there will be no quarterback shuffle.
Raheem Mostert - We have looked for a more permanent role for him in the offense for some time, but what is wrong with him becoming a return specialist? He is one of the fastest players in the Big Ten and already has two career kickoffs for touchdowns. Why risk him in the backfield? It's not like we don't field a lot of kickoffs because we give up a lot of points.
Kicker - Sam McCartney left the program and Paul Griggs struggled last year, so there may be room for a new kicker. Kickoff specialist Thomas meadows has been doing well and was 9 of 13 on field goals in the kick scrimmage.
Honestly, I don't think we're going to see a lot of progress in the spring because so many of the expected starters are incoming in the fall. Last year we saw a very low scoring spring game and it was a precursor for the season. It wasn't that the defense was really good, it was that the offense was really bad. I still believe in coach Hazell because the right things are being said by both the coaching staff and the players. Still, we need to see dramatic improvement in several areas just to be a .500 team right now.
There will probably be improvement because it is very hard to get much worse, but I don't expect a ton of improvement.