Perhaps the biggest strength of Purdue in 2012 will be the defensive line, which is both deep and extremely talented. Our long tradition at defensive end looks to continue while at defensive tackle we have a pair of NFL prospects, including one who will likely be a first round selection next April.
It should be a very big year for the front four, or three depending on how we choose to line up. The talent up front allows us to play with some 3-4 alignments that should be very interesting under new defensive coordinator Tim Tibesar. As long as it results in someone, anyone covering the middle of the damn field on third and long I am okay with it.
The defensive statistics last season were good, but they needed improvement. We gave up 26.8 points per game, a number that could get down around 20 this year given some opponents. If it gets down to 20 that would help, but there is no excuse for Purdue to ever average less than 20 points per game offensively. Purdue struggled against the run at 175 yards per game, and gave up 221 yards passing per game. Purdue also generated 29 sacks, a modest number.
Those numbers should all improve with a solid year by a veteran group up front. At least that is hoped.
Kawann Short - Sr. (5) - 54 tackles, 17.0 TFL, 6.5 sacks
Bruce Gaston - Jr. - 30 tackles, 7 TFL, 3 sacks
Ryan Russell - So. - 33 tackles, 4.5 TFL. 1 sack
Jalani Phillips - So. - 2 tackles
Or Robert Maci - Sr. - 10 tackles, 4 TFL, 2 sacks
Three of these positions are set, with the fourth (Phillips) being up in the air depending on where Robert Maci plays. Maci seems to be doing very well at weakside linebacker for now, so Phillips could be here. The two could be interchangeable as well. Phillips played sparingly as a true freshman in 2011 while Maci only played in five games due to injury.
Short is clearly the class of the group. The sky is really the limit for him. He's already been named a preseason all-Big Ten pick, but getting All-American honors and being the Big Ten's Defensive Player of the Year are both possible. He'll demand a double-team on every play and with two career interceptions he has proven to affect the passing game in multiple ways. The better Short does will open up things for Russell and Gaston. Ideally, Short goes into unstoppable rampaging beast mode like Ryan Kerrigan did on occasion.
Gaston has played in every game since being a true freshman and has benefited greatly by playing alongside Short and Ryan Kerrigan. He is more of a traditional space-eating defensive tackle that clogs up the middle. He also had a back injury that limited his playing time, but when healthy he is more than good enough to play in the middle.
Then there is Russell, whom many project to be a breakout player in 2012 and "Next" in the den of defensive ends. Russell had a good Pizza Bowl with a nice fumble recovery and recovered a pair against Minnesota as well. At 6'5" 275 he is a monster compared to some of our previous rush ends. That size and his motor will go a long way. I know I expect big things from him, but more importantly, he expects big things from himself.
Brandon Taylor - Jr. - 19 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1 sack
Ryan Isaac - Jr. - 9 tackles, 1 TFL
Ryan Watson - Fr. - 4-star HS recruit
Greg Latta - Jr. - JuCo transfer
While the starters are some of the best in the conference, the reserves are talented and there is enough experience to expect a rotation that will keep the front four rested. Taylor brings back the most experience after playing extensively while Gaston was injured. He was even one of two defensive players (the other being Ricardo Allen) who scored a touchdown when he recovered a fumble on the goal line against Iowa. He's the son of NFL Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor too, so he definitely has football genes.
Isaac stepped back a little after a promising freshman season in 2010. He does have one career sack and can play at either end or tackle. That's important in this new 3-4 alignment that will only have one guy in the middle.
The next two are newcomers, but I expect them to contribute immediately. Watson was allegedly the biggest get of the 2012 recruiting class as a solid four-star prospect. Depending on his attitude he could even come in and challenge for the one open defensive end spot at 6'3" 294 pounds. Latta is a JuCo transfer that is also a big defensive end. Expect both to play extensively in the first few weeks of the season as we figure things out.
The kid has a great name and a solid attitude from what I have seen of him on Twitter, but depth ahead of him and the fact he comes in at 238 pounds means I think he will redshirt. He is definitely a player to watch for, however.
Eric Mebane - Sr. (5) - 1 career tackle in four games
Michael Rouse III - Fr. (RS) - coming off of redshirt
Will Schott - Fr. - Walk-on from Indianapolis Roncalli
Kendrick Adams - So. - A transfer from Taylor University
Josh Wilson - So. - Walk-on
Mebane and Rouse are the only two guys on scholarship this deep here and they are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Mebane is one of the final Tiller recruits still on the roster (joining Ralph Bolden, Peters Drey, Derek Jackson, Kawann Short, Tommie Thomas, Dwayne Beckford, Nnamdi Ezenwa, Robert Maci, Rick Scmeig, and Caleb TerBush). Of all those guys, he has probably played the least, though others from that 2008 class left long ago. Rouse, meanwhile, is still a newcomer whose eligibility clock is just now starting.
According to GBI, Rouse is higher on the depth chart, sitting right behind Short. I think we'll see Taylor getting the majority of snaps as the third defensive tackle with Rouse appearing on goal line situations. Mebane would have to surprise many to play. At least he will likely earn a Purdue degree after five years.
Also of note: former 2008 defensive tackle recruit LaSalle Cooks was listed as no longer being on the roster yesterday, though he never appeared in a game.