You will not get very far in the Big Ten without excellent linebacker play. It's simply a fact. Ohio State and Penn State's strong defenses of the last few years thrive on linebackers. Iowa and Wisconsin's best season have come with strong, experienced linebackers. These aren't just sure tacklers, either. You need to have guys that can play against the pass, come up against the run, occasionally rush the passer, and be sure tacklers on top of that. Even last year when Gerald Gooden played his only career game at linebacker he had a monster game with multiple tackles and two interceptions.
This season Wisconsin is a favorite with a pair of stellar linebackers in Chris Borland and Mike Taylor. Michigan State has two linebackers on Phil Steele's second team and one on the fourth team. The truth is that the best defenses in the league have their most talented players here. For the first time in awhile it looks like Purdue might be up there too.
Two starters return at a position where we only need one additional outside guy. We also have a wealth of young talent to the point we can go with an experimental 3-4 at times. That shift should be an interesting one as we look to slow down some solid running backs that have ripped us in the past like Cierre Wood, Fitzgerald Toussaint, and Montee Ball. The better this unit plays the better Purdue will be with an experienced secondary behind them and a damn fine defensive line in front of them.
Will Lucas - Jr. - 82 tackles, 10 TFL, 1 sack, 2 fumble recoveries
Dwayne Beckford - Sr. - 91 tackles, 7 TFL, 3 sacks, 1 interception
Robert Maci - Sr. (5) - 10 tackles, 4 TFL, 2 sacks
All indications from camp so far have Maci earning the third starting spot if we go to the conventional 4-3, which is interesting when you consider he has been a career defensive end. The three-time Academic All-Big Ten player is clearly smart enough to quickly learn a new spot. He'll likely be a hybrid edge player that can put his hand in the dirt if necessary. He was massive in the Rice game before an injury curtailed much of the rest of his season.
Beckford can be a bit of a frustrating talent. You all know of my frustration over the middle of the field never being covered on third downs. His failure to pick up the wide open tight end or slot receiver streaking over the middle on key possessions is maddening. Then last year he picked up a DUI and was out of school for awhile before coming back. He missed the bowl game in which Gooden was a beast. I think Beckford is a solid defender against the run, but I fear I'll be screaming ‘COVER THE MIDDLE OF THE FIELD" way too many times (again) this year.
Lucas could be the best of these three. He was a tackling machine for one of the best high school programs in the country and has 25 games of experience since coming in as a true freshman. His 10 tackles for loss is second among returning players only to Kawann Short. He is one of those players that is always around the ball, but his pass coverage skills may be below Beckford's.
Joe Gilliam - So. - 7 tackles in 11 games
Nnamdi Ezenwa - Sr. (5) - 6 tackles in five games
Antwon Higgs - Sr. - 12 career tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1 sack
Armstead Williams - Fr. (RS)
Williams has possibly the biggest upside here. He comes off of his redshirt as a guy that was a top 20 outside linebacker prospect in the country. He also comes from a part of Pennsylvania where linebackers seemingly spring out of the ground.
Gilliam was mostly a special teamer last season but did see some time as a reserve on the outside. Ezenwa is a career reserve that is left over from Tiller's last class and has only played in six career games. Higgs was a one-time starter and promising player but has been passed by so many other guys he feels like failed potential by now.
My biggest concern is the lack of a true middle linebacker other than Beckford among the top seven. Technically Higgs is No. 2 on the depth chart behind Beckford, but he has done next to nothing on the field in the last three years. I think you'll see Gilliam and Williams get more looks rather than a few seniors that, for whatever reason, haven't panned out yet.
Mike Lee - So. - 1 tackle
Sean Robinson - So. - former quarterback
Zack Heiniger - Sr. - walk-on, 13 games special teams experience
Collin Link - So. - walk-on
Of these four it seems as if Lee will likely play the most on defense. Heiniger seems to have found a niche on special teams, but Lee was moving up the depth chart before a concussion in the spring sidelined him. Robinson made the move over mostly because he would have been fourth at best on the quarterback depth chart, but he supposedly had a good spring.
Look for Lee and Robinson to pass Higgs as the top backup middle linebacker behind Beckford. I could see a situation where Higgs and Beckford play together in the 3-4, which Lee and Robinson standing by.
Evan Pulliam - walk-on
Likely all three of these guys will redshirt. Garcia played in last year's Florida HS all-star game and is another Miami kid we brought up. In fact, he was a teammate of Carlos Carvajal and comes from Mrs. T-Mill's official hometown. His numbers were impressive enough (111 tackles, 12 sacks, 38 TFL, seven forced fumbles) that he could play immediately.
Herman had 95 tackles, 12 TFLs, and four interceptions as a solid outside linebacker for Carmel as the Greyhounds won the Indiana Class 5A state title. He should be a solid outside linebacker in his career and he has the frame to play much bigger.