This is the big one. In fact, it is so big, that the play of today's featured unit will decide if there is a bowl game or not. An improved offensive line can make that much of a difference.
1. If the offensive line improves, it means the offense can score points, thus the point of the game.
2. The longer the offense stays on the field, the longer the opposing offense stays off the field. This is critical against teams like Indiana with ridiculously dangerous offenses.
3. The longer the offense can stay on the field, the longer the defense can rest. Yes, Purdue was 1-11 last year, but the defense at least played well enough (at least for a half) against the likes of Cincinnati, Notre Dame, Michigan State, Iowa, and Illinois that those could have been victories, but the offense did them no favors and the defense wore down.
4. Danny Etling was the most-sacked quarterback in the Big Ten last year. You can't score if your quarterback is getting hammered.
5. The running game needs to improve drastically, and if it does, that keeps the clock moving and out of the other team's hands.
I am convinced that with an easier schedule and the skill players we have coming back the offense can have dramatic improvement, but only if the line issues were fixed. Unfortunately, they were terrible last year. The worst rushing offense in the nation and a quarterback that was running for his life almost every play starts upfront.
Robert Kugler - Jr. - Center
Jason King - So. - Guard
David Hedelin - Jr. - Tackle (facing three-game suspension)
These three are probably Purdue's best linemen without question. Kugler is a solid center that rarely botches snaps and is entering his third year as a starter. By this time next year he could be the best center in the Big Ten.
Unfortunately, that is often where the praise begins and ends. King started for about half of last season and is doing well. Hedelin, a 4-star junior college transfer, is drawing rave reviews in practice and will likely be Purdue's left tackle once he becomes eligible. Unfortunately, because he played for a club team in his native Sweden he has to sit for the first three games of the year. That means the left tackle position which protects the quarterback's blind side, has to be filled.
So far it has not.
Jordan Roos - So. - Guard
J.J. Prince - So. - Tackle
Corey Clements - Jr. - Guard
Jack DeBoef - Sr. - Guard
Cameron Cermin - So. - Tackle/Guard
Of these players, Roos has the most experience as he started at guard for much of last season. He is one of only three players that has starting experience. Clements is absolutely massive at 6'8" 400 pounds and could potentially play tackle or guard, but that big of a guy has conditioning issues. Can he hold up for a whole game? If he can, it make take an extra half second just to run around him on size alone.
Prince and DeBoef are starting to look like career reserves, though Prince has not been given much of a chance to play just yet. He is currently at the top of the depth chart at right tackle. DeBoef was holding down the left tackle spot until Hedelin came back, but not well. Then he got hurt. That job looks like it could Cermin for the first few games.
Joey Warburg - So. - Tackle
Kirk Barron - Fr. - Center
Martesse Patterson - Fr. - Guard
Jason Tretter - Fr. (RS) - Tackle
Bearooz Yacoobi - Fr. - Guard
A couple of these freshmen look promising as coach Hazell went out and got some good young talent. Barron was one of the players that graduated early and came through a spring practice, so he looks like he will apprentice Kugler for the next two years. Yacoobi and Patterson are coming in with enough size to challenge for an immediate spot on the two-deeps as well.
Tretter could also be interesting. He redshirted last season and now is his time to make a state when neither of the tackle spots are locked down. Purdue is probably going to be very thin at the position too. Yacoobi and Patterson look more like guards, but Yacoobi has gotten a look at tackle in fall camp. He may need to play there out of necessity.
It is a major concern that Purdue does not know who its best five linemen were. There are also questions about Jim Bridge, the offensive line coach. Last year's line was beyond terrible, but still put two players into NFL camps this fall. It also had four senior starters at the beginning of the year. Something went terribly wrong though. It couldn't protect the quarterback or open holes in the running game, which is kind of the entire reason they are all out there.
Now we have to go into this season with even less experience. A more spread-based offense could help things, but Purdue only seemed to get a rushing push last year with two tight ends plus a lead fullback blocker. Now we're supposed to run the ball effectively with only five blockers instead of eight?
I really like Hedelin as a prospect. That was a recruiting coup for Hazell and his suspension shouldn't matter in the first two games, but losing him for the Notre Dame game really hurts. He'll definitely start once his suspension is over. Kugler is also is going to start. Who are the other three though?
I am also concerned that the defensive line has been very dominant in fall practice. Ryan Russell had more sacks in the spring game than he did all of last season. I think it is far more likely that the offensive line is continuing to struggle than our defensive line has suddenly become excellent.
So much of football begins with excellent line play, and that is why I think the improvement of this unit is so critical. There is no way Purdue improves if the line is as bad as it was last year. Has there been improvement though? We'll know in about two weeks.