Finally, after over a decade of not having produced a real, live linebacker that we sent to the NFL (defensive ends converted to linebackers don't count) it looks like we have some incoming freshmen that could be actual Big Ten linebackers by the time they graduate. I have appreciated everyone who has played the position, but we have run through far too many walk-ons and players converted from other positions to truly compete.
Purdue has consistently had one of the worst defenses in the league since 2004. The main reason has been linebackers that cannot tackle or cover the middle of the field worth a damn on passing downs. That leads to third and long conversions and game after game after game where teams run at will on us.
There may finally be an upswing in 2014. Currently, Purdue has three seniors listed at the top of the depth chart at the four linebacker positions in the hybrid 3-4/4-3 we're running. It wouldn't surprise if all three are replaced by the end of the season.
Jalani Phillips - Sr. (Rush end)
Jimmy Herman - So.
Sean Robinson - Sr.
Joe Gilliam - Sr.
Phillips will be playing at the rush end spot and has been more of a defensive end during his time at Purdue. Last season he had a pair of sacks, but only nine tackles. Phillips has the size to contend at rush end with 6'4", 265 pounds and hopefully he can move well in space when he is not positioned on the end.
Gilliam is Purdue's most experienced linebacker, but has been undersized a bit compared to his Big Ten brethren. He has 21 career starts and close to 100 tackles, so it is hoped he can lead with his experience in the middle. He'll be paired with Sean Robinson, a fifth year senior who has done an admirable since switching over from quarterback. He has started 15 games in his career and hasn't been terrible, but he hasn't been great, either.
On the outside Jimmy Herman had 13 tackles as a reserve and on special teams last year, sot his will be his first time in a starting role.
Gelen Robinson - Fr. (Rush end)
Ja'Whaun Bentley - Fr.
Garrett Hudson - Fr. (RS)
Danny Ezechukwu - Fr. (RS)
Andy James Garcia - So.
This should tell you about Purdue's promise at the position. Only Garcia, who played in 12 games last year with 14 tackles and an interception, has any in-game experience. He is not even listed on the two-deeps right now.
The big two are Robinson and Bentley, whom I fully expect to be starting by the end of the season. Robinson is a rush end for the moment and that seems like his natural position. He was the start of the 2014 recruiting class, a multi-sport state champion, and straight up athlete. I would be shocked if he doesn't have an impact by the end of the season.
The same is true for Bentley. Finally, we have a hulking middle linebacker that can do a little bit of everything and is not physically overmatched at the position. At 250 pounds he moves well, but there will naturally be some freshman mistakes. Personally, I would take that over watching our current middle linebackers get bowled over again and again. I have seen enough of that film.
Hudson is also an interesting case. He has been dinged up this fall with a shoulder injury, but is the son of defensive coordinator Greg Hudson. It is always good to have a coach's kid on the field because they often play with high IQ for their position. He also might play with a bit of a chip on his shoulder to prove he belongs as opposed to getting there because of who his dad is.
There is not a lot of depth (only redshirt freshman Johnny Thompson is left as a scholarship player), but there is promise. I am willing to bet that the current freshmen will be better than the current seniors by the time they are seniors. Sean Robinson, Joe Gilliam, and Jalani Phillips are good kids, but they haven't proven they can be regular Big Ten starters in their time at Purdue. They would likely be backups at best on most of the teams in the league.
The players I am most excited to see are Gelen Robinson and Ja'Whaun Bentley. They might have been Purdue's best linebacker last year if not for the handicap of still being in high school. Finally, we have to players that come in as freshmen physically ready. If they get on the field (and they will) it won't be like past linebackers that had to play before they were physically ready.
I wouldn't give up on the seniors though. They know they are being pushed and so far they are holding off the charge of "the kids". They also at least have experience, which can be invaluable. The new defensive scheme is in its second year and Purdue has at least had some stability within the coaching staff. As someone stated n a comment, this is the first time since Brock Spack left that we have had the same defensive coordinator two years in a row.
Still, they have to produce. I have seen too many Wisconsin's run for 350 yards with ease and too many Third and 15's converted over the middle with ease. I am going to see before I believe no matter who is back there. If this is the group that can finally at least slow down Wisconsin or successfully cover the middle on third and long then that will go an extremely long way towards Purdue's improvement. In fact, I would say this is the second most important group for Purdue's success aside from the offensive line.