For the first time in more than a decade the linebacker position is not a desolate void of castoffs, converted players, walk-ons, and generally full of guys who are not Big Ten caliber linebackers! The last time Purdue was this loaded at linebacker was in 2003 with the likes of Niko Koutouvides and Landon Johnson. Since then, we have been unable to put three solid, capable linebackers on the field at the same time. Sure, there have been some good guys that have tried hard, but we have been light years behind the rest of the conference.
Fortunately, Marcus Freeman is doing a fantastic job with the unit and is earning his paycheck. We can look at the 2015 projected starters and see that it is a net positive, and all three players have multiple years of eligibility remaining. There is a ton of promise here.
Danny Ezechukwu - So.
Career stats: 43 tackles, 3 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 2 FF, 1 INT
Ja'Whaun Bentley - So.
Career stats: 76 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 3 FR, 1 INT
Jimmy Herman - Jr.
Career stats: 69 tackles
It starts in the middle, where Ja'Whaun Bentley shifted over after Sean Robinson was hurt midseason. As a true freshman Bentley played like a seasoned veteran and looked like a future all-Big Ten caliber player. He more than exceeded expectations for a true freshman playing one of the most difficult positions on the field. Between playing outside and in the middle he started all 12 games and was productive from day 1. Both ESPN and USAToday named him as a freshman All-American, so the sky is the limit for him.
It was more than Bentley though. Herman came into his own as a steady producer with 56 stops. In four games he had at least 8 tackles. He leads a young unit with 22 games of experience in his career.
Finally, Ezechukwu was a pleasant surprise as a redshirt freshman. The HS teammate of Gregory Phillips became a starter at midseason once Joe Gilliam was hurt and played very well. His interception was one of the few highlights of the Northwestern game. More importantly, both he and Bentley are actual Big Ten sized linebackers. No more Joe Holland and Chris Carlino getting trucked by the opposition.
Andy James Garcia - Jr.
Career stats: 20 tackles, 1 FF, 1 INT
Dezwan Polk-Campbell - So.
Career stats: 2 tackles
Garrett Hudson - So.
Career stats: 1 tackle
We had better pray for good health, because there is not a lot of established depth just yet. Garcia is by far the most experienced with 24 games and a handful of starts in his career. He is still a bit undersized when compared to Ezechukwu, however. Garcia is most likely the first player off the bench and still should play quite a bit both on special teams and as a reserve.
As for the other two spots, they are in flux, mostly because the incoming freshmen have not gotten a huge look yet. Hudson is the son of defensive coordinator Greg Hudson and likely learned quite a bit when the elder Hudson was the linebackers' coach at Florida State. He played in five games last year and should be a regular special teamer. Polk-Campbell is small at 210 for the Big Ten and relies more on speed.
Evan Pulliam - Jr.
Career stats: 5 games on special teams
Markus Bailey - Fr.
Sawyer Dawson - Fr.
Tim Faison - Fr.
Wyatt Cook - Fr.
Pulliam is a walk-on that has earned a small amount of playing time in his career and he could be a reserve in a pinch. What's more exciting is the freshmen, who already look the part, at least. Cook, Bailey, and Dawson could all push for playing time and maybe even crack the two-deep given the relative inexperience with Hudson and Polk-Campbell. Dawson and Bailey especially just look like Big Ten linebackers even before getting a year of experience. Cook was an all-state player in Maryland and Dawson was excellent in Florida. Bailey can play all over and had three interceptions as a senior last year.