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Purdue Football: Baby Come Back, The Defense Might Actually Be Good

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Purdue's defense has come a long way since 2013. It has some interesting pieces in place, and dare I say it, and might actually be good this year. They could use your help with some crowd noise, so come on back to Ross-Ade and help the team out this season. You know you want to.

Sandra Dukes-USA TODAY Sports

It's 13 days until Purdue's opening kick, and most of you are tired of hearing about Purdue football, and are ready to so see some Purdue football (for better or worse). However, I will push on with my plea for you to return to Ross-Ade stadium this season, in another Baby Come Back post. I'm not expecting a full stadium, but I can dream. It would be awesome for Purdue to run onto the field on 9/12/15 and be greeted by 62,500 rabid Purdue football fans screaming for Sycamore blood. Well, maybe not all 62,500, that might scare the guys who are accustomed to playing in front of aluminum bleachers and opposing fans, but 50k for the home opener isn't that much to ask. As I mentioned last week, in the span of 2 seasons, Purdue has substantially upgraded the talent on the offensive side of the ball. The offense will be better, (to be fair, it couldn't be any worst than the woeful 2013 team) but what about the defense? Looking back, the 2013 defense had a few talented players, but had no depth or linebackers, which doesn't bode well in the Big 10. To figure out how far we've come, you've got to look at where you started, and Purdue and Darrell Hazell started with nothing.

Purdue 2013 Defense:

Defensive Line:

The defensive line had some NFL talent in Russell and Gaston, but were paper thin after you made it past the two headliners. The defensive line only contributed 9 sacks on the season, and in today's football landscape of spread offenses, that's pitiful. A good bit of the problem was a total lack of depth on the defensive line at both tackle and guard. By the halftime, the entire defensive front was spent spent, and that's when the other team would start running up the middle...over...and over...and over again.

Rush End: Ryan Russell-Jr.-(6'5, 275) - Ryan Russell was a perpetual tease at Purdue. He looked like a dominant football player, and on occasion, he would play like a dominant player, but he just wasn't consistent enough. To be fair, a big part of the problem was that Purdue was asking him to play rush end position, and Russell is more of a run stuffing defensive end than pass rushing rush end. Purdue didn't have any other options, so Russell ended up as the primary pass rusher on the defensive line, and he wasn't very good. Russell also fell into the trap of being good enough to be double teamed, but not quite good enough to beat the double team. Russell had 35 tackles (5.5 for loss) and a paltry 2 sacks. That's just not getting it done as a pass rusher. Russell was selected in the 5th round by the Dallas Cowboys in the 2014 draft, and is having an impressive preseason.

Defensive Tackle: Bruce Gaston-Sr.- (6'3, 300) - Bruce Gaston was the best defensive lineman on Purdue in 2013. He has good size for the position, and when fresh, he was fairly adept at getting into the backfield and causing issues. Bruce's main problem was that he was on the field all the time, and you start getting into diminishing returns pretty quickly with a tired 300 pound linemen. By the second half of games, Bruce was basically just standing up and trying not to get knocked off the line, instead of attacking the offense. He ended the season with with an impressive 48 tackles (7 for loss) and team leading 3 sacks. Bruce has knocked around the NFL after going undrafted in 2013, and is currently on the Packers roster.

Defensive Tackle: Ryan Issac - Sr.- (6'5, 295) - Ryan Issac was the nominal starter at the defensive tackle, but Purdue basically tried every other tackle on the roster at this position. Issac never quite got it done, despite having some physical tools. He played high and got pushed off the ball. He really struggled against power running teams. He was not a starting level defensive tackle for a Big10 team. He ended the season with 18 tackles (½ for loss) no sacks, and an interception.

Defensive End: Greg Latta - Sr. - (6'6, 260) - Greg Latta was a JuCo transfer that did a serviceable job for Purdue. Unfortunately, Latta and Russell essentially had the same skill set. They were both big guys who were better at defending the run than rushing the passer. If both your defensive ends don't rush the passer, you're not going to get much of a pass rush, and you're going to get killed. Latta was good enough to get a look by the Denver Broncos, but never made it onto the roster. Latta ended the year with 32 tackles (1.5 for loss) and 1 sack.

Defensive Line Depth:

The was not depth on the defensive line in 2013. Numerous true freshman were forced onto the field because there just wasn't anyone else on the roster. If you have a roster of Seniors and Freshman, you've done a terrible job of recruiting.

DE: Jake Replogle (Fr.), Jalani Phillips (Jr.), Evan Panfil (Fr.)

DT: Ryan Watson (Fr.), Mike Rouse (Fr.), Ra'Zahn Howard (Fr.), Eric McDaniel (Sr.)

Linebacker:

Hold on folks, because things start getting depressing when you start looking at Purdue's "linebackers" for 2013. They were a mixture of bad and terrible. It's really a tie between offensive line and linebacker for the worst position group on the 2013 team. For my money, I'm going linebacker, over a pathetic line. The guys tried hard, but they were physically overmatched, and that can't happen when you have a Sr. and 2 Jr.s in the starting line-up. Beyond that, depth was non-existent, so eventually, Purdue ended up with a bunch of small, tired guys on the field having the ball shoved down their throats.

WIL: Will Lucas - Sr. - (5'11, 235) - Will Lucas led Purdue in tackles in 2013, and statistically, was Purdue's best linebacker. I really wanted to like Lucas, because he was a smart, hard working linebacker, that found a way to make tackles. Will's issue was always his strength and athleticism. Lucas would have been an outstanding linebacker in the M.A.C., but in the Big 10, he had to make way too many tackles lying flat on his back. Lucas was the king of the drag down tackle, and if there is one thing I hate in football, it's the 4 yard drag down tackle. Lucas finished the year 73 tackles (2.5 for loss) and 1 sack.

MIKE: Sean Robinson - Jr. - (6'3, 240) - Oh, what could have been. Sean Robinson had the potential to be a great linebacker at Purdue. He had the size, smarts, and attitude to be a prototypical middle linebacker, but his career was badly mismanaged during the Hope regime. Robinson came in as a running quarterback who drew comparisons to Tim Tebow (I'm not kidding, I can't remember which recruiting service made the comparison, but the comparison was made) but unlike Tebow, Robinson didn't have the arm talent to be a Big 10 quarterback, and he certainly didn't have the arm talent to run the spread that Hope favored. The plan was for Robinson to R.S. his freshman year, but due to a spate of injuries at the quarterback position, Robinson actually played as a true freshman, and played spectacularly poorly (2 td's 6 ints). He redshirted as a quarterback his second year (basically wasting an entire season because he would never play Q.B. again), moved to LB the spring of his R.S. sophomore year, and started at middle linebacker his junior year. In 2013, Robinson didn't have a good feel for linebacker, and looked more like a quarterback attempting to play defense. He did some good things, but often times looked lost, causing him to lose aggression and play on his heals. Robinson ended the season with 45 tackles, (2 for loss) and no sacks (just to compare, in ½ the number of games in 2014 he put up 42 tackles (3 for loss) and a sack).

SAM: Joe Gilliam - Jr. - (6'1, 230) - Joe was another smaller guy playing outside linebacker for Purdue. He probably would have been an excellent M.A.C., but had a hard time standing up to the smash mouth Big 10. Much like Lucas, Joe made a good number of tackles laying flat on his back, turning a 2 yard gain into a 4 or 5 yard gain. Joe was just physically overmatched, which shouldn't happen as a junior in the Big 10. Joe ended the season with 31 tackles (2 for loss) and no sacks.

Linebacker Depth:

The depth at linebacker is depressing. A severely undersized walk-on, Collin link,  a JuCo, Ruben Ibarra, and a true freshman, Andy James Garcia, were the first three linebackers off the bench, which again, really speaks to abysmal recruiting by Hope atlinebacker. Armstead Williams, rounded out the rotation, but any experience was wasted, as he transferred to Duquesne the following season. Only Andy James Garcia remains for Purdue in 2015. That is some serious linebacker turnover in 2 seasons.

OLB: Collin Link (Jr), Andy James Garcia (Fr), Armstead Williams (So)

MLB: Reuben Ibarra (Sr)

Secondary:

I'll give it to Danny Hope, he was good at recruiting small fast guys. The secondary was by far the best unit on the defense. However, it didn't matter much, because of the futility on the defensive line and linebacker they turned into speed bumps with blazing speed. Four out of the five leading tacklers on the 2013 team played in the secondary. Think about that for a second. It's not unusual to see a strong safety break into the top 4 or 5 in tackling, but Purdue had 2 cornerbacks in top 5. Teams didn't even really need to throw the ball because the rush defense was so porous. The secondary was also killed by play action because they had to sell out on the run for Purdue to have any chance.

CB: Ricardo Allen - Sr. - (5'9, 190) - Ricardo Allen was the obvious star of this defense, and was the only Sr. on the senior laden defense, to be drafted. Allen was a shining light on the defense, unfortunately, his light couldn't escape the black hole of awfulness that was the defense as a whole (or maybe hole is more appropriate). Ricardo was a shutdown corner with a nose for the ball, and a willing tackler for a smaller player. On a positive note, after being drafted by the Falcons in the 5th round, cut by the Falcons, and then picked back up by the Falcons and turned into a safety, Allen has been able to put his tackling experience to good use, and is in line to be the starting free-safety for Atlanta this season. Allen recorded 53 tackles (4 for loss), a sack, and 6 interceptions.

CB: Frankie Williams - So. - (5'9, 190) - Frankie Williams has been a baller from the moment he stepped onto campus. As a sophomore, Williams was routinely tasks with trying to take down untouched running backs as they rumbled into the secondary. Frankie is another guy who is willing to get into a runner's legs and get them on the ground. It may not be pretty, and it may not be a crunching tackle, but it gets the job done. Frankie's one issue is size, which may limit him to a nickel back role in the NFL, but it hasn't bothered him at Purdue. In 2013, Williams recorded 61 tackles (2 for loss), and 3 interceptions.

SS: Anthony Brown - So. - (5'11, 195) - Brown was thrust into the starting lineup when Landon Feichter decided his dual broken hands needed a broken leg to complete the set. Brown came in and did an admirable job as an small strong safety. Brown continually found himself flat on his back after taking on a rampaging running back, but to his credit, he usually got them on the ground. In fact, he was so adept at tripping players, that he was second on the team in tackles. Brown did an admirable job in relief of Feichter, but do you really want your second leading tackler to be under 6'0 tall and weigh less than 200 pounds? Brown finished the 2013 season with 69 tackles (3 for loss).

FS: Taylor Richards - Jr. - (5'10, 195) - Richards is another undersized safety forced into basically playing linebacker for Purdue. Richards and Brown probably lead the nation in shoestring tackles and times trucked while attempting to stop a running back at full speed 7 yards past the line of scrimmage. Richards had a tendency to over commit to the run and get burned over the top, but you can't really blame him, because if he didn't sneak up to make a tackle, he would be trying to stop a back 15 yards down the field instead of 7. Richards did an admirable job, but man, do you really want your third leading tackler to be under 6'0 tall and weigh less than 200 pounds? Richards tallied 64 tackles (1 for loss) and 1 interception.

Secondary Depth:

Purdue's secondary consisted of 2 Danny Hope players and 3 Hazell true freshman. As mentioned, Danny was terrible at building depth at a position. He missed on so many evaluations that there was often nothing behind the starters. This was again the case in the secondary.

DBs: Normando Harris (Sr.), Antoine Lewis (Jr.), Austin Logan (Fr.), Leroy Clark (Fr.)

Overall:

The first question you have to ask a Big10 defense is, "Can you stop the run?" If the answer is "yes", then you can move onto other things. If the answer is "no" then you're going to lose and you're going to lose big. This was defense was similar to 1 ply bathroom tissue. The first swipe was Ok, but lack of depth eventually left Purdue with poop on its hands by the 3rd quarter. This defense gave up an average of 235 rushing yards a game, 225 passing yards, and 4.6 touchdowns per game. Couple that with an anemic offense, and you end up with a 1-11 team. The defense lacked size, depth, and playmakers at crucial positions. The cupboard was not only bare when Hazell took over, but was also infested with rabid, flesh eating roaches with lazer beam eyes. Purdue football needed an enema, and those are never fun (or so I've heard), but are sometimes needed to flush bad some stuff out.

Purdue 2015 Defense:

Defensive Line:

The 2015 defensive line doesn't have as many headline players as the 2013 team, but they do have more than 2 players, which should be helpful. This line will have depth on the inside, and at the ends. These guys should be able to go out and play full tilt from the first snap to the last snap, instead of struggling to stand up and get back to the line by the middle of the 3rd quarter. The pass rush is going to be the big question, but there are a few potential answers on the roster.

Rush End: Antoine Miles - RS So. - (6'3, 240) - This was supposed to be Gelen Robinson's spot, but Gelen Robinson is stupid, so Antoine Miles is getting a shot to make this position his own while Robinson sits on the bench and tries to figure out how to not be stupid. Miles is an unknown, but honestly, it shouldn't be hard to replace Russell's production in terms of sacks. In fact, I'll go out on a limb and say that whoever plays rush end this year will surpass Russell's Jr. and Sr. sack total (5) this season. Miles brings some much needed explosion off the end. If he doesn't get it done, Purdue will try someone else, which is a nice option to have.

Defensive Tackle: Jake Replogle - Jr. - (6'5, 275) - Replogle is not a prototypical defensive tackle. Most 6'5 defensive tackles weigh over 300 pounds, but Replogle uses his somewhat slender frame (am i really calling 275 slender?) to get into the backfield and wreak havok. Replogle moved from defensive end, where he lacked the explosion to get to the quarterback, to defensive tackle last season, and it paid major dividends. He led the team with 10.5 tackles for loss (almost doubling second place) and was second in sacks with 3 (which is depressing). He is at his best when teams are running away from him, where he can beat guards with his quickness and get into the backfield. It will be interesting to see how he plays without Ryan Russell next to him though, because Russell going against a tackle and a guard made Replogle job a lot easier. He also struggles when teams run the ball directly at him and guards get under his pads and move him out. If a team wants to run it up the gut, Purdue has other, larger options to come in and play defensive tackle. Again, it's nice to have options.

Nose Guard: Ryan Watson - Sr. - (6'2, 300) - Watson is not a prototypical nose tackle. He reminds me of former Cowboys and current Chicago Bears starting nose guard. He uses his quickness to beat the center at the snap and get into the backfield. Watson led Purdue in sacks last season with 4 (again, seriously, that's terrible) but picked up his 4 against directional Michigan and Southern Illinois. He was pretty much invisible in the Big 10 portion of the schedule and may have been the most disappointing player on the Purdue defense last year, after flashing some real potential in the non-conference. Watson will split time with Ra'Zahn Howard, and if he slips into the funk he sunk into during the Big 10 season, Howard is more than capable of stepping up and taking his spot. Once more, it's nice to have options and competition.

Defensive End: Evan Panfil - Jr. - (6'5, 275) - Panfil has prototypical size to play defensive end, and supposedly, he has the motor to go with it . It's going to be his job to take on the right tackle, beat the right tackle (or at least not let the right tackle beat him), and stuff the run. He also has the size to get his hands up and knock down some of the quick passes teams like to run. Evan says that he enjoys starting because he needs to get into a rhythm and get rid of some jitters, instead of coming on and of the field. He will get his wish and get the first shot to show that he can handle the starting job, and if he doesn't, Purdue has a couple other big defensive ends that can give it a try.

Defensive Line Depth:

What a difference two seasons has made. Purdue has gone from no depth on the defensive line, to having defensive line depth be a strong point for the team. The Boilermakers should be able to adjust personnel. If a team is trying to run it down our throats, you'll see more Mike Rouse and Ra'Zahn Howard. If you really want to try and run it down our throats you might see Replogle slide out to end, giving Purdue a huge line for teams to try and run against. The rush-end position is currently up in the air, but Purdue will start with Miles and JuCo Shane Henley, and if Gelen Robinson can figure it out off the field, he will get another shot on the field.

DE: Shayne Henley (Jr.), John Strausser (So.), Gelen Robinson (Jr.), Langston Newton (Jr.) Will Colmery (Rs. Fr.)

DT: Ra'Zahn Howard (Jr.), Mike Rouse (Sr.), Keiwan Jones (RS. Fr.), Johnny Daniels (RS. So.)

Linebacker:

No position group has been more dramatically transformed over the past 2 seasons than linebacker. It appears that Hazell, Hudson, and company got tired of watching our linebackers turned into roadkill under the tires of Big10 backs, and went out and found some big guys with propensities for on field violence to take over at linebacker. Hudson's specialty is linebacker, and it really shows, as linebacker may be Purdue's best position group.

WIL: Danny Ezechukwu - RS So. - (6'2, 250) - Danny E. would have been the biggest surprise on the Purdue roster last season, if teammate and position-mate, Ja'Whaun Bentley didn't win the honor. Ezechukwu only had 1 Power 5 offer other than Purdue (Iowa St.) and was considered a 2* recruit by Rivals. I'm sure plenty of people rolled their eyes at another "under the radar guy". Ezechukwu hit the weights, adding about 15 pounds during his redshirt year, hit the field, and then started hitting ball carriers. He excelled against the run, recording double digit tackles against Minnesota and Nebraska. He was eighth on the team in tackles even though he only started 6 games, and didn't play much at all in the first 4 games. Danny E. plays with an edge that Purdue has been sadly lacking at the linebacker position.

MIKE: Ja'Whaun Bentley - So. - (6'2, 255) - Ja'Whaun Bentley is a beast. He started every game for the Boilermakers as a true freshman, and when Shawn Robinson went down to a Purdue knee, he moved from Wil to Mike and didn't miss a beat. Bentley was made such an impact in his first year that he was named a Freshman All-American by USA today and ESPN. It was nice to see a Boilermaker actually make some noise on the national scene. Bentley is a stout run stuffer who brings pain to the ball carrier. When he hits people, they stay hit. He is also athletic enough to drop into pass coverage and competently cover his zone, and woe is the slot receiver who makes a catch in front of him over the middle. If Purdue is significantly better on defense this season, Bentley, named team captain as a true sophomore, will be a big reason why.

SAM: Jimmy Herman - RS. Jr. - (6'4, 230) - Herman started 8 games last year, and did a good job. He's the guy that is going to match up with the opposing tight end on most plays. SAM linebackers need to be able to play the run, and be athletic and smart enough to figure out when they need to cover the tight end. With Purdue's improvements on the line and at linebacker, Herman should be able to focus a little more on coverage and not get sucked in on the run quite as much this season. When other players do their jobs, it's easier for you to do your job. Herman might not be spectacular, but he will be solid, and that is a big improvement.

Linebacker Depth:

Linebacker depth is much improved this year. A true freshman won't be in the two deeps unless they beat out veteran player, which is a possibility because Purdue has a few stud freshman this season. I'm not sure who is going to redshirt on this list, but it looks like Bailey and Cook, at a minimum, will be active this season.

OLB (WIL or SAM): Andy James Garcia (RS Jr.), Dezwan Polk-Campell (Rs. So.), Markus Bailey (Fr.), Sawyer Dawson (Fr.), Tim Faison (Fr.)

MLB: Garrett Hudson (RS So.) Wyatt Cook (Fr.)

Secondary:

This is one position where Purdue lacks some depth. The 2014 recruiting class has 2 DB's (Cedric Dale and Juan Jenkins) who didn't make it. The 2013 class also had a db that didn't make it (Tyvel Jemison). Subsequently, the 2015 class will be called upon to make up the deficit. Luckily for Purdue, they have some guys that came in physically ready to contribute from day 1. The starting corners are talented and experience, in fact, they are the only 2 starters held over from the 2013 defense (that's some serious turnover). Purdue will rely on several true freshmen this season to provide depth at cornerback. Safety will be the real question mark in the secondary. One safety position is settled, but the other is still up in the air. You would like to have that position established by now, but at least you know you have 2 capable players (or at least you hope) at the free safety position.

CB: Frankie Williams - Sr. - (5'9, 190) - Frankie Williams talks the talk, luckily, he can back it up. What he lacks in size he makes up in speed, athletic ability, and desire. I'm fairly certain that Williams, out of necessity, was the smallest starting safety on a Power 5 school last season. Williams now moves back to his natural position at cornerback, and is ready to end his college career on a high note. I would love to see Williams move inside to the nickel position on obvious passing downs, because that's where he is going to play if he ends up in the NFL. From the nickel he will pick up smaller, quicker, receivers and won't have to worry about a 6'3 guy just catching a ball over his head. Purdue's run defense looks much improved this season. That means Williams might see a little more action in the secondary, and if he gets his hands on the ball, you know he's going to try and take it to the house.

CB: Anthony Brown - Sr. - (5'11, 195) - Brown is a little bigger than Williams and a lot quieter, but he gets the job done. The goal this season is for Brown to be able to concentrate more on his cornerback duties and less on his linebacker duties. Brown has made a ton of tackles in his Purdue career, and I for one, am hoping that those are substantially down this year. Brown isn't as fast or athletic as Williams, but he is always in the right position, and he is a solid tackler. I will be interested to see what Hudson decides to do in the secondary this year. Will Williams play the lock down corner role and match up with the other team's best receiver? Will Brown matchup with larger receivers? Will Hudson just play Williams at RCB and Brown at LCB and keep it simple (probably not with 2 experienced guys at corner). Either way, Brown will be on the field for the majority of defensive snaps this year. Let's hope he is shutting down receivers instead of chopping down running backs.

SS: Brandon Roberts - RS Fr. - (5'11, 200)- I think Hazell and Hudson would prefer to pencil the larger, and possibly more athletic, Robert Gregory into this spot, but they don't think Purdue is ready for a high risk / high reward safety. Instead, they are going to start with Brandon Roberts. All Brandon Roberts does is exactly what he is supposed to do, and that's important for a safety. While Gregory might get caught sniffing around the line or trying to make a big hit, Roberts is going to be in position and make the plays that are in front of him, and live to fight another day. It is my deep desire that I don't have to scream, "Where is the safety, where is the bleeping safety!" nearly as much this season.

FS: Leroy Clark - Jr. - (5'10, 190) - Leroy moved from corner to safety and Frankie Williams moved for safety to corner, and I like the trade. Leroy doesn't quite have the top in speed and change of direction that Frankie Williams has, and Frankie might not read the game quite as well as Leroy. Clark brings a steady hand and solid athleticism to the free safety position. He obviously has coverage ability, because he played corner last year, and he obviously can tackle, because, let's face it, Purdue corners had to make a bunch of tackles over the last two years. Clark was the highest ranked defensive player in the 2013 recruiting class, and this is the year he gets to show everyone why he was so well regarded coming out of high school.

Overall:

Can this defense stop the run? As mentioned above, if a defense can't stop the run in the Big10, you may as well just pack it in, because it's going to be a long day. Unlike the 2013 defense, the 2015 defense looks geared up to at a minimum contain the run. Big10 running backs will no longer have Purdue circled on the calendar. There is size, experience, and depth on the defensive line and at linebacker. The front 7 should be the strength of the Purdue defense. Now throw in two talented and experienced cornerbacks, and you have the makings of a solid unit. If Purdue can figure out how to generate a pass rush, and find a quality safety the Boilermakers could go from having a solid defense to actually having a good defense. This is where the Purdue fans come into play. A little extra crowd noise in Ross-Ade could go a long way into helping out the pass rush. Getting to the quarterback or coming up just short and watching the quarterback launch a touchdown pass is often decided by a fraction of a second. Crowd noise makes it hard for the quarterback to communicate and difficult for the offensive line to hear the snap count. A moment of hesitation off the line from an offensive lineman could be the difference between winning and losing this season. You should probably come out and do your part. Baby Come Back!