The Senior class in the first year of a transition to a new coach is always a critical one. A proper coach connects with them and uses as the bridge to something better. Back in 2013 we saw that senior class mostly marginalized and pushed out in favor of younger players. The result was a fall from 6-7 to a disastrous 1-11.
This year’s class is different though. Coach Brohm knew that he couldn’t push the seniors aside if he wanted to win now. He knew he needed to get them on board and fully participating in order to have any success. He knew they would also set the tone through their leadership for any future successes. Without them, Purdue football would continue to be adrift.
That is why this particular group of seniors is a special one that will play its final game at Ross-Ade stadium on Saturday. They have been through a lot. A handful started their recruitment under Danny Hope and one even committed before he was fired. They lasted through the brutal Darrell Hazell regime. They have never won the Old Oaken Bucket or played in a bowl game. Through this, they have persevered and can be rewarded with a Bucket and a bowl by sundown on Saturday. Let’s take a look at them individually:
Danny Ezechukwu – LB – Based on the date committed, Ezechukwu has been with Purdue the longest. He committed on October 16, 2012 according to Rivals, and even though others committed before him and are still playing college football like Danny Etling, he has stayed. This means he was technically recruited by Danny Hope. He redshirted in year one under Hazell and has been a regular contributor for four years. His highlight was a 90-yard fumble return for a touchdown against Virginia Tech in 2015. This year he emerged as a strong pass rusher and run stopper, playing on the edge and causing havoc. Winning the Bucket would feel especially sweet for him.
Da’Wan Hunte – CB – The senior cornerback has been a vocal leader in the locker room this season and is another player that has been here for a lot. He committed in January 2013 just after Hazell signed and, along with a few others, is one of the few guys left that has been here all five years. He has emerged as Purdue’s top corner and has had a good senior year with 35 tackles and an interception he returned 42 yards at Wisconsin. He is also in line for a big final game.
Antoine Miles – DE – What Hazell did to Miles last season is borderline criminal. After playing in all 12 games, making 6 starts, and leading the team with four sacks as a redshirt sophomore in 2015 He did not play a single snap last season. Brohm came along and saw he could play. This year he has been a key reserve with action in 10 games. He has 13 tackles, 5.5 for loss, and last weekend notched a pair of sacks against Iowa. He is coming along at the right time as yet another 5th year guy that has been here a while.
Garrett Hudson – LB – I would not have faulted Hudson one bit for leaving Purdue a few years ago. He came aboard in 2013 when his dad was named defensive coordinator, but stayed after his dad was fired following the 2015 season. Since then he has evolved into a quality reserve and spot starter at linebacker. He has also been a special teams force with a pair of blocked kicks this season.
It should be noted that Ezechukwu, Hunte, Hudson, and Miles were the only members of the 2013 recruiting class that stayed all five years (Leroy Clark, Evan Panfil, Jake Replogle, and DeAngelo Yancey never redshirted and were gone after 4).
Race Johnson – CB – The walk-on senior just missed his moment of glory at Wisconsin this year. He picked up a blocked punt and was rumbling for a sure touchdown when a pulled hamstring caused him to stumble to the turf. While not a recruited player, Race has been with us for five years like those above and has earned solid playing time in the last three years. He is a special teams ace that will be missed.
Ja’Whaun Bentley – LB – Where would we be without Bentley? The beastly middle linebacker has had a fantastic senior season with 89 tackles, 9.5 for loss, and the 76 yard pick-6 that sealed the Minnesota game. He has been this team’s defensive leader for four years now, playing through multiple injuries and generally being everything we have needed. He could be Purdue’s best linebacker of the past decade, with the only challenger being Markus Bailey.
Gregory Phillips – WR – Phillips came in and played as a true freshman in 2014, seeing action in all 12 games. Over his career he now has 69 receptions for 738 yards and a pair of scores. This season we have relied on him to be a senior leader in a receiving corps that has been very up and down. He has yet to find the end zone, but he has at least once reception in 10 of 11 games this year with a season high 7 against Louisville.
Gelen Robinson – DL – Another player who has been up and down over his career, the son of the Big dog is finishing on a strong note. Last season he was a finalist for the Piesman Trophy after his pick-6 in the season opener. He leads Purdue with 10.5 tackles for loss and has, in general, played a huge role in our suddenly stout run defense. He also has three sacks and could be headed off to the NFL with his strength and speed.
Wes Cook – S – Wes was a transfer from east Carolina that came to Purdue when his younger brother committed. While Wyatt Cook never made much of a contribution, Wes has evolved into another unsung walk-on on special teams. Last season he had two tackles and this year in eight games, mostly on special teams, he has two more tackles.
Anthony Mahoungou – WR – Your reigning Big Ten player of the Week was another victim of Hazell marginalizing him, just like Miles. After getting four receptions for 59 yards in his first game as a sophomore JuCo transfer in 2014 he was pretty much forgotten. He only had 17 receptions after that before this year, but has broken out for 32 catches, 482 yards, and 5 touchdowns. Three of those scores have come in the last two games as he is finishing on a very strong note. He is one of the most unlikely Big Ten Players of the Week ever.
Austin Larkin – DE – With a famous uncle and NBA cousin Larkin had a nice pedigree when he came to Purdue as a JuCo transfer before last season. He has played through minor injuries but has been a regular starter though. This year he has 20 tackles and, while not much of a pass rusher, has been strong against the run.
C.J. Parker – S – Parker was a JuCo transfer brought in last season to shore up the secondary and ended up starting in five games. This year he has seen his playing time dwindle, but he still had 35 tackles and an interception last season. He has been a decent reserve and a player we can count on Saturday if needed.
Kamal Hardy – CB – Like Parker, Hardy was a defensive back brought in as a JuCo to shore up the secondary. Unfortunately, a shoulder injury cost him all but one game last season. This year has been better. He has played in eight games and even started against Illinois. His interception late at Missouri was a great play where he just decided to personally keep the Tigers out of the end zone.
Dave Steinmetz – RT – Now we’re into the guys who have only been here one year as graduate transfers, but they have been contributors that have immediately made us better. That’s where Steinmetz is. He transferred from a moribund Rhode Island team to come over and offer immediate line help. He has locked down the right tackle position and helped to stabilize an offensive line that was a major question mark before the season.
Josh Okonye – CB – What a year for Okonye! He has started all 11 games after transferring from Wake Forest and he is 5th on the team with 52 tackles. He has also offered a blitzing element with 4.5 tackles for loss and a sack. He leads the team with 8 pass breakups and has been solid on the outside within the defense. We would not be where we are without Okonye.
T.J. McCollum – LB – The final senior came to us with one year left with Brohm from Western Kentucky. He has played hurt, too. He has missed three games, but is still 4th on the team in tackles with 54 and he has 5 tackles for loss and two sacks. He has been instrumental to Purdue’s defense and, along with Bailey and Bentley, has formed a great linebacking trio.
This is a small group. There are just 16 guys because a number left long before their senior seasons. A few more walked out over the summer when it was obvious they were not going to have much of a role. It’s quite a bunch too, with Ezechukwu originally being a Hope recruit and one who has been here for five years and Steinmetz, who came on board this summer. Still, they have been a great group of leaders that have melded together to bring this program back. All of them (except Parker, who has no stats this year) have contributed on the field this season and could have a major role on Saturday.
Thank you for being Boilermakers.