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2017 Purdue Football Preview: Linebackers

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Purdue has some excellent starters, but needs more depth.

NCAA Football: Purdue at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Finally, after more than a decade where linebacker was a glaring weakness that was never addressed, Purdue has a solid group of linebackers that are actually Big Ten caliber. Gone are the days of undersized safeties playing forward or converted fullbacks switching to the other side of the ball. For the second straight year Purdue has some really, really good linebackers. What’s even better is that we have a defensive coordinator that actually realizes it is a strength and therefore it is probably a good idea to put these guys on the field.

That was the biggest gripe I had with the one-year fill in of Ross Els for defensive coordinator. He was married to a 4-2-5 theme that put more of Purdue’s weakness (a very young secondary) on the field and took away from Purdue’s strength (two linebackers when we had at least three good ones. Even when Maryland was running for 400 yards (including one guy who went for 200+ on just seven carries) he stuck with this. Purdue was a disaster against the run last year because it sold out against the pass to the point of having its talented linebackers thinking pass first instead of run first.

As a result, Purdue gave up 238.4 yards per game on the ground (but hey! It only gave up 207 through the air because other teams were smart and realized they didn’t need to pass). Purdue was 115th out of 128 teams nationally against the run last year, with only Rutgers being worse in the Big Ten. Men on crutches could go for 150 against us with ease.

This year it has to be better, mostly because it can’t get much worse.

Starters

T.J. McCollum – Grad Transfer

198 career tackles, 15.5 TFLs, 1 INT

Ja’Whaun Bentley – Sr.

175 career tackles, 18 TFLs, 1 INT

Markus Bailey – So.

109 career tackles, 6 TFLs, 4 INTs

This is a solid group of linebackers that can play with any team in the conference. Bentley has battled injuries the last two seasons, missing half of 2015 with a torn ACL and 3 games last year, but when healthy he has been one of Purdue’s best overall defenders. He is exactly what you want in a middle linebacker.

McCollum is an interesting addition. He started at UAB before the program was shuttered, then played the last two years for Brohm at Western Kentucky. With his degree in hand and a year of eligibility left he followed Brohm here, so he already has intimate knowledge of the defenses that Nick Holt wants to run. He started 25 games in that time and was often a tackling machine. He will do just fine on the outside.

Finally, you have Bailey, who had a monster season as a redshirt freshman coming off of tearing his ACL in 2015. He led Purdue in tackles and interceptions as a great inside pass coverage guy. Against Indiana last year he had 8 tackles and two interceptions, almost single-handedly keeping Purdue in the game.

All three of these guys have talent and experience. With the defense actually now looking to defend the run they will all have a big role, too. I could not be happier with this group.

Special Starter:

Danny Ezechukwu – Sr.

174 career tackles, 2.5 sacks, 6.5 TFLs, 2 INTs, 1 Defensive Touchdown

Danny E. was the man sacrificed last year in the 4-2-5 scheme, but he still finished fourth on the team with 52 tackles. Now he may see action and success with a strategy that has worked time and again for Purdue: a linebacker that moves to defensive end. Think about it for a moment. Many great Purdue defensive ends started as linebackers and moved to DE to use their speed and athleticism for an edge. Ryan Kerrigan and Cliff Avril did this, and now they sleep on a pile of money with many beautiful ladies because of their large NFL contracts.

Danny E. is probably going to spend this year as a hybrid, playing DE a lot but occasionally standing up as a linebacker. It best suits him as a guy with great downhill toward-the-ball instincts. If his quickness can get around the edge he can be a terror in the backfield. More importantly, this allows us to get our best guys on the field at the same time, a novel strategy.

Top Reserves

Garrett Hudson – Sr.

34 career tackles, 0.5 sacks, fumble recovery

Rob Simmons – Jr.

After the top four the production drops off dramatically, and Purdue needs something from its reserves because they will be starters next season with McCollum, Bentley, and Ezechukwu all seniors. Hudson is a senior as well and has been a respectable backup and special teams player throughout his career. He even has a handful of starts from 2015. He will do fine as a reserve.

Simmons had a big spring and produced big numbers as an outside pass rusher at Valley Forge Military Academy, but has yet to produce in games. He is more of an outside rusher than a middle linebacker, and he could be used in specialty pass rush situations.

Other Reserves/Walk-ons

Sawyer Dawson – So.

1 career tackle

Jonah Williams – Fr. (walk-on)

Semisi Fakasiieki – Fr. (RS)

Dawson played special teams a year ago, but is in year three and doesn’t seem to be making much of an impact. Fakasiieki, unfortunately, looks like the typical Hazell recruit that has people saying, “who?” I hope I am wrong about him because he was an all-League player in Southern California who had 80 tackles in his senior year. The good news is that he has plenty of time to be developed by this coaching staff and he does bring good size to the position.

Williams is a freshman walk-on from West Lafayette HS and is the son of one of our best receivers ever, Calvin Williams.

The Freshmen

Tobias Larry – Fr.

Cornel Jones – Fr.

Derrick Barnes – Fr.

I would be willing to bet at least one of these guys plays immediately as a reserve just to get some game action for 2018. At least one of them is probably starting next year when we have Bailey and not much else returning. All three will be critical for rebuilding depth at the position both this year in case of injury and going forward.

Barnes was a second team all-state selection in Kentucky who had 126 tackles and also rushed for 1,567 yards and 22 touchdowns. His two-way athleticism will definitely be an advantage to get to the field early, and it will certainly help that he can concentrate on one side of the ball. Eventually it is not outside the realm of possibility to see him as a fullback in special situations.

Jones comes from the football powerhouse Miami Central down in South Florida and he was a three-time state champion. He finished with 55 tackles and 8 sacks last season with an interception return for a touchdown.

Larry is the smallest of the three and seems to be the one most likely to redshirt. He was a two-year starter and he ran the 400 in track, but he is listed as 6’1”, 210 pounds. That is a good size to get killed at in the Big Ten.

Overall Position Grade: B+

I would definitely give the starters an A, especially since they are so good one looks like he will be moving down to the defensive line. Where they lose points in evaluation is the depth. Literally, the reserves right now are Hudson and shrug emoji. The position is set to take a major step back in 2018, but for now, as long as the starters are healthy it will be a huge asset.

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