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Purdue Football: Weaponizing Jalen Graham

Jalen Graham is closer to the line of scrimmage and I’m here for it!

Maryland v Purdue Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

Purdue’s defense has been bad.

In fact, bad isn’t sufficient to describe the train wreck overseen by Nick Holt this season. There are plenty of excuses (and valid reasons) why the defense has struggled, but it started bad against Nevada and has continued to be bad throughout. Injuries have played a role, but so has a tired scheme and predictable play calling.

I’m spoiled. I get to watch Brent Venables coach the Clemson defense, and there is always something new to appreciate. He’s sending safeties from all over the field. He’s playing 3, 4, and 5 man fronts on the same drive. He mixes and matches personnel all game. Any team that’s reliant on pre-snap reads (cough, Alabama, cough) has no idea what’s going on from one play to the next. In the National Championship game, Tua was throwing the ball in the correct places based for his pre-snap reads, but Clemson players weren’t where they were supposed to be on the play, resulting in two easy interceptions.

Purdue, on the other hand, has been about as predictable as they come this year. Again, some of it’s hard to pin on Holt because he’s dealing with young players, but at some point, if you’re getting beaten like a drum, you might as well try and change things up. It has been much too easy for the opposing offensive coordinators to pick apart the Boilermaker defense. The Maryland game, however, was a much needed reprieve for the Boilermaker defense, and Nick Holt.

Purdue showed the Terps more looks than I’ve seen this season, and one of the keys to changing things up is Jalen Graham, who moved from safety to nickel back in order to get more involved in the game. He was deployed all over the field on Saturday. Even when he wasn’t making a play, he was showing up in places where he wasn’t expected. That alone makes a difference.

I was disappointed at the start of the season. Holt had Graham lined up as the deep safety on most plays. He spent his time in deep coverage or chasing running backs loose in the secondary. Purdue had a multi-talented player stuck away from the ball and not making nickel back position is unique. The Boilermakers are in desperate need of defensive play-makers, but the one guy that looks the part is hanging out 20-30 yards away from the line of scrimmage while the defense gets gashed in front of him.

Graham vs Nevada

It’s easy to pick out the lanky, long limbed Graham on television. He looks like a football player. Against Nevada, Holt deployed him as far away from the line of scrimmage as possible.

I hated it.

I want a freshman like Graham going 100 miles an hour, and if makes mistakes, I want him to make them in the front end, and not the back end of the defense. Playing him at safety required him to think more and play less. Playing deep safety in Nick Holt’s scheme is a waste of an athlete like Jalen.

Graham vs Maryland

Outside Linebacker

This is a much tougher read for the quarterback. To make things more confusing for the O.C. and QB, it looks like he’s going to step up and take the motion man, but instead, Holt slides out and Graham has the swing pass to the running back on the R.P.O. covered. Jack Sullivan takes the QB and George Karlaftis finishes everything off.

Fake LB Blitz, Play Zone

Graham is lined up as a linebacker on this play. Too many times this year, Holt has essentially held up a sign saying, “I’m blitzing, you should probably throw a screen.” This look is harder for the offense to diagnose. They don’t know if Graham is blitzing or dropping out.

The Maryland quarterback is looking for his receiver running just outside the far hash, but has to pull it down and run because Graham has dropped into the trowing lane. Good job by Graham of getting to where he needs to go, and a much better job of Holt disguising coverage.


Purdue is lined up in a classic 3-4 defense. Graham is playing outside linebacker.

Graham hands the tight end off to Holt and takes the running back. He then fakes covering the running back, and attacks the quarterback instead, using his long arms to block the passing lane for the dump off into the flat.

Derrick Barnes embarrasses the left tackle for the sack.


This was the first defensive game plan that I’ve enjoyed watching on replay this season. Graham’s versatility allows Holt to move him around formations and create chaos. Maryland was uncomfortable most of the game and couldn’t find a rhythm with their passing or running game until it was too late.

Looking into the future, it’s hard not to be optimistic about Purdue’s secondary. Graham looks like a natural at nickel back and Cam Allen is holding up well at free safety. Add in a healthy Marvin Grant to strong safety and the back in of the defense could be a strength in the near future.

I hope we see something similar against Iowa.