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Purdue Football: My Guess At the Defensive Line Depth Chart

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Looking at Bob Diaco’s Louisiana Tech may help to figure out his Purdue defense line.

Purdue v Northwestern Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Hey y’all (I’ve ditched formal diction and have reverted back to my Southern upbringing), it’s been a while. I’ve been eagerly awaiting the start of Purdue’s season while covering Kansas State football and hating hard in my weekly Clemson “HATE” article. Those are both fun gigs, but my love of Purdue athletics started me on this strange blogging journey, and I’m happy to have an actual game on the horizon to discuss.

Normally I would “break down the depth chart” but Coach Brohm wants to make my life difficult and won’t be putting out a depth chart for the Iowa game. Instead, I’m going to throw out my best guess on who I expect to see on Saturday.

Kyle already offered his opinion on the depth chart, and he’s a more plugged into the local scene since I live in Kansas, but I’m going to give it a shot as well. If I’m closer, Kyle will have to acknowledge my superiority. If Kyle is closer, he cheated (I learned this tactic from Ohio State twitter).

While there are a few questions on offense, I’m going to start with the defense, because Bob Diaco’s bringing in a new system, and the depth chart is up in the air. In this instance, looking at the past may give us an indication about the future. Diaco’s defense at Louisiana Tech last year is the main reason he’s the defensive coordinator at Purdue this year. It stands to reason that he’ll put a similar lineup on the field, at least schematically, this season.

In order to keep these articles to a manageable length, I’ve decided to break this up into position groups. It gives me the opportunity to go further in-depth into my reasoning and I can show you how these positions produced in Diaco’s defense last year.

Please note that I have no inside information on the depth chart.

Defensive Line

Louisiana Tech 2019

Run Stuffing Defensive End

Ka’Derrion Mason - 6’4, 297

Kevin Murphy - 6’2, 305

2019 Stats

Ka’Derrion Mason - Games Played(12) - Tackles(27) - Tackles for Loss(6) - Sacks(3)

Kevin Murphy - GP(8) - T(12) - TFL(1) - S(0)

Breakdown

At Louisiana Tech, Diaco essentially played a defensive tackle at this position. Having big defensive ends is a staple of a 3-4 defense. In a 3-4, the defensive line needs to command double teams and keep the offensive line off the linebackers and safeties.

For the most part, the big defensive ends primary utility is in the run game. In theory, sacks and tackles for loss should come from linebackers and safeties in the 3-4. Ka’Derrion Mason played in 12 games and put up rather paltry numbers in tackles for loss and sacks, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t do his job because his main job is to maintain the line of scrimmage and occupy a tackle and potentially a guard.

What makes Diaco’s version of the 3-4 different is his strategy of shifting seamlessly between 3, 4 and occasionally 5 man fronts. In order to achieve this, he needs a big defensive end that he can kick inside to play defensive tackle. Mason was often lined up at a traditional 3 technique defensive tackle position last season, with a linebacker spinning down to play defensive end next to him.

Purdue 2020 (Projected)

Run Stuffing Defensive End

Anthony Watts - 6’4, 300

Steven Faucheux - 6’5, 300

Breakdown

Watts is the perfect player for this role. He’s a decent athlete and has logged a ton of snaps at defensive tackle during his Purdue career. He’ almost a clone of Mason from Louisiana Tech. Watts may not pop in the score book, but he looks good on tape because he does the little things that makes a defensive front work. When Diaco wants to employ a 4 man front, Watts should make the transition seamlessly.

I penciled Faucheux into the backup spot, but it could go to any number of players. I like Steven’s long term potential at this position and his height could be an asset in defending the short passing game. He came to Purdue as a defensive tackle and could kick inside without any trouble and hold up against a power run game in early downs.

Louisiana Tech 2019

Nose Tackle

Courtney Wallace - 6’2, 305

D.J. Jackson - 6’0, 295

2019 Stats

Courtney Wallace - Games Played(12) - Tackles(39) - Tackles for Loss(8.5) - Sacks(2)

D.J. Jackson - GP(12) - T(6) - TFL(0) - S(0)

Breakdown

Nose tackle is generally considered a space eater in the 3-4 front. He lines up over the center and has to command a double team for the defense to work. Wallace played that role well for Diaco, and even made the occasional foray into the backfield to make a tackle.

Diaco inherited this roster, and it appears that Wallace soaked up the majority of snaps at nose tackle, because his backup didn’t do much. Bob has more options on the Purdue roster, and I expect a more equitable split of playing time, at least early in the season.

Purdue 2020 (Projected)

Nose Tackle

Lorenzo Neal - 6’3, 325

Lawrence Johnson - 6’3, 300

Breakdown

A quality nose tackle is a requisite for the 3-4 to work, and it’s one of the reasons you don’t see many college teams running a 3-4, because they’re hard to find. Diaco walks into to Purdue with (in theory) one of the best nose tackles in the nationalready on the roster.

When Neal is healthy and motivated, he is a dominant force in the interior. He’s got the size but his game is more expansive than “big guy who is hard to move”. Neal has a nasty spin move when he rushes the passer and is surprisingly quick for a man of his stature. After missing last season recovering from a knee injury and a maddingly slow rehab, Neal is back in action, although I expect his snaps to be limited initially while he works his way into game shape.

Lawrence Johnson will be a crucial piece for the Purdue defense this season. Like Neal, he’s surprisingly agile for a big man and will occasionally swim a center and blow up a running back in the backfield. He logged substantial time last season with Neal out of commission and I expect him to soak up at least a quarter if not half of the snaps at nose tackle.

Louisiana Tech 2019

Pass Rushing Defensive End

Milton Williams - 6’4, 270

Deshon Hall - 6’3, 250

2019 Stats

Milton Williams - Games Played(12) - Tackles(54) - Tackles for Loss(7.5) - Sacks(4)

Deshon Hall - GP(7) - Tackles(6) - Tackles for Loss(1) - Sacks(0)

Breakdown

I’ve designated this the “pass rushing defensive end” but it’s a bit of a misnomer because 4 sacks doesn’t exactly scream “dominant pass rusher”. At the same time, Williams had significantly more freedom than his run stuffing counterpart on the other side in Diaco’s defense. He was asked to work his way up field and hunt down tackles instead of engaging multiple offensive linemen.

Again, Diaco pieced this defense together from a leftover 4 man front, and didn’t have a ton of depth at his disposal, as you can see from the backup’s numbers. I expect him to use more of the roster at Purdue.

Purdue 2020 (Projected)

Pass Rushing Defensive End

George Karlaftis - 6’4, 270

Dontay Hunter II - 6’4, 260

Breakdown

This is where the Purdue defense has a chance to be significantly more dynamic than Diaco’s defense at Louisiana Tech. Karlaftis is an elite talent and his skill set fits this position perfectly. He’s big and strong enough to hold up against the run and athletic enough to attack up field and rack up sacks and tackles for loss. He compiled 17.5 tackles for loss and 7 sacks last season, and seemingly missed another 10 sacks because he struggled to get the QB on the ground for reasons beyond my comprehension. He should be a terror this season.

Like Faucheux at the run stuffing defensive end spot, Hunter is purely a talent projection. He was one of the highest rated defensive players in Purdue’s 2019 class and is a dynamic athlete. I would love to see Purdue work Hunter into the rotation and allow George to get some rest during the game so he’s ready to dominate in the 4th quarter.

Hunter is my pick, but this spot could go to any number of players, and the style of opponent (run heavy vs pass heavy) could dictate who backs up Karlaftis from game to game.

Overall

Diaco has similar components on the 2020 Purdue squad that he had on his 2019 Louisiana Tech defense, but they’re more talented across the board. If Neal is healthy and Karlaftis figures out how to finish off sacks, this could easily be Purdue’s best defensive line under Brohm.

Neal and Karlaftis both have the ability to disrupt plays in the backfield and Watts is the perfect grinder to hold up against the run. Depth will be key in this sprint of a season, and that’s where things get a little shaky for Purdue. In theory, the roster has plenty of talent, but a good bit of that talent behind the starters is untested. At the same point, the only way a player gains experience is to play. The front line talent is good enough to allow Diaco to mix and match his reserves, but if one of the starters has to miss any significant time, things get questionable.

Maybe this is the year where the defense dodges the injury bug, because if it does, this could be one of the surprise defensive units in the Big10.