Purdue’s on their 3rd defensive coordinator in 3 season, which, if nothing else, is a rather impressive feat you don’t often see in college football. Obviously, this isn’t great for player development or overall esprit de corps, but Coach Lambert should be a steady hand at the reigns. He’s signed to a 2 year deal (which I’ll cover in another article) so I think it’s safe to say (fingers crossed?) that he’ll be calling the defense for the next two seasons.
His first order of business is to sort through the roster and put together a coherent depth chart for his defense. Spring ball is going to be crucial to implement his vision for the defense. He needs to get close to the fall depth chart right out of the gate, because the starters and primary backups need all the snaps to get acclimated to the new system.
Your guess is probably as good as mine at this point, but I’ve consulted my trusty magic 8 ball and put together a little something for you to consider and rip apart.
Coach Brohm seems to favor a 3 man front. He hasn’t found a defensive coordinator he likes to run it...yet, but he seems pretty set on the alignment, based on his last 2 hires. As I mentioned in my last article Coach Lambert favors a scheme closer to what we saw from Coach Holt’s last year in charge of the defense than Coach Diaco’s scheme. I think you’re going to get a 3 man front with a roving 4th defensive lineman that moves around the defensive line. That makes this a little tricky, but I think it could look something like this.
Dontay Hunter III
Karlaftis is one of the few locks for the defense. He’ll be on the field, and he’ll be at defensive end, although I think you’ll see him slide inside more than he has in the past, based on Lambert’s scheme. The backup position is anyone’s guess. Hunter had a solid reputation coming into Purdue as a high 3*, pass rushing end. I was surprised not to see him last season, but hope springs eternal.
I’m less certain on this one. Watts could also be the starter, but I think Johnson better fits the prototype at nose guard. This a a position where Johnson and Watts could split snaps and keep both of them fresh. Johnson is a little more explosive, Watts is a litter more of a steady, tough guy in the middle. I’m not sure either is ideal, but they’ll do the trick. One guy to keep an eye on is Bryce Austin, who may be the best athlete out of the three options at Nose guard.
Another blind guess on my part, but Anderson fits the scheme well. He’s probably best suites as a 3 tech defensive tackle, and he’ll get bumped down to that position more often than not. He hasn’t seen the field much in his career, but I’m guessing he didn’t transfer from South Carolina for the crisp Indiana winter weather. Sullivan has acquitted himself well, and is another guy that can easily bump inside and play defensive tackle.
I have no idea on this one, but y’all seem to think Mitchell is the guy, and I’m willing to go with it. He has the size to both come off the edge as a pass rusher or slide inside as a stand up 3 tech defensive tackle (if Lambert decides to employ that strategy at Purdue). Deen has a similar build to Mitchell and is another guy that can play both inside and outside on the defensive line. This is pretty much a shot in the dark.
In this scenario, Mitchell is playing on the line, so I need to find two new linebackers to pair with returning starter Jaylan Alexander. Note that Lambert actually lists an extra player on his depth chart as a “nickel” and that player will most likely take the weakside linebacker off the field.
Strong Side Linebacker
This is another choice of the people. Brothers wasn’t rated much higher than most linebackers already on the roster, and he doesn’t have much “on field” time, but his speed is intriguing and Lambert covets speed at linebacker. Saunders is another blind guess, I thought he would see the field last season...but nothing. He played some in 2019 and tended to flash when he did. You could plug any number of players into the back up spot, including Brothers, who I don’t consider a lock to start, but who I expect to see on the depth chart. Yanni Karlaftis could also make a move at this spot.
Hey, I’m pretty confident with Alexander. He’s the only guy I’m almost certain will start at linebacker. He was second on the team in tackles last year behind Derrick Barnes, and I think he’ll lead the team in tackles this season. Douglas, a former walk-on, was an important contributor last season as a reserve, and keeps his role in this depth chart, but I could be talked into either Ben Kreul or Kydran Jenkins.
Weak Side Linebacker
Graham has settled in nicely to this position after coming to Purdue as a safety. He fits the profile of what Lambert likes at linebacker in terms of speed. It’s possible he stays on the field a little more than a normal weak side linebacker in this scheme because of his ability to drop in coverage. Ball is another shot in the dark. He came to Purdue as a corner/safety before transitioning to linebacker, ostensibly to play this position. If it’s going to happen, now is the time. This is another spot Yanni could play.
I’m pretty certain Trice will start at one of the corner spots. He’s a big, physical corner who holds up decently in both man and zone. Howard dipped his toe into the transfer portal before deciding to return to Purdue. I’m going to assume he did that because he has a defined role on this team.
Johnson was seemingly a big addition after transferring from Iowa last season, and then...not much. I think a full camp lets his talent win out, and grab a starting spot. Mackey and Johnson could easily flip, but I’m going with Johnson.
Nickel seems like the right spot for Howard. I think the top 4 corners (Trice, Howard, Johnson, Mackey) will all see plenty of playing time. I’m taking a guess on Romphf who received solid reviews in camp before disappearing into the ether of the 2020 season. This could just as easily be Nyles Beverly, Kadin Smith, or someone I’m not even thinking of at the moment.
Allen is still one of my favorite players on the roster. He’s a playmaker in the back end of the defense, and extremely versatile. He could just as easily play corner, but I think free safety is the best spot for the former high school quarterback. Kane is a great athlete and will probably see some time as well. I know our own Kyle Holderfield is a big fan of Kane’s upside.
Grant is a former 4* recruit and an explosive athlete and hitter. He seems custom made for the strong safety position. He hits like a linebacker in the run game and can strike fear in crossing wide receivers and tight end. He’s the talent at the position and needs to be on the field. There aren’t a ton of options behind Grant, but Brandt is a big safety coming out of high school. I think this spot could eventually go to Antonio Stevens, but he’s coming off a nasty knee injury and subsequent surgery. It may take him a season to get back to full strength.