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Purdue Football: Offseason Questions - Aidan O’Connell

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The starter is set in stone, everything else is negotiable.

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel Calvin Mattheis/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

Now that spring triage...ahem, I mean spring practice, is done and dusted, it’s time to talk about everyone’s favorite time of year.

THE OFFSEASON!

This is the magical time of year without football and basketball where we at Hammer and Rails lean hard on recruiting and do our best not to recycle article topics...or at least space out the duplicate topics enough that y’all forget about the first one. This has inconsistent results, but we do make the effort.

Quarterback Questions

As a Purdue fan, having the starting quarterback situation resolved coming out of spring practice is awesome. Quarterback continuity has been an issue throughout the Brohm tenure. Sometimes it’s bad luck (Blough, Sindelar, and Plummer injuries) and sometimes it’s been self inflicted. Either way, the only thing certain about the Purdue quarterback position over the last several years is uncertainty. When Aidan O’Connell announced his return for a Super Senior year, all questions about the starting quarterback position ended. That’s great for the team, and I’m excited to see what a quarterback 100% comfortable in the Brohm system, without anyone looking over his shoulder, can do in this offense.

As a Purdue writer, having the starting quarterback situation resolved coming out of spring practice is a bit of a nightmare. Whenever I ran out of things to write about, I could also circle back to the quarterback competition. It’s a bit of a sports wedge issue. Everyone has an opinion on who should start, and they’re willing to defend that opinion and strike down with furious vengeance, all opposing views. Last year the O’Connell/Plummer quarterback battle sustained me through the offseason. This season, I’m afforded no such luxury. That doesn’t mean there aren’t important questions regarding the quarterback position, and Aidan O’Connell, heading into the offseason. It does mean that those questions aren’t nearly as fun to debate in the comment section (although y’all should totally give it your best shot).

Aidan O’Connell

It’s hard to wrap my around the fact that Aidan started last season as the backup to Jack Plummer. No offense to Jack, I think he’s going to do well in Cal’s more “West Coast” short passing game offense, but I preferred O’Connell’s ability and willingness to attack down the field in Jeff Brohm’s offense. I actually preferred the idea of Michael Alaimo, with his big arm, mobile legs, and glorious hair, before the season started but O’Connell gave me everything I thought Purdue could get out of Alaimo (with the exception of mobility) with the ability to not throw the ball to the other team that much.

When he took over as the starter against Minnesota, things started to turn around for the Boilermakers on offense. He only completed 65% of his passes against the Gophers, but his completion percentage didn’t drop below 70% the rest of the regular season. In fact, it only dipped below 75% in 2 games, and that was by a razor thin margin (74.1% vs Michigan State and 74.4% vs Northwestern). If you listen to Coach Brohm when he talks about quarterback play at Purdue, he always mentions efficiency, and that’s what he got out of O’Connell in the Big 10 slate last season.

Not only was O’Connell efficient, he was aggressive. There are plenty of short throws baked into the Purdue offense but O’Connell’s adjusted yards per attempt was 8.6. That’s the highest AY/A from a primary starting quarterback in the Brohm era (Blough is second with 8.1 in 2018). He took the short throws when available, but also pushed the ball down the field, into the second level, between the linebackers and safeties, more than any other Purdue quarterback (having David Bell and his precision route running helped in this endeavor).

A.O.C. also put up a few monster games last season. He threw between 300-400 yards 3 times, between 400-500 yards once, and cracked 500 yards twice, including a 543 yard, 5 touchdown performance against Tennessee in the bowl game, without David Bell it should be noted. Those are the numbers I expect out of a quarterback, and that Purdue needs out of a quarterback, in the Jeff Brohm system. He ended up throwing for 3712 total yards, with 28 touchdowns and only 11 interceptions. His 7.7 yards per play was 2nd in the Big 10 and 9th in the nation. It was a job well done by the former walk-on from Stevenson High School.

Now that I summarized what A.O.C. did in 2021, let’s talk about 2022.

No David Bell

First and foremost, O’Connell is not going to have David Bell this season. If I have any complaints about his play last year, it’s that he locked onto Bell a bit much on occasion. I’m not sure how much of that was Aidan and how much of that was the game plan, but when he made bad throws, it was usually because he was forcing the ball to Bell. That won’t be an issue for him this season.

In the bowl game, Marshall transfer Broc Thompson emerged as his go to target, hauling in 7 receptions for 217 yards and 2 touchdowns. That’s an astounding 31 yards per completion. I’m not sure you’re going to see the offense revolve around Broc Thompson the way it revolved around David Bell though. I think Thompson will have a good year, but I don’t think he will have a David Bell, 93 receptions for 1286 yards, good year. That’s mainly because the talent is more spread out in this receiving group.

Guys like Milton Wright (who also missed the bowl game), Broc Thompson, T.J. Sheffield and Iowa transfer Tyrone Tracy have all shown what they can do in college football. Mershawn Rice is still a big talented dude that’s been snake bit throughout his career. You’ve got to figure it’s now or never for him. Young, hungry receivers like Abdur-Rahmann Yasseen, Deion Burks, Collin Sullivan, and Preston Terrell are all looking to make their mark after putting in time in the program. Then throw in a well stocked tight end position featuring Payne Durham, Garrett Miller, and former quarterback, Paul Piferi and A.O.C. will have an embarrassment of riches at his disposal.

Purdue has plenty of quantity and quality in terms of pass catchers, but Aidan will need to figure out which receiver he trusts when the chips are down. It’s nice to spread the ball around, but when you need that clutch 3rd or 4th down reception, it’s nice to have “the man” on your squad. For the first time in a long time, I have no idea who that’s going to be on this Purdue team, and it’s something Aidan will need to figure out in fall camp.

Mobility In The Pocket

Aidan is never going to be a quarterback who wins games with his legs. That’s not his skill set, but he’ll need to continue to improve his mobility inside the pocket. He doesn’t have to run for yards, but he needs to avoid sacks. Purdue was 64th in the nation last season, in terms of sacks allowed, giving up 29 total sacks. That comes out to 2.23 sacks a game. That’s not terrible, especially for a team that throws the ball as much as Purdue, but it’s something Aidan could improve upon this year.

Last season, Greg Long did a solid job at the left tackle spot. Greg, unfortunately, has exhausted his eligibility, and while Purdue has few intriguing options to fill that spot, none are particularly battle tested. I hope the coaching staff picks the right guy coming out of camp, and the spot is locked down for the rest of the season, but odds are, it’s going to take some tinkering before everything is figured out. A.O.C. can help the process immensely with slightly better pocket awareness, and a small improvement in his mobility.

If I’m Aidan, I’m watching Tom Brady film 24/7 because that’s the type of movement in the pocket I’m talking about. Tom isn’t the best athlete (although, if he’s under rated anywhere, it’s as a solid overall athlete) but he doesn’t eat a ton of sacks because of his subtle movement in the pocket. If a guy is coming off the edge hard, he steps up into the pocket and they find nothing but air. If the bull rush is coming up the middle, he usually manages to spin out to the open side. Sometimes he sees his lineman is beat and manages to dump the ball off right before getting crushed.

Granted, O’Connell isn’t going to be close to Tom Brady’s level of pocket awareness, but if he can improve in that area and reduce the number of sacks he takes over the course of the season by 5-10 sacks, that could make a huge difference in the overall success of this offense. Sacks tend to be drive killers, and with this Purdue offense, it might be “the” drive killer (along with penalties). If this offense can reduce sacks and avoid penalties, it has the potential to be one of the premier offenses in the nation.

What’s the Ceiling for the Brohm Offense at Purdue?

Maybe the better question is “is there a ceiling for the Brohm offense”? I don’t think we’ve come close to seeing the true potential of the Brohmfence (patent pending) in West Lafayette. Some of that has to do with the game of musical chairs that’s accompanied the quarterback position. This season, with Aidan returning, I think we’ll finally get an idea of how good this offense can consistently be under Jeff Brohm.

At Western Kentucky, Brandon Doughty threw for 5055 yards, 48 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions. I don’t think Aidan comes close to those numbers this year at Purdue, because the Big 10 is an entirely different level of competition, but I think O’Connell can show everyone the true potential of the Brohm offense. The skill positions look great, the running back stable has some talent. The offensive line, should be serviceable, (dare I say good), if the right part falls into place at left tackle.

That’s a good bit of pressure to put on one player, but I think Aidan is up for the challenge. We’ll find out soon enough with a Thursday home game against Penn State to start the season. Past Brohm teams have struggled on offense out of the gate, only to figure things out midway through the season, and finish strong. This team will need to start strong. If O’Connell can, for the first time (in my opinion) under Brohm, maximize the offense for the entire season, this has the potential to be both a historic Purdue offense, and a historic Purdue season.