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Cause for Optimism in Year One? The Freshman Tell the Story

In what has been a rough season so far, the contributions by freshman in Ryan Walters’ first season provide an area of optimism.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 16 Syracuse at Purdue Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It was always going to be difficult. It was always going to be an uphill battle. When the schedule was frontloaded with two Power 5 teams in Syracuse and Virginia Tech, one of the best G5 teams in Fresno State, national power Ohio State, and a program in Wisconsin that Purdue can’t seem to figure out, a 2-5 record shouldn’t be a surprise. So what can we point to for optimism in the wake of a 41-7 defeat at the hands of a Buckeyes?

There have been some clear indications that this staff is working toward the right direction. If you are familiar with how inept the program looked very early on under Darrell Hazell, you know that there is a very distinct difference from the preparation of the teams. There is a difference between ineptitude and a lack of talent. At some positions, Purdue just lacks the talent to compete with a program like Ohio State or Michigan but in games against Iowa and Wisconsin, Purdue showed an ability to fight and keep themselves in a game where they didn’t have any business. The team looks prepared and looks like they have bought in to what is going on. That was a major concern heading into the season.

Likely the biggest case for optimism is what some of these young players are showing under this new staff. These young players establish what the program may look like in two to three seasons and building to that 2025 season should be the goal. Let’s take a look at what some of these young players are doing to help get the foundations of what Ryan Walters is wanting from his program.

Dillon Thieneman | Safety | Freshman

Thieneman has been a revelation at the deep safety for the Boilermakers this year. The true freshman has flashed in one of the most important positions in this Walters defense to prevent big time plays from happening. Although those have still happened at times, Thieneman has also been great at coming up in run support and being in the right position. It obviously doesn’t mean great things when your deep safety that is 25 yards off the ball is leading the team in tackles but having a playmaker at that position is better than having a dud.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 02 Fresno State at Purdue Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Derrick Rogers | Cornerback | Freshman

The buzz around Rogers had built since he arrived on campus and he was literally thrown to the fire against one of the best wide receiver rooms in the country against Ohio State. The true freshman looked like he belonged on the field in that regard and the bodes well for Purdue moving forward. Rogers made plays against those future NFL wide receivers and didn’t make many mistakes with 1 solo tackle, a pass breakup, and a quarterback hurry. Rogers appears to be a cornerback that you can build that press man defense that Walters needs to have in his scheme.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 14 Ohio State at Purdue Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Will Heldt | Linebacker | Freshman

Heldt is another one of those big time surprise players who has already burned through the possibility of a redshirt season as he has played in all seven games. Heldt, out of Carmel High School, is a load at 6’6 and 250 pounds and may be able to play both the roles that Jenkins and Scourton play right now. That type of flexibility in Walters’ defense would be incredibly helpful in being able to confuse opposing offenses in coverage/blitz types. Heldt currently has 8 tackles (4 solo) with 1 tackle for loss on the season.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 30 Illinois at Purdue Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Jaron Tibbs | Wide Receiver | Freshman

Tibbs has just one reception for 8 yards on the season but he looks the part on the field as a true freshman. The 6’3 and 210 pound receiver looks the part and plays physical on the field, especially in the run game when he asked to block. Tibbs is going to be a key part of the Purdue offense under OC Graham Harrell because of that size and ability to catch contested balls. He has seen his total of game involvement at three so another game will burn his ability for a redshirt. Tibbs, with the injury to Edrine and the staff continuing to look for playmakers on the outside opposite of Burks, will continue to get more playing time.

George Burhenn | Tight End | Freshman

With the injury issues amongst the group of tight ends this season, it was not a big surprise that Burhenn would find the field in some capacity for the Boilers as a true freshman. The true freshman needs to continue to add size to his frame but he is a player that can be built around with his ability to run quick routes and get into the second level of the defense in the passing game. The tight end position is an ever increasing important one in college football and with the commitment of Tayvion Galloway as well. Harrell and Walters want big and athletic tight ends that can move to make blocks in the running game on pulls while also stressing defenses in the passing game. Burhenn can do that. Burhenn is not eligible for a redshirt as he has participated in six games this season.

Zion Steptoe | Cornerback | Redshirt Freshman

This one is a bit of a surprise as Steptoe was said to have had a great spring and summer at wide receiver and he suddenly flipped to defensive back. This may be a bit of a two-way door here as the depth was needed at defensive back to maintain some redshirts and allow for growth amongst other players but also Walters and cornerbacks coach Sam Carter may have seen more potential for the freshman at a new position. He doesn’t necessarily fit the mold of big, rangy corners that Walters likes but if he can lock up a guy in man to man coverage, I don’t think they care. This one will be interesting to see play out more as the season progresses and into spring ball in 2024. Steptoe has recorded two tackles on the season.

Ohio State v Purdue Photo by Bruce Yeung/Getty Images

Jimmy Liston | Offensive Line | Freshman

Liston is a special case as he isn’t really a ‘true’ freshman. He delayed his enrollment to Purdue after his senior year in high school due to his high level wrestling and ended up heading to IMG Academy in Florida. The true freshman very nearly got time earlier this season with Gus Hartwig still recovering and Purdue losing two centers in one game. Liston may project as the center of the future for the Boilers and they will need that anchor for an offensive line that needs some depth to develop in a bad way, quickly.

Anthony Brown | Defensive Back | Redshirt Freshman

Another young defensive back that has shown promise this year, mostly on special teams duty, Brown is in the mold of the type of defensive back that Walters wants. At 6’0 and nearly 200lbs, Brown has shown a good baseline of football skills and has played sparingly on the defensive side. He may get more opportunities as the season progresses with Marquis Wilson officially out for the season and the staff looking more and more to the future.

Purdue v Iowa Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

Domanick Moon | Inside Linebacker | Redshirt Freshman

Moon has had some snaps this season at the inside linebacker position but with the emergence of Yanni Karlaftis, he has seen his opportunities fade a bit. That being said, with OC Brothers likely gone after this season, Moon may be on track to get more opportunities next season. Like Karlaftis, another year of growth is needed to really get to the size a B1G inside linebacker needs to be but Moon has the intangibles and the athleticism you want to see from that position in Walters’ defense. Moon did record a tackle against Iowa this season.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 16 Syracuse at Purdue Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images