Most people, understandably, have focused on the offensive side of the ball with the new staff, but keep in mind, Ryan Walters is a head coach because of his defense. What happens on offense is important, but the defense is where Purdue is poised to take a major step forward. I’ve got some time to go over the Walters/Kane defense this summer, and hopefully we can all learn something together.
The first step in understanding the defense is understanding the personnel. If you’ve paid any attention over the last few months (and people that read H&R, if nothing else, tend to pay attention) you know Walters/Kane run a base 3-4-4 defense. Today I’m going to take a look at who the “3” were for Illinois last season, and what that means for Purdue in the upcoming season.
Illinois Defensive Line Depth Chart 2022
*Starters in bold
Keith Randolph - 6’5”, 305
Bryce Barnes - 6’2”, 280
Calvin Avery - 6’2”, 325
TeRah Edwards - 6’2”, 320
Raashaan Wilkins - 6’3, 315
Jer’Zahn Newton - 6’2”, 295
Jamal Woods - 6’2”, 290
Walters and Kane Like ‘Em Big
That’s a massive front 3. The above shot of Illinois lining up against Minnesota gives you an idea of what to expect this season. Note, this isn’t Illinois running their “base” 3-4-4. It’s 3-3-5 with a *star (read extra defensive back) on the field to counter Minnesota’s 3 wide spread look. In most cases, I expect to see Purdue in this look, and not in a true 3-4 front, because the majority of teams run some sort of spread look, especially on passing downs.
I marked the defensive line match-ups. This is what you’ll see on the vast majority of downs. You’ve got the defensive ends matched up with the guards, and the nose matched up with the center. Everyone on the defensive line plays with their hand in the dirt. The two outside linebackers play standing up over the tackles (more on that in a later article) giving Illinois a 5 man front with every lineman covered.
If you’re wondering why a few veteran starters from the ‘22 team, decided to take their talents elsewhere, despite having one of the brightest young defensive minds in the game taking over as head coach, it’s because they didn’t fit the system. You’ll notice that the defensive linemen brought in from the portal to play on the line tend to be bigger than defensive linemen that left in the portal.
That’s not a coincidence.
Traditional 3-4 defenses feature bigger defensive linemen. They are tasked with plugging up the middle of the line and keeping the linebackers clean so they can make the tackle. You expect most of the pressure to come from blitzing linebackers. Defensive ends tend to be block eaters and not disruptive players, in terms of tackles for loss and sacks.
The Walters/Kane defense is a little different. They still like big defensive ends, but those ends play an important role in disrupting the offense. Take a look at Newton and Randolph’s stats from last season.
Illinois Starting Defensive End Stats ‘22
*Numbers in () are overall rankings on the team
Jer’Zahn Newton - 61 tackles (3rd), 14 tackles for loss (1st), 5.5 sacks (1st)
Keith Randolph Jr. - 53 tackles (5th), 13 tackles for loss (2nd), 4.5 sacks (2nd)
These aren’t traditional numbers for 3-4 ends, but this isn’t a traditional 3-4 defense. I’ll get into the differences later, but Walters/Kane want big defensive ends who can beat guards and get into the backfield, not just big guys that eat blocks. Purdue played a 3 man front a good bit last season, but didn’t ask nearly as much from their defensive ends/tackles.
Purdue Starting Defensive End Stats ‘22
*Numbers in () are overall rankings on the team
Jack Sullivan - 38 tackles (8th), 7 tackles for loss (2nd), 5.5 sacks (1st)
Branson Dean - 28 tackles (14th), 4 tackles for loss (6th), 2.5 sacks (4th)
As you can see, despite playing a somewhat similar 3 man front, Illinois asked their defensive ends to get in the backfield and make players. Purdue’s defensive ends stayed home and opened things up for other players. Jer’Zahn Newton had more TFLs than both Purdue’s starting defensive ends combined.
Purdue Defensive Line Depth Chart for ‘23?
This is where things get tricky. Outside of nose guard, where Purdue has a surprising number of options, there are plenty of questions. Walters/Kane brought in numerous experienced players out of the portal to answer those questions, but it’s tough to tell how the depth chart will shake out. This is a shot in the dark, mainly based on size, things will become much clearer in fall camp when all the portal guys hit town.
*Height and weight from transfers pulled from their previous team’s official roster
Malik Langham - 6’5”, 308
Jeffrey M’ba - 6’6”, 315
Cole Brevard - 6’3”, 315
Damarjhe Lewis - 6’3”, 300
Isaiah Nichols - 6’3”, 315
Prince James Boyd Jr - 6’1, 290
There are a few players on Purdue’s team that don’t quite fit the mold of Walters did at Illinois, but could pay a role, or even start, for Purdue in ‘23.
Joe Anderson - 6’4”, 280
Sulaiman Kpaka - 6’2, 280
Joe Strickland - 6’4”, 260
Out of this group, Strickland is the only real outlier and I expect that he’ll either put on weight or move to outside linebacker. Anderson and Kpaka are both strong side defensive ends who could show up to camp a little heavier than normal, or get on the field because of their overall strength. They need to, at worst, keep from getting pushed back by guards, and at best, beat guards. If they can accomplish that, their size won’t keep them off the field.
Purdue played a 3 man front last season and will play a 3 man front this season, but expect different results. Defensive end is one of the premier positions on this defense. Purdue needs jumbo sized play-makers if this defense is going to work. Coach Walters/Kane brought in several stop gap transfers while they work on developing home grown talent, and need the new veteran guys to hit the ground running.
Expect to see the defensive ends harassing running backs and quarterbacks in the backfield this season. It’s been a while since we’ve seen an aggressive defense like this at Purdue, and I, for one, am excited to see how this plays out.