Photo courtesy of Purdue athletics
After consecutive losing seasons, Purdue will look to bounce back in 2020 under fourth-year head coach Jeff Brohm.
To do that, a number of things will need to go right for the Boilermakers. Entering the campaign, there are a number of key questions that need to be answered.
Here are five critically important ones:
Who Starts At Quarterback?
For what seems like the 10th year in a row, Purdue has a quarterback controversy. This time, it’s between three relative unknowns at the position. First is Jack Plummer, who started seven games last year before an ankle injury ended his season vs. Nebraska. Plummer was thrown into the fire as a redshirt freshman when starter Elijah Sindelar left a win over Vanderbilt with a concussion.
Plummer is an interesting quarterback for Purdue as he compares similarly to former signal-caller David Blough from an athletic standpoint. He doesn’t have the biggest arm, but he is capable of slinging the rock as he threw for 420 yards and three touchdowns against Maryland last season.
Another option is Aidan O’Connell, who started the final three games of 2019 while appearing in six. He is a former walk-on and joined the team in 2017. O’Connell isn’t the most athletic quarterback, but he makes up for it with his arm. It’s probably the strongest on the team. He also proved to be fairly clutch, leading Purdue on two game-winning drives last season in victories over Nebraska and at Northwestern.
In April, a new challenger appeared when Austin Burton announced his transfer to Purdue from UCLA. Burton is fairly mobile with a decent arm. Burton announced his decision to come to West Lafayette in May while working with an expert quarterback developer. He could be a serious challenger. At UCLA, he appeared in five games and started one where he threw for 236 yards and a touchdown. In that contest, Burton added 64 yards on the ground.
Will Purdue have a Stable Run Game?
The 2019 Purdue team left a lot to be desired in this department when it rushed for just over 70 yards per game. The Boilermakers finished near the bottom of the NCAA statistically. Freshman King Doerue led the team statistically with 451 rushing yards and nine touchdowns. Doerue is like a bowling ball with legs. He was excellent when the blocks actually set up well for him.
Joining him is freshman Tirek Murphy Jr., an electrifying back out of New York, and a former four-star prospect. Hopefully, this adds a new element to Purdue’s run game as Doerue and H-back Alexander Horvath are predominately power backs. The biggest question mark in the run game ties into the next question, which is the offensive line. Purdue’s offensive front frequently struggled to control the line of scrimmage and get a good push.
Will Purdue’s Offensive Line Play Improve?
Probably the biggest question mark for Purdue as a team is the offensive line. That group struggled mightily in 2019 for a majority of the season. From the running game to the passing game, this was a unit that struggled to find consistency anywhere in 2019 and was dysfunctional for a majority of the season.
The low-light came at Penn State when Purdue surrendered 10 sacks and 13 tackles for loss. The good news is the group finished the season relatively strong in November, allowing just eight sacks over the final four games and just three over the final two. The run game also had a small awakening in November and looked strong at times.
Purdue addressed the offensive line on the recruiting trail with two massive signings at guard. Cam Craig, who signed in 2018, looks like a legitimate guard and someone who can anchor the position for the next three to four years. The icing on top however was Gus Hartwig, a four-star in-state guard out of Zionsville. Hartwig is an absolute brawler at the position.
Sam Garvin appeared to be a solid option at center, but the biggest remaining question is at two important positions — both tackles. The last two years, Purdue’s tackle play has been inconsistent at best, due to injuries and subpar play. Purdue’s attempts to recruit tackles have had hit or miss results since Brohm arrived. It still looks like Purdue is trying to find the right guys.
Will the Defense Improve under Bob Diaco?
This encompasses the whole defense, which as a unit, struggled throughout all of 2019. The Boilermakers finished near the bottom of the FBS in both run and pass defense. This ultimately resulted in the firing of defensive coordinator Nick Holt. Bob Diaco was named his replacement.
The strength of the defense lies up front. The defensive line is headlined by defensive end George Karlaftis and nose tackle Lorenzo Neal. who are both NFL-caliber. Karlaftis might be a first-round talent. Purdue’s been active in the transfer market, finding players to fit Diaco’s defense. In the secondary, the Boilermakers added Tyler Coyle from Connecticut and former Iowa safety Donald Johnson.
Coyle will likely play corner and Johnson will play safety alongside Marvin Grant and Jalen Graham, respectively. Next year Purdue’s linebacking corps will be young and inexperienced. Luckily, Diaco isn’t married to the 3-4, so adjustments can be made if needed. Scheme put aside, Purdue needs to see improvements on defense.
With Purdue having an explosive offense, it’s key that the defense steps up to make Purdue a serious contender and gets stops when games get tight. That’s something Purdue has failed to do on numerous occasions over the last few years. With two of the strongest teams in the Big Ten West, Wisconsin and Iowa, having impressive run games, it’s crucial for Purdue to find a way to solidify its ability to stop the run.
When Purdue had a solid run defense in 2017, it split the Iowa and Wisconsin games and kept Iowa’s run game in check. Purdue’s pass defense has never been a strong suit. It struggled each year under Holt, so hopefully Purdue can improve against the pass and create more turnovers.
Can Purdue Stay Healthy?
This has been a major issue for Purdue for years and last year, it reared its ugly head again. At one point, more than 20 players were on the weekly injury list. That resulted in Purdue being extremely thin at numerous positions and the season soon went south when several key contributors went down with injuries.
After the season, strength coach Mitch Lovett was hired by the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams. Purdue hired Domenic Reno as his replacement. Purdue’s biggest key to success this year is the health of the team. That’s especially true given the team’s youth.