5 ways Purdue will be better in 2023 ... and 5 ways the Boilermakers will be worse
Purdue won 9 games in 2021 and 8 games in ’22.
It’d like to think another run at double-digit victories is in its immediate future, but that’ll take a lot of work. New coach Ryan Walters’ 2023 Boilermakers will be challenged as he takes over a massively turned-over roster — there are more than 40 newcomers — that’ll face a daunting schedule, starting with a visit from Fresno State on Sept. 2. Perhaps a worthy goal is getting to the postseason for a 3rd consecutive season.
Let’s take a look at 5 ways the Boilermakers will be better, and then 5 ways they’ll be worse.
Better: Running the ball
Purdue’s “Air Raid” offense will be centered around the Boilermakers’ ability to throw the football down the field, finding matchup advantages that can exploit a defense for big plays.
But Walters and offensive coordinator Graham Harrell are no dummies. They know they’ve got a budding star in running back Devin Mockobee, and the sophomore needs to be fed the ball often, particularly because he’s one of Purdue’s few home run hitters. On any touch, the 6-foot, 200-pounder can take the ball the distance. How many other Boilermakers can say the same?
Running has not been Purdue’s forte of late. It finished 11th last season in the Big Ten, averaging 121 yards per game, and that was a significant improvement over the prior 4 seasons when the Boilermakers finished dead last. Mockobee is the No. 1 for the Boilermakers, after he rushed for nearly 1,000 yards and 9 touchdowns last season. But Purdue has quality backups as well, with Tyrone Tracy having shifted full-time to the position (after being a slot receiver previously) and veteran Dylan Downing having slimmed down.
Better: Secondary focus
In his final season as the defensive coordinator at Illinois, Walters saw 3 of his defensive backs selected in the 1st 3 rounds of the NFL draft.
It stands to reason that he’d like to see a significant upgrade in the Boilermakers’ secondary. In an effort to improve performance there, Walters picked up a half dozen DBs out of the transfer portal, including potential starting cornerbacks Markevious Brown (Ole Miss), Botros Alisandro (Snow College) and Marquis Wilson (Penn State). The trio joins holdover Jamari Brown in the mix at corner. At safety, Purdue returns Sanoussi Kane and Cam Allen, although talented freshman Dillon Thieneman could figure into a rotation, as could transfer Anthony Brown (Arkansas).
Purdue’s secondary was inconsistent last season — the Boilermakers ranked 11th in passing defense in the B1G, allowing 225 yards per game — in coverage and tackling. But Walters’ defensive scheme, plus the focus on replenishing the back end depth, will help the Boilermakers in 2023.
Purdue can tackle better, and it will.
Particularly in the secondary, where the Boilermakers too frequently pursued at improper angles and didn’t have ideal catch-up speed, Purdue was deficient. Kevin Kane, Walters’ defensive coordinator at Purdue, wants to create — and win — 1-on-1 battles up front. If that happens, the Boilermakers should be better positioned to make plays — tackles and turnovers.
Purdue wasn’t an overly penalized team last season, ranking 9th in the Big Ten in penalty yardage per game (53.6). But the Boilermakers had some killer penalties, especially unnecessary personal fouls and unsportsmanlike conduct. Take the Syracuse game, for example, when the Boilermakers committed 2 unsportsmanlike penalties after they had taken the lead with 51 seconds left. It led to a disheartening loss when the Orange scored in the final seconds.
The Boilermakers cleaned up their act in the 2nd half of the year, and they’ll try to continue that in ’23. The résumé on Walters as a head coach is short — none-existent, in fact — but judging from his temperament in the spring and August camp, he’s low on tolerance for nonsense. It’ll translate, one would think, to game days.
Better: Star power on defense
Purdue’s defense was fine last season, ranking in the middle of the pack in most noteworthy statistics.
But it lacked a star. The Boilermakers have one again, however, in sophomore outside linebacker Nic Scourton (the former Nic Caraway), who has the potential to be great in the Walters/Kane defensive scheme. The 6-4, 280-pounder seems a great fit as an outside linebacker, because he has the size, strength and quickness to be a force on the line of scrimmage, but also the athleticism to be able to play in space.
Scourton finished last season strongly, with sacks in the Boilermakers’ final 2 games, likely a harbinger for what’s to come.
Worse: Leaky line
There are warranted concerns about the Boilermakers’ offensive line, probably more so at that position than any other on the Purdue roster.
Can it hold up? We’ll see. The Boilermakers lost 3 potential starters to the transfer portal, necessitating their own bid into the market. And they came away with 6 newcomers, who could compete for starting jobs but more than likely will help add depth to an otherwise thin 2-deep.
Purdue feels OK about its starting 5, particularly on the edges with likely No. 1 tackles Mahamane Moussa and Marcus Mbow, and thinks it has enough pieces on the interior. But Gus Hartwig, who is on the Rimington Trophy watch list, is likely out until October while he rehabs from a knee injury suffered late last season.
“Money Mitch” has graduated; Purdue must replace place-kicker Mitchell Fineran. That won’t be easy, as Fineran had a penchant for hitting big ones, like his game-winner in the Music City Bowl vs. Tennessee in 2021.
Fineran was consistent, too.
Now, it’ll be up to 5th-year senior Ben Freehill, a walk-on, to handle the place-kicking duties. Purdue has confidence in him, but he’s untested, having handled only part-time kickoff duties during the past 2 seasons. He’s never kicked a field goal or even an extra point in a game.
Worse: No. 1 receiver
For the first time in years, Purdue doesn’t have an obvious No. 1 receiver. Charlie Jones will be missed.
The offense doesn’t have a proven deep-ball threat, either. Transfer quarterback Hudson Card will have to spread the ball around, with tight end Garrett Miller and wide receivers TJ Sheffield and Deion Burks as the likely top targets. But on a big 3rd down, with a drive (or the game) on the line, where will Card go with the football? There’s not as sure-handed an option as Jones, or David Bell the years before, or Rondale Moore before that.
Purdue needs to find, or develop, a go-to threat for those big situations.
Worse: Red zone success
Purdue was great in the red zone last season, scoring on almost 93 percent of its chances, the 2nd-best rate (to Ohio State) in the Big Ten.
It only turned the ball over once near the goal line, a credit to Aidan O’Connell’s decision-making. Purdue might still be good in the red zone in 2023, but it’ll be hard to replicate the success it had last season. Without a No. 1 receiving target, plus questions about its place-kicking, it’s reasonable to think the Boilermakers will take a step back.
Purdue might be able to get back to the postseason if things go its way. But injuries could be problematic, to say the least.
The Boilermakers have depth issues at multiple positions: At quarterback, Purdue is without a proven player after Card. Does it trust Arizona State transfer Bennett Meredith as the backup? On the o-line, Purdue might feel OK about its starters, but not much is known after the first unit. Purdue has pieces in the secondary, it thinks, but how deep does it go? The inside linebackers, even the starters, are a big question. The Boilermakers have a couple proven options at wide receiver, and they feel good about the talent level, but none of those guys are experienced.
Having to dip down the depth chart could doom Purdue.