Better or worse: Previewing Purdue's offense in 2020
On the same play last season, the Boilermakers lost their starting quarterback and top wide receiver, the latter a possible darkhorse Heisman Trophy candidate.
And the optimism for a third straight postseason appearance in Jeff Brohm’s third year at the Purdue helm exited Ross-Ade Stadium on an injury cart.
Now, Purdue’s hopes hinge on the return of Rondale Moore, an All-American and one of the most dynamic players in the country as a rookie in 2018, and the discovery of a quarterback to replace Elijah Sindelar, who decided to retire after a myriad of injuries rather than seek a sixth season.
Despite injuries sapping Purdue of a consistent lineup, the Boilermakers’ offense finished 2019 in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten statistically, averaging 393.2 yards per game (eighth in the conference), which included having the conference’s top passing attack. Purdue was ninth in the Big Ten in scoring, averaging 25.8 points per game.
The Boilermakers are older and healthier now, so they hope to be improved as well.
Key losses: Elijah Sindelar, QB; Brycen Hopkins, TE; Matt McCann, OG
Key returnees: Rondale Moore, WR; David Bell, WR; Milton Wright, WR; Jack Plummer, QB; Aidan O’Connell, QB; Grant Hermanns, OT; King Doerue, RB; Payne Durham, TE
Potential breakout players: Maliq Carr, WR; Garrett Miller, TE; Kyle Bilodeau, TE
Purdue thinks it has the deepest group of wide receivers in program history, and it’s a good argument. Without Moore in the lineup last season — he suffered a knee injury in Game 4 vs. Minnesota — freshman David Bell became the breakout star. Now, what stress will it cause a defense when they’re paired together? And what about all the other quality wideouts? Consider that senior Jackson Anthrop, who led Purdue in receptions only three years ago, might be the fifth option now. But which quarterback wins the job in training camp is a big question. And whether Brohm’s vertical passing attack can fully succeed with an offensive line with more question marks — right now — than obvious answers is another.
Passing offense: Better
The biggest key for the Boilermakers might be staying healthy. They did anything but in 2019. Sindelar first suffered a concussion early last year, then a broken collar bone — on that same fateful play vs. the Golden Gophers — that ended his season and eventually his career.
Plummer became the starter but gruesomely broke his ankle, much in the same way QB David Blough had two years earlier, five games later on a scramble vs. Nebraska. With presumed third-stringer Nick Sipe out all season with a back injury — he’s since retired — Purdue turned to walk-on Aidan O’Connell for the last three games of the season.
Neither Plummer nor O’Connell had Moore available, a huge loss considering the 5-foot-8 slot receiver had 114 receptions for 1,258 yards and 12 touchdowns in becoming the Big Ten’s first-ever consensus All-American as a freshman. He sat out Purdue’s seven spring practices, as a precaution, but is said to be ready for training camp.
Add in Bell, the Big Ten Freshman of the Year who had 86 catches for 1,035 yards and seven scores, and others like Marvin Wright (18 receptions, 288 yards), Amad Anderson Jr. (31, 343) and Jackson Anthrop (37, 340), plus rookies Maliq Carr and Abdur-Rahmann Yaseen, both 4-star prospects by 247sports.com, and there’s seemingly an endless string of weapons.
Who throws it? Had Purdue had its final eight spring practices, Plummer might have gotten in some reps. As it was, the third-year sophomore went through only drills as he continued to rehab. But he probably has a slight edge on O’Connell, who was awarded a scholarship after winning one of his three late-season starts and largely exceeding expectations. Purdue added graduate transfer Austin Burton, from UCLA, as well, adding to its depth with the promise he’d be given a chance to compete.
Plummer is mobile, a characteristic Brohm covets in his QBs, and can make plays on the run. He likely needs to make reads and throws more quickly, but that can come with experience. O’Connell showed he’s an excellent, accurate thrower, with zip. But he’s a pocket passer, and that might not jive with an offensive line that is a question, to say the least.
Grant Hermanns, now entering his fourth year as a starter at left tackle, is solid. But Purdue is going to have to find answers at each of the remaining four positions. Viktor Beach was the starting center in the first half of last year, before finally succumbing to his bad back. Maybe he can help stabilize the interior. The addition of Greg Long, a graduate transfer from UTEP, could help; pencil him in at right tackle.
Purdue has to replace Hopkins, a fourth-round NFL Draft pick and Mackey Award finalist, but it has a trio of young prospects in redshirted Garrett Miller and Kyle Bilodeau and sophomore Payne Durham.
The ceiling is high for Purdue’s passing game, but it has questions too, and key players will need to stay healthy.
Rushing offense: Better
Purdue was dead last in the Big Ten in rushing last season, averaging only 83.3 per game, nearly 44 less than the next team.
The offensive line was partially to blame, as was a running back stable that featured only true freshman King Doerue and big back Zander Horvath, a former walk-on.
Brohm’s offense is pass-first and pass-second — the former NFL QB has admitted that calling a running play, at times, pains him — but it needs to maintain at least the threat of balance.
Maybe this year. Doerue, a 5-10, 210-pounder, is back after leading Purdue with 451 rushing yards in ’19, and Hovath, the change-of-pace man, came on strong at the end of the year, with a 164-yard, 2-touchdown performance vs. Indiana. Redshirt freshman Da’Joun Hewitt and Tirek Murphy, a 247sports.com 4-star from New York City, could provide depth and perhaps even challenge to start.
Special teams: Even
After redshirting in 2018, place-kicker J.D. Dellinger returned a different man.
He was stronger and more confident, leading to a breakout 2019 in which he hit 13 of his 16 field goals. There’s every reason to think he can build off that as a senior this season.
Many of Moore’s All-America accolades in 2018, including the Paul Hornung Award for the country’s most versatile player, noted his return abilities, but in reality, the numbers were mediocre. Purdue’s specials teams, outside of the kicking game, have been pedestrian since Tony Levine left in 2017, a reason why Brohm hired Marty Biagi in the offseason, the Boilermakers’ fourth special teams coordinator in his four-year tenure.
The return of Moore alone, regardless of anything else, makes the Boilermakers better in 2020.
But Purdue also has to be counting on the emergence of one of its quarterbacks — both Plummer and O’Connell, in limited action, have shown enough to be quality options, and perhaps Burton, too — and that the recruiting work it has put into the offensive line starts to pay off.