Better or worse? Previewing Purdue’s offense in 2021
The quest for Purdue this season: Be more balanced.
Although a Jeff Brohm offense is unlikely to ever be truly even — the former NFL QB loves to zing the ball around the field — it needs to at least have the threat. And it didn’t in 2020. In fact, the Boilermakers had the most unbalanced offense in the Big Ten, perhaps in the country outside of Mississippi State, as they ranked No. 1 in the league in passing (averaging 309 yards per game) but last in rushing (with only an average of 81.5, about 10 yards less than the second-worst team).
If it can put together even a moderately effective running game, then the passing game should flourish even more, especially if the Boilermakers can settle on a quarterback who can stay healthy. That’s not happened in recent Purdue history. Last season, Purdue started Aidan O’Connell for 3 games — and the Boilermakers won 2 — then turned to Jack Plummer after O’Connell was hurt. And although the pair’s statistical numbers were nearly identical, Purdue slipped in 3 straight games, ending the year only 2-4.
Which quarterback wins the starting nod this season? It’s yet to be determined. But whoever wins out will have a slew of offensive weapons, even with All-America wide receiver Rondale Moore off to the NFL. But remaining veteran wideouts David Bell and Milton Wright are one of the best combinations in the league.
Let’s play better or worse …
Key losses: WR Rondale Moore; OL Grant Hermanns
Key returnees: WR David Bell; WR Milton Wright; WR Jackson Anthrop; QB Aidan O’Connell; QB Jack Plummer; RB Zander Horvath; TE Payne Durham; OL Greg Long; OL Cam Craig
Potential breakout players: WR T.J. Sheffield; WR Mershawn Rice; RB King Doerue; OL Gus Hartwig, OL Tyler Witt
Passing offense: Better
Purdue can win games with O’Connell or Plummer under center, although each has different skills. O’Connell has the arm that Brohm covets in his down-field passing attack, although Plummer isn’t a slouch either, and he possesses the athleticism that makes him more of a dual threat.
Roles have been reversed his offseason. A year ago, Plummer was hurt, causing him to miss the spring and giving O’Connell an edge going into training camp. And he won the job. This year, it’s been O’Connell sidelined – he broke his foot during the season — giving the majority of spring reps to Plummer. Does that mean Plummer is ahead? We’ll see.
Purdue has a deep and talented receiving corps, even without Moore. Bell is an all-star, after a season in which he caught 53 passes and had 8 TDs. And Wright, who made a ton of improvements last season, is a good sidekick, particularly as a down-field threat. The Boilermakers have seemingly talented backups, but they’re inexperienced. Maybe Abdur-Rahmaan Yaseen emerges as another target.
There’s a void in the slot with Moore departed, but veteran Jackson Anthrop — Purdue’s leading receiver way back in 2017 — will likely fill the spot. He’s not as explosive but is reliable. Return specialist T.J. Sheffield might be ready for a bigger role, as well.
On the offensive line, the Boilermakers have seven players who have made at least one start, making it likely their most experienced line in at least a decade. But left tackle is a question: Grant Hermanns, a four-year starter, has left. Maybe Cam Craig, who is returning from a knee injury after being the starting left guard, slides over. Or Greg Long, the former JC transfer who is back for his super season, moves from right to left.
Rushing offense: Better
Purdue has spent its offseason searching for another running back, trying to add to a backfield that has only two experienced players.
But as of late June, it had struck out in the transfer portal. The Boilermakers will likely head to 2021 with Zander Horvath and King Doerue as the Nos. 1 and 2 backs, but without any experience behind the duo. Horvath, a big physical back, finished with 442 yards, but there wasn’t much other production. Doerue, who was battling injury, had only 74. Can they make it through a 12-game season?
The running game doesn’t have to be great for the Boilermakers to win — it doesn’t even need to be in the top half of the Big Ten — but it has to be effective. And too often last season it wasn’t. The Boilermakers ranked ninth in the Big Ten on third-downs and they could stand to be much improved in the redzone.
Special teams: Worse
During the spring, Purdue didn’t have a scholarship kicker on its roster, and reports out of practices reflected that; it wasn’t pretty.
But Brohm is hoping that the offseason addition of FCS transfer Mitchell Fineran will remedy the concern. Last season at Samford, Fineran hit 15-of-18 and he was named an All-American.
For the first time during the Brohm Era, the Boilermakers have the same special teams coordinator for a second year in a row. And Marty Biagi will be charged — again — to jump-start the return game, which didn’t amount to much last year. But Sheffield, one would think, could get better if the blocking improves. And Purdue could look toward Marcellus Moore, who just competed in the US Olympic Trails, as an option, as well.
Returning nine of its starters is a huge boost for the Boilermakers, even if the two departed — Moore and Hermanns — were huge parts of the offense.
But the Boilermakers have weapons on the perimeter, led by Bell, with probably their best offensive line of the last decade. Brohm will need to settle on a quarterback, then hope he can stay healthy. And the fifth-year coach has vowed to open back up the play-book this season, after he played it a little too conservative in 2020.
That’ll help everyone.