Better or worse: Previewing Purdue's offense in 2022
Purdue couldn’t have finished last season much better offensively.
The Boilermakers scored 31 or more points in their last 5 games, including 3 in which they tallied at least 40 points. And Purdue won 4 of those final 5 games, including a 48-45 overtime win against Tennessee in the Music City Bowl.
Led by the emergence of quarterback Aidan O’Connell, who returns in 2022 for his super senior season, the Boilermakers were one of the best offenses in the Big Ten, perhaps the country: They ranked 5th in the Big Ten in scoring (29.1 per game) despite a 3-game stretch in the first half of the season in which they scored only 13 points an outing. They ranked 5th in total yardage (439.6) and 2nd in passing (355.4).
Purdue has suffered significant personnel losses, particularly at wide receiver, where All-American David Bell is now in the NFL and sidekick Milton Wright is in the transfer portal because he’s unlikely to be eligible academically in West Lafayette. Add in that reliable slot man Jackson Anthrop and running back Zander Horvath have departed, and Jeff Brohm’s crew has a ton of questions.
But Purdue has an experienced quarterback and an influx of skill players who will be thrown in right away.
Let’s take a look at the Boilermakers’ 2022 offense, whether it will be better or worse than last season.
Brohm spent the offseason trying to add talent to the perimeter, and he did by landing Iowa transfers Tyrone Tracy and Charlie Jones, along with Auburn’s Elijah Canion.
But how does a team replace the productivity of Bell, Wright and Anthrop, who combined for 203 receptions for 2,588 yards and 18 touchdowns? That’s not easy. It’s the biggest question for the Boilermakers as they get ready for training camp in early August: Who steps up at wide receiver?
Horvath might not have gotten the headlines, particularly after he spent much of the ’21 season on the sidelines with an injury, but when healthy the big physical back gave the Boilermakers a legitimate threat in the backfield. Brohm, however, got a late boost in the backfield, when former Central Michigan back Kobe Lewis declared he’d transfer to Purdue for a graduate season.
Brohm also had portal success on the offensive line, pulling in a couple of transfers, including FIU’s Sione Finau, to bolster a unit that returns 3 starters, plus has a couple of other underclassmen who might be ready to add depth.
Passing offense: Better
It might be hard to fathom that the passing game could be better, but if the entirety of the season is taken into account — and not only the final handful of games — then it’s doable.
Purdue struggled under the inconsistency of QB Jack Plummer in the first few games of last season, only finding solid footing once O’Connell settled in as the unquestioned starter. Then, the offense clicked, as strong-armed pocket quarterback passed for 3,711 yards, 28 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Without Bell and Wright for the bowl game, O’Connell seemed out of sync early, but then rallied to throw for 534 yards with 5 touchdowns but also had 3 interceptions.
But the game might have been telling for ’22. Veteran Broc Thompson stepped up as the primary receiver, nabbing 7 receptions for 217 yards and 2 scores. The former Marshall WR will be back for his senior season, after having dual knee surgeries to fix the injuries he played through at the end of the year.
Tracy, an Indianapolis native, gives the Boilermakers a dual threat as a pass receiver and a runner, perhaps in a similar role to Anthrop’s, although with more explosiveness. Jones, who stars as a return man, led Iowa with a 15.4 yards-per-catch average last season, while also scoring 3 TDs. He’s looking for more opportunities in the offense at Purdue.
But Purdue will need others: Of this group — Mershawn Rice, T.J. Sheffield, Abdur-Rahmaan Yaseen, Collin Sullivan, Deion Burks — who steps into a larger role?
The Boilermakers have no such questions at tight end, where Payne Durham (the leading returning receiver with 45 catches and 6 touchdowns) and Garrett Miller are as good a duo as there is in the Big Ten.
Running game: Even
Purdue has finished last in the Big Ten in rushing for 3 consecutive seasons.
It’ll try to end the streak this season, but that might be a monumental challenge. On the positive, Purdue does have veteran running back options: Senior King Doerue is a reliable, steady, fundamentally sound back who can grind out some yardage to try to keep defenses off-balance. And Sampson James, a transfer a year ago from Indiana, is a similarly-built physical back. Maybe Lewis, who missed last season with a knee injury suffered in training camp, can give the Boilermakers a bit of perimeter speed. The 5-11, 220-pounder had a great season for the Chippewas in 2019, gaining more than 1,000 yards, but that was followed by the COVID-shortened season, then the injury.
Brohm also plans to use Tracy — and perhaps other wide receivers — in the backfield, trying to use their speed in space on the perimeter. Purdue isn’t necessarily looking for balance on offense, but the threat of balance, so that defenses at least have to respect the Boilermakers’ ground game.
The Boilermakers averaged only 84.2 yards per game last season, more than 23 yards less than the second-worst in the Big Ten. A big jump would be way too much to anticipate.
Kicking game: Better
Place-kicker Mitchell Fineran hit the game-winner in overtime vs. Tennessee, finishing up his first season at Purdue making connecting on 24-of-29 attempts. The Boilermakers have little concern about their ability to hit 3-pointers (although they’d like to attempt less than 29).
But under Brohm, the return game has been nearly nonexistent. Maybe Jones, the transfer from Iowa, can remedy that; the veteran was the 2021 Big Ten Return Man of the Year after averaging 25.4 yards per kick return with a touchdown. He also has a punt return for a TD during his career. And Indiana cornerback Reese Taylor also has punt return experience, giving Purdue a couple of possibilities.
Can O’Connell, a dark-horse Heisman candidate, elevate the level of play of those around him, as he did during Purdue’s upset victory over Tennessee?
If the answer is yes, then the Boilermakers are likely to be better offensively in 2022 than in ’21, especially in terms of consistency from Games 1-12. But O’Connell will need help, from the likes of Thompson and Tracy, and others. And he needs the offensive line, which has 3 returning starters in Gus Hartwig, Spencer Holstege and Eric Miller back, to be a net positive.
But none of those are a given. If the Boilermakers don’t get those, then they could slide backward.