Jalen Graham settles in at linebacker for Purdue, turns into big play-maker
When Jalen Graham arrived at Purdue in 2019, the Boilermakers thought they had a potential impact player on their defense.
So the freshman earned playing time almost immediately, starting 8 games that season while making 37 tackles. But while Graham had success, the fit never quite felt right. Purdue shifted Graham around in the defensive backfield, trying him at safety and moving him inside to nickel back. But the skills that made him a 3-star 247Sports recruit, like his speed, ball-hawking ability and athleticism, kept getting lost in the secondary at the Power 5 level.
And so after the season, Purdue figured it’d try something else, moving Graham to outside linebacker in Bob Diaco’s 3-4 front, thinking that the 6-3, 220-pounder could blossom closer to the line of scrimmage. It worked. As a sophomore, Graham started 5 games, forcing a fumble and recovering 2 others, including one in the end zone that was huge in the Boilermakers’ road win at Illinois.
It was enough to convince Purdue that Graham had found a home. When Brad Lambert was brought in as Purdue’s co-defensive coordinator and play-caller, bringing in a more traditional 4-3 front, Graham was the one linebacker who was inked in as a likely starter.
Eight games into the season, the move has proven to be a huge success, as Purdue has found itself with a second big play-maker joining defensive end George Karlaftis. Graham has 33 tackles, 3 for loss, including a sack, with 2 interceptions, a team-high 6 pass breakups and a forced fumble.
In the Boilermakers 28-23 win at Nebraska on Saturday, Graham had the defensive play of the game and one that helped change momentum in the first half when it was almost entirely in the favor of the Cornhuskers. He read the quarterback while sitting in a soft zone, jumped into the passing lane, then snagging the throw, taking the interception 45 yards for a score. Graham added another pick later, when he hauled in a deflected ball.
“Whenever you have a big play like that, it’s great. It changes the game for sure,” Karlaftis said after the game. “He had two picks, right? He balled out. Proud of him.”
For Graham, the perceived weaknesses as a player in the secondary — at 220-pounds, he was plenty physical but not quick enough sideline-to-sideline — are strengths now. He’s one of the best coverage linebackers Purdue has had in years, not only recording the pick-6 vs. Nebraska but nearly having one the week before against Wisconsin (had he not dropped it). And Graham has proven to be solid enough against the run.
Graham’s development is one of the reasons why Purdue’s defense has seen such dramatic improvement from last year to this. The Boilermakers have the Big Ten’s fourth-best scoring defense, allowing only 17.1 points per game. They’re 9th in rushing defense but 2nd in passing, and their total defense is 5th, giving up an average of 312.5 yards.
In the last 2 road games, Purdue has turned the offense over, totaling 4 interceptions against both Iowa and Nebraska, bringing the Boilermakers’ total up to 10 (which is tied for second in the Big Ten). Not bad considering Purdue had only 2 interceptions — and 2 turnovers total — in the first 5 games.
Graham’s pick-6 Saturday was the second defensive score in as many games, after Karlaftis picked up a fumble and raced 50 yards for a TD vs. the Badgers.
“It was a good play for our defense,” Graham said, describing his own score. “We got a turnover and we were able to capitalize on it, just like George did last week. He was able to pick up the ball and score. That’s what we want to do. Once we get the ball, we want to score as well, we don’t want to be tackled.”