Purdue football: 5 biggest areas of a concern ... and possible solutions
Purdue put together its best season in nearly 2 decades in 2021, winning 9 games including a thrilling double-overtime victory against Tennessee in the Music City Bowl.
A lot went right for Jeff Brohm and the Boilermakers, but that’s not to say there aren’t areas of concern, especially as Purdue looks to take a step forward in 2022, perhaps looking for a 10-win season and an opportunity to compete for a Big Ten West title. The Boilermakers’ running game, which hasn’t amounted to much in the last couple seasons, needs a boost. Purdue needs to find a way to beat Minnesota and Wisconsin if it’s to have any chance at a West title. It needs more play-makers, particularly on defense.
Let’s take a look at these concerns, and others, and possible answers:
Running the ball
Brohm’s focus is on passing the football, and there Purdue has had great success. But the Boilermakers must be able to run it too, if only to be able to keep defenses off-balance.
Last season, and the season before, the Boilermakers ranked last in the Big Ten in rushing yardage per game — it was only 84.2 yards per game in 2021, more than 23 yards less than the second-worst team — so there’s a clear need to improve. It didn’t help Purdue that starting running back Zander Horvath was injured for much of last season. And it didn’t help either that outside of veteran backup King Doerue, the Boilermakers didn’t have much of any depth.
Solution? Does Purdue have an answer? Heck, has the concern even been addressed?
The Boilermakers return Doerue next season and they’ll add former Indiana back and 4-star prospect Sampson James, who transferred before last year but wasn’t eligible to play. There again might not be a ton of depth behind those two. Purdue will add a couple freshmen to bolster the corps, but it’s questionable they’ll be ready to contribute right away. Purdue briefly landed a transfer back, as Cal’s Christopher Brooks committed to the Boilermakers, but soon after he backed out, choosing to head to BYU instead.
With success during the season — and Purdue won its most games since 2003 — comes consequence. Since Purdue’s 48-45 win over the Volunteers in Nashville, Brohm has seen 2 defensive assistants, including his defensive play-caller, an offensive assistant and perhaps now his special teams coordinator depart. An offensive line coach also retired. Co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Brad Lambert left for Wake Forest and was followed there by cornerbacks coach James Adams. Wide receivers coach and co-OC JaMarcus Shepherd took a similar job at Washington, and Neil Calloway, one of Purdue’s O-line coaches, decided to end his on-field coaching career. Special teams coordinator Marty Biagi is reportedly headed to Ole Miss.
Solution? Brohm wants to keep as much continuity as possible. With that in mind, he promoted David Elson and Ryan Wallace to full assistant positions at linebackers and tight ends/offensive line, respectively. It’s likely that Ron English, the co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach, will be promoted to play-caller.
Meanwhile Garrick McGee (wide receivers) and Ashton Youboty (cornerbacks) were brought in to fill positions, and Brohm will likely need now to do the same for special teams.
Beating the Badgers, Gophers
Purdue scored big-time upsets vs. top-5 opponents Iowa and Michigan State last season.
But it lost 2 home games, as well, falling to Minnesota and Wisconsin. Those 2 programs have been real bugaboos for the Boilermakers of late: Purdue has lost 4 straight to PJ Fleck and the Gophers, while it hasn’t beaten Wisconsin since 2003, a span of 15 consecutive games.
Solution? The programs share some similarities, in that they generally are built on big, physical offensive lines with strong running games and solid defenses, especially in their fronts. And Purdue historically has struggled to win at the lines of scrimmage against such teams. Maybe another year of development will help the Boilermakers to get bigger and stronger up front, both on the offensive and defensive lines. But if Purdue is to compete for a Big Ten West crown next season, one thing’s for certain: It’ll need to beat either Minnesota or Wisconsin, or maybe both.
Staying solid on defense
Purdue was a solid defensive team in 2021, but it might have been a case where the sum was greater than the parts.
Outside of rush end George Karlaftis, who is likely a first-round draft pick this spring, the Boilermakers were lacking consistent defensive play-makers. Sure, they could get big plays occasionally from Jalen Graham or Cam Allen or Dedrick Mackey, but they need more to step up.
Solution? That’ll especially be the case in 2022 with Karlaftis having left early for his shot at the NFL. Purdue will need to find ways to rush the passer, so replacements at defensive end — DeMarcus Mitchell also departed — is a must. Brohm worked to restock the position in recruiting, making it a big-time priority, and he found a couple players who could make instant impacts in 4-star recruits Joe Strickland and Nic Caraway. Both appear to have the size and physicality needed to play the positions, but will they quickly adapt to Big Ten football? That’s always the question for any freshman at any position.
But elsewhere Purdue needs to continue to develop play-makers. Graham, who will be in his second full season as a linebacker, will continue to develop. Allen has shown a knack for finding the football. And Purdue will see the return of No. 1 cornerback Cory Trice.
Finding the new No. 1 at WR
Since 2018, Purdue has had a bona fide clear-cut No. 1 receiver, first in Rondale Moore and then in David Bell.
Who will it be in 2022?
Solution? The heir apparent appeared to be Milton Wright, but his future is clouded after he missed the Music City Bowl because of academic issues. If Wright isn’t around, then Purdue will be searching for a new No. 1 target for quarterback Aidan O’Connell. Maybe it can be Broc Thompson, who had a breakout bowl game as he stepped in for Wright and David Bell, the latter of whom had decided to move on to the NFL.
But Purdue worked the transfer portal hard as well, bringing in Iowa’s Tyrone Tracy, an Indianapolis native, and Auburn’s Elijah Canion to compete for spots right away, maybe as starters. Some think Tracy could be the next big-time outside threat for the Boilermakers.
But while there’s been a clear hierarchy in Purdue’s receiving corps in years past, that’s not yet settled now.