Purdue football: Projecting the 2021 starting lineup
Purdue looked like it might be rolling early in the 2020 season, winning its first two games to set itself up for a big Ross-Ade showdown with Northwestern.
But the Boilermakers lost to the Wildcats as NU took control of the Big Ten West. And the loss jolted Purdue, which seemed to perform worse every week, ending the season on a four-game losing streak.
Now, as Jeff Brohm enters Year 5 at Purdue, the Boilermakers need a wakeup call. They have an experienced roster, particularly on offense, and that might be enough to get the train rolling again. Let’s take a look at the projected starters for 2021.
Purdue’s offense was much more pedestrian in 2020 than almost anyone predicted, especially considering it was expected to have big-play receivers David Bell and Rondale Moore side-by-side. But those two only played together half the season, and it didn’t prove to be as dynamic as was hoped.
The Boilermakers finished just seventh in the Big Ten in points scored, averaging 27.2 per game, and they were sixth in yardage, at 390.5. More than 75 percent of that was passing, as Purdue — even though Aidan O’Connell and Jack Plummer shared QB duties — averaged 309 through the air. Of course, the Boilermakers were dead last in rushing offense, at 81.5 yards per game.
Purdue has nine starters back, so it’s reasonable to think the Boilermakers could return to the more wide-open, freewheeling scheme of past years under Brohm. But Brohm will need to be more aggressive again in his play-calling, after conservatism hindered the Boilermakers in 2020. The following is an early projection of Purdue’s starters in ’21.
QB: Aidan O’Connell
RB: Zander Horvath
WR: David Bell
WR: Jackson Anthrop
WR: Milton Wright
LT: Greg Long
LG: Tyler Witt
C: Gus Hartwig
RG: Cam Craig
RT: Eric Miller
TE: Payne Durham
The Skinny: The biggest position battle will — once again — be at quarterback, where Purdue returns Aidan O’Connell and Jack Plummer, both of whom started three games in 2020. The edge, as of right now, goes to O’Connell because A) he won the job in training camp last fall and B) Jeff Brohm likes the veteran’s ability to drive the ball down the field. But Plummer isn’t far behind, if at all.
Purdue received good news after the season, with wide receiver Jackson Anthrop and offensive lineman Greg Long deciding to return for one more season. Anthrop, who led Purdue in receiving in 2017, will help at least somewhat replace the departure of Rondale Moore and Long is likely to move from right tackle to left. He’ll help on an improving offensive line that returns experience, plus gets a boost with the transfer of former Western Kentucky starter Tyler Witt.
Even though Moore is gone to the NFL, Purdue still has a deep wide receiver corps, led by David Bell, one of the best in the league, and underrated Milton Wright. Purdue needs somebody, maybe King Doerue, to push Zander Horvath for snaps at RB1.
Frankly, Purdue’s defense wasn’t logical in 2020.
Under Bob Diaco, the Boilermakers frequently played a three-man front that couldn’t get to the quarterback, sat back in coverages (that didn’t work) and wasn’t aggressive. And Diaco, not surprisingly, was let go after only a 6-game season.
The statistical numbers weren’t as atrocious as one might imagine: Purdue was eighth in scoring defense and yardage, at 29.8 points and 399 yards per game. But it rarely did anything to jostle the opponent, with only 5 sacks, last in the Big Ten, and only 3 interceptions. Purdue will be rebuilding in 2021, with a coaching staff that has three new assistants, including at coordinator. Let’s take a look at the projected starters:
DE: George Karlaftis
DT: Joseph Anderson
DT: Lawrence Johnson
DE: DeMarcus Mitchell
LB: Yanni Karlaftis
LB: Jaylin Alexander
LB: OC Brothers
CB: Cory Trice
S: Cam Allen
S: Marvin Grant
CB: Dedrick Mackey
The Skinny: Purdue has a ton of questions that new co-coordinator Brad Lambert will have to try to find answers to. His No. 1 priority: Mold his defensive scheme to fit the Boilermakers’ existing personnel, because Purdue needs to win right now. The Boilermakers’ best players are at end, with George Karlaftis, who will be looking for a huge season in what might be his last in West Lafayette, and DeMarcus Mitchell. Lambert needs to game plan for them to get after the quarterback as frequently as possible.
The linebacker corps got a boost by the arrival of Auburn transfer OC Brothers, who should find a starting role right away. And rookie Yanni Karlaftis, George’s younger brother, will get every opportunity to play from Day 1.
The secondary has promising young pieces, but it’s not gelled in recent years. Maybe now? Cornerback Cory Trice has had moments in his first two seasons, but not the consistency necessary. Dedrick Mackey has experience, but could easily be pushed for snaps, or his starting job. At safety, Purdue absolutely has to be better and start coming up with the big plays that it has been lacking. Marvin Grant is raw, but he looks like the big hitter the Boilermakers have long sought.
Purdue must show improvement in 2021, after back-to-back seasons in which the Boilermakers were under .500. What will they lean on? Well, the offense has good skill, particularly at wide receiver, and the offensive line was good in 2020 and should be better. A quarterback — any quarterback — has to take over as the leader.
The defense has very few knowns — the assumption is that defensive tackles Lorenzo Neal and Anthony Watts will not return, although each could decide to stay one more year in West Lafayette — that it’s hard to handicap. So much will be on the new defensive staff to mold the group into one that can have a positive influence on the Boilermakers’ chances.