Rondale Moore. Jared Sparks. David Bell. Milton Wright.
Those names have been the reason behind a lot of the optimism surrounding Jeff Brohm’s third season at Purdue. For the first time in as long as anyone can remember, there’s a slew of talented playmakers at the skill positions in West Lafayette.
Moore is the explosive playmaker and an outside pick to win the Heisman Trophy. Sparks is the veteran with the potential to be the No. 2 target in a high-powered offense. David Bell and Milton Wright are the four-star newcomers who are bringing even more life to the party.
Elijah Sindelar is the guy running the show under center. Yes, he’s battled injuries over the last two seasons, but he’s more than capable of being the maestro of Purdue’s aerial orchestra.
In a division that’s wide open, Purdue has the skill position players to make a serious run to win the West. But the one concern that Brohm has about his team this season may prevent the train from leaving the station.
Brohm has harped about the offensive line since the start of spring ball. It trickled into B1G Media Days and has spilled over into fall camp. The only glimpse of the front line we’ve seen came from the spring game in April, but the consensus is it’s the weakest link.
“Sometimes the guys up front are the ones that control what you can and can’t do. That’s going to be a concern early on,” Brohm said at B1G Media Days in July. “We’ll have to be a little cautious and make sure we know what we have and how we can play. Once you shore up that position, it helps you do a lot of things.”
Purdue has two certainties on the offensive line — left tackle Grant Hermanns and right guard Matt McCann. Combined, the two have made 51 career starts. Alex Criddle has played in 14 games in three years. The team’s new center, Viktor Beach, has made six appearances as a reserve.
Will Bramel and Jimmy McKenna are also battling for starting jobs up front. Both are redshirt freshmen with no game experience. It’s not exactly the most seasoned group.
It’s been showing in fall camp, even as recently as a week ago, during Purdue’s first team scrimmage. Even Brohm couldn’t contain his frustration with the inconsistency up front.
“Offensively, I don’t think it was a very good day for us,” Brohm said, according to the Journal & Courier. “I thought we struggled up front, which we’ve got to get better at, and I though we struggled at the quarterback position. A lot of room for improvement.”
Poor offensively line play and struggles at quarterback tend to go hand-in-hand, especially in an offense like Purdue’s. If the defense is consistently getting through the line of scrimmage, it puts Sindelar on the move, either avoiding a sack or rushing a throw. It’s hard to be patient when you’ve been picking clumps of grass out of your helmet all afternoon.
This week, after Purdue’s second scrimmage, the evaluation hasn’t been much better.
“We’ve got to play much faster. [We gave up] Too many sacks,” Brohm said Saturday. “Things like that, we’ve got to get cleaned up. We’ve just got to continue to get better and find ways to get it to our playmakers.”
That, ultimately, is where the problem lies. If the offensive line is bad, it results in poor play from the quarterback position. And when Sindelar is rushing throws and avoiding sacks, he’s unable to get the ball to those playmakers mentioned above.
It’s hard for Moore to turn a routine catch into a 75-yard touchdown if the ball isn’t in his hands. Sparks isn’t going to develop into a deep threat if Sindelar doesn’t have enough time in the pocket to launch the ball downfield. Bell and Wright can’t live up to their four-star rating if touches are at a minimum.
A good chunk of that responsibility falls on an inexperienced and unproven offensive line. The concerns began in the winter, and Brohm and his staff still have the same worries with less than two weeks until kickoff — which is a late-night kickoff against Nevada in Reno, by the way.
Less than a month ago, Brohm preached about the importance of Purdue’s offensive line play. Their performance in the trenches dictates what the offense will look like this fall, especially in the early portion of the schedule.
“We’ve got to get better up front and get those guys ready to play,” Brohm said. “How they play early will determine what we can and can’t do.”
It will also determine whether Purdue gets back to a third-straight bowl game or has its postseason streak snapped.