The third year of the Darrell Hazell era isn’t starting any different than the first two, according to the media. The Boilermakers were a unanimous pick to finish last in the Big Ten West for the third straight year. That, however, is not what the 18 returning starters wanted to hear. Here’s what they have to do to prove the media wrong.

Build around the offensive line

The entire offensive line returns for Purdue’s 3-9 squad, which isn’t a bad place for a rebuilding team to start. Built around three-year starter Robert Kugler, Hazell believes this group can run and pass block effectively enough to open the offense up more than in years past. Returning offensive linemen Jason King, Jordan Roos, Cameron Cermin, David Hedelin and J.J. Prince are part of what Hazell calls, “the oldest young team in college football.” The Boilermakers might lack proven skill players, but an experienced offensive line would definitely smooth that transition process.

Significant strides from Austin Appleby

If Purdue is going to make the improvement it’s looking for, Appleby has to be a major part of that. Hazell hasn’t officially named a starter yet, but after Danny Etling transferred to LSU, Appleby’s main competition is redshirt freshman David Blough. Assuming Appleby takes the reins, he’ll need to improve as a passer. He had moments last year where he showed his potential. His efficient performance at Illinois led the Boilermakers to their first Big Ten win of the Hazell era. But there were also signs of regression. Appleby’s three interceptions against Indiana — one of the conference’s worse defenses — closed the season with a Bucket Game loss, which was also Purdue’s sixth straight defeat. There should be plenty of protection for the junior signal-caller, but it’ll be on him to make the most of it with his arm and legs.

Defend their turf

Ok, so Purdue still plays on grass, but you get the idea. The defense, or lack there of, is a major reason why the Boilermakers have yet to celebrate a Big Ten win at Ross Ade Stadium in the Hazell era. They surrendered over 35 points per game in four conference losses at home last year. As Hazell said, the oldest young team in college football got some needed experience. He hopes the return of starting linebackers Ja’Whaun Bentley, Danny Ezechukwu and Jimmy Herman — all of whom were underclassmen last year — will anchor a unit that was the worst in the Big Ten on third down. Purdue does get Illinois and Indiana at home this year. Between those two, Hazell and the Boilermakers should be celebrating at least once in West Lafayette.