The first year of the Jeff Brohm era was an unmitigated success for the Purdue football program. The Boilermakers improved from their 3-9 finish in 2016, which included a 1-8 mark in Big Ten play, to go 7-6 overall and 4-5 in the conference. Purdue overcame a slow start in league play and a series of injuries to finish the regular season with three wins in its final four games. The Boilermakers capped the campaign with a 38-35 victory over Arizona in the Foster Farms Bowl.
There also is a renewed excitement in West Lafayette as Purdue saw its average attendance at Ross-Ade Stadium improve by 13,433 fans per home game – by far the best in the nation. Season ticket sales are on the rise, as are expectations. With spring practice just around the corner, and the spring game set for April 7, we take a look at some things to keep an eye on.
5 Storylines to Watch During Purdue Spring Practice
1. Delayed quarterback competition
Purdue played two quarterbacks in head coach Jeff Brohm’s first season, and though both David Blough and Elijah Sindelar (above, right) return to the team in 2018, the duo won’t compete for the starting job this spring. Blough, who started the season atop the depth chart and threw for 1,103 yards and nine touchdowns with four interceptions in nine games, is recovering from ankle surgery. However, thanks to a speedy recovery, Blough expects to participate in spring drills.
Sindelar, who wrestled the job away midseason and finished with 2,099 yards and an 18:7 TD-to-interception ratio, had ACL surgery after setting a career high with 396 passing yards and four touchdowns in the bowl game. The Boilermakers originally expected redshirt freshman Nick Sipe and early enrollee Jack Plummer to take the bulk of the snaps this spring, but Blough’s quick return offers a boost.
2. Rebuilding the defensive front seven
Quarterback is the most important position on the field, and the Purdue offense should soon be the calling card under Brohm, but the Boilermakers were able to get back to a bowl game thanks in large part to a much-improved defense. Two years ago, Purdue allowed 445.8 yards per game and surrendered 6.22 yards per play – both of which ranked 13th in the Big Ten. In Year 1 under Brohm and defensive coordinator Nick Holt, the Boilermakers allowed 375.5 yards per contest, up to 10th in the league and No. 52 nationally, and held opponents to 5.27 yards per play, which ranked No. 41 overall.
Unfortunately, many of the players responsible for the turnaround are gone. The Boilermakers rank 13th in the Big Ten and 125th nationally in returning defensive production (41 percent), according to Bill Connelly of SBNation. Purdue welcomes back three of its top five tacklers, including standout linebacker Markus Bailey, but replace its next five players in that category. Bailey and defensive tackle Lorenzo Neal form a solid returning nucleus, but overall the team will play next season without 10 defenders responsible for double-digit tackles last year, as well as three of its top four sack producers.
3. Reconstruction at cornerback
In addition to the changes at the first two levels of the defense, Purdue must replace both starting cornerbacks and one of its top backups. Da’Wan Hunte, Josh Okonye and Kamal Hardy have all run out of eligibility, leaving Simeon Smiley, Antonio Blackmon, Tim Cason and Mike Little to compete for the top two spots on the outside. Smiley is the leading returning tackler among this group with just 17 stops and he also recorded a pass breakup last season. Blackmon logged 11 tackles, while Little and Cason had five and four respectively. The safety position is in a much better position from an experience standpoint, so it wouldn’t be a shock to see starting free safety Navon Mosley work himself into the mix at corner.
4. Building depth at receiver
Not having Sindelar available this spring limits the ability of the quarterbacks to develop chemistry with the receiving corps. Purdue loses deep threat Anthony Mahoungou and Gregory Phillips, who combined for more than 1,100 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns last season. Jackson Anthrop led the team with 47 receptions and ranked second with five TDs, and tight ends Brycen Hopkins and Cole Herdman return after combining for 45 receptions, 680 yards and six scores. Terry Wright and Jarrett Burgess should play larger roles, as should Jared Sparks, who moved from quarterback and showed promise with 11 receptions for 130 yards and a touchdown in six games. However, Burgess and Sparks are not expected to participate this spring.
Building the unit this spring is important, but the Boilers welcome a talented set of receivers from the 2018 recruiting class as well. Among this group is Rondale Moore, a four-star prospect from Kentucky. Moore measures a slight 5-foot-8 and weighs 174 pounds, but as one of the fastest players in this year’s class, he could have a significant impact as a freshman if utilized properly. And Brohm has a great track record for getting the ball to his best players. Moore won't take part in spring practice, but he's definitely someone worth keeping an eye on when he does arrive on campus. Kory Taylor also has the size (6-5) and athleticism to make an immediate impact.
5. Competing for carries
Purdue has great depth at running back. Markell Jones and D.J. Knox form a solid one-two punch, and are among the top six rushers from last season (and top four on the running back depth chart) expected to return. Jones missed three games, but still led the team with 566 rushing yards and 113 carries last season, although he found the end zone just once. The 5-foot-11, 200-pound rising senior has more than 2,000 rushing yards to his credit, and has scored 15 touchdowns on the ground. He set a career high with 217 yards on the ground in the 31-24 win over rival Indiana. Knox saw action in every game, and ranked second on the team with 90 carries and 561 rushing yards. Built like a bowling ball (5-7, 210), Knox ran for 101 yards (one yard shy of a career high) and a score in the Foster Farms Bowl victory over Arizona to end the season on a high note.
Richie Worship, a 260-pound bulldozer, who led the team with three rushing touchdowns, and rising junior Tario Fuller (6.1 ypc in 2017) might have the biggest upside. Fuller led the team with 216 yards and two touchdowns through the first three weeks of the season, but was sidelined with an ankle injury the rest of the way. Unfortunately, both Worship and Fuller are scheduled to miss spring practice, as are offensive linemen Grant Hermanns and Shane Evans.
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.