Can we really say the Purdue Boilermakers — a team coming off a 63-14 loss in its bowl game — enter spring practice with momentum? Yes. Yes, we can.
After all, Purdue was able to retain head coach Jeff Brohm despite his beloved alma mater putting on a full-court press in an attempt to lure him back home to Louisville. Brohm then capitalized on his loyalty pledge to sign a recruiting class that ranked No. 25 in the country and fifth in the Big Ten, according to the 247Sports Composite. Plus, Brohm also has arguably the most electrifying player in college football at his disposal in the dynamic, do-everything Rondale Moore. The blowout notwithstanding, few teams entered 2019 with such a promising combination.
Let’s also not forget the Music City Bowl was the second postseason appearance in two years under Brohm after going four seasons without one. Oh, and last year’s 6-7 final record included a dominant 49-20 victory over No. 2 Ohio State in one of the most memorable games in program history.
Of course, there are plenty of questions the Boilermakers must answer before the season kicks off in August. And some of the answers may come as Purdue opens spring practice on Monday in preparation for the Spring Game at Ross-Ade Stadium on April 6.
5 Storylines to Watch During Purdue's Spring Practice
1. Rebuilding the offensive line
Offense is Jeff Brohm’s calling card, and the head coach and play-caller guided the Boilermakers to a third-place finish in the Big Ten in total offense (443.9 ypg) and yards per play (6.35) last season. Both figures ranked in the top 30 nationally and showed steady improvement over Brohm’s first season. Purdue also averaged more than 30 points per game for the first time since Joe Tiller’s last winning team in 2007.
However, Brohm and his coaching staff must replace three vital pieces from the foundation of that offense: Center Kirk Barron and guards Shane Evans and Dennis Edwards, who have all run out of eligibility after making a combined 81 starts throughout their careers. Fortunately, some experience remains. Left tackle Grant Hermanns and likely right tackle Matt McCann have made 51 career starts between them. Both suffered knee injuries in 2018, but both are expected to participate fully this spring.
Elsewhere, Viktor Beach is the front-runner to replace Barron at center. Eric Miller, Mark Stickford, and D.J. Washington have experience at guard, and though Will Bramel and Jimmy McKenna have played tackle primarily (and Miller has some experience outside as well), either could make a stake for a starting role. Early enrollee Spencer Holstege should also be in the mix.
2. Sindelar back in action
Elijah Sindelar finally has the starting quarterback to himself. That’s the plan, anyway.
Sindelar entered 2018 atop the QB depth chart following an MVP performance in the Foster Farms Bowl — an amazing feat given he had a torn ACL in his left knee at the time. He actually played three other games following the injury and finished his redshirt sophomore season with 2,099 passing yards, 18 touchdowns, and seven interceptions while completing 56.8 percent of his passes.
Also a team captain, Sindelar missed spring practice but made his ninth career start in the season opener against Northwestern. Though he completed 60 percent of his passes for 196 yards and a touchdown, he also threw three interceptions and was benched. Sindelar played in relief of David Blough in Week 2 but managed just 87 yards in the inexplicable loss to Eastern Michigan and lost hold of the job for good after suffering an oblique injury prior to the Missouri game. Blough started the rest of the season, and Sindelar — who also struggled with knee tendinitis throughout the year — watched.
Every indication is that the strong-armed Sindelar will make his third consecutive start in a Purdue season opener, and he might be able to start again in 2020 if the NCAA grants him a sixth season of eligibility due to his injury history. But first things first. Blough is out of eligibility, and Sindelar is back on top of the depth chart.
Nick Sipe and Jack Plummer are expected to compete for the backup role, with early enrollee Paul Piferi also in the mix.
3. More than Moore
Rondale Moore is amazing. The receiver wasn’t just a Freshman All-American in 2018, he was a freshman All-American — the first consensus All-American for the Boilermakers since '10.
Moore led the nation with 114 receptions, which he converted into 1,258 yards and 12 touchdowns. He also ran for 213 yards and two scores and contributed 662 yards on kick returns and 82 more on punt returns. Moore set the school record for single-game yardage with 313 yards in his first career game, and never slowed down. He’ll likely be in the Heisman conversation in 2019.
But in addition to the departed offensive linemen, the Boilermakers must also replace leading rushers D.J. Knox and Markell Jones, who combined for more than 1,400 yards and 13 TDs on the ground last season and are both in the top 10 in school history in career rushing yards. Productive receivers Isaac Zico and Terry Wright, who were responsible for a combined 1,200-plus receiving yards and 11 scores, also are gone. Brohm will get the ball to Moore as much as possible, but Purdue must lean on new players at the offensive skill positions to relieve some pressure off the shoulders of the 5-foot-9, 175-pound rising sophomore.
This spring, we can expect Alexander Hovarth, Tario Fuller, and Richie Worship to compete for carries. Hovarth gained 42 rushing yards and scored once on nine carries as a freshman. Fuller, a rising senior, added 34 yards on 14 attempts last season, but was the third-leading rusher in just three games in 2017, when he averaged 6.1 yards per carry while rushing for 261 yards and two TDs. Worship didn’t see action in 2018, but ran for 257 yards and three touchdowns in 10 games two years ago.
Jared Sparks will likely take on a bigger role in the passing game after catching 28 passes for 274 yards last season. Tight end Brycen Hopkins ranked third on the team with 34 receptions and 583 yards as a junior. Hotshot true freshman David Bell headlines a strong class of receiver recruits, and though Bell may not make the national headlines Moore did, he should make an immediate impact.
4. Improving the pass rush
Few defenses saw a bigger decline from 2017 to '18 than Purdue, and the unit saved its worst performance for last. Auburn gashed the Boilermakers for a season-high 7.81 yards per play and largely called off the dogs after building a 56-7 lead in the first half. The bowl-game blowout highlighted the shortcomings of a unit that ranked No. 13 in the Big Ten in total defense (452.6 ypg) and surrendered 5.99 yards per play — which ranked 113th and 95th in the country, respectively.
Injuries played a part in Nashville as defensive lineman Lorenzo Neal missed the trip after suffering a torn ACL against Indiana. Neal, who recorded 30 tackles, 3.0 tackles for a loss and one sack in 12 games, was named Honorable Mention All-Big Ten. He will miss spring practice but should return to anchor the middle of the defensive line this fall.
In the meantime, Purdue welcomes back the four defensive linemen that started against the Tigers in defensive ends Kai Higgins and Derrick Barnes, and tackles Giovanni Reviere and Anthony Watts. Reviere, who got to the quarterback three times as a redshirt freshman, was the only primary defensive lineman who recorded multiple sacks last year.
Barnes played a hybrid linebacker/defensive end role last season but will shift to end as the Boilermakers attempt to create a more consistent pass rush from their front four. The defense recorded 25 total sacks overall, which finished in the middle of the pack in the conference, though Barnes posted three sacks in addition to 92 total tackles and 8.0 tackles for a loss.
The addition of graduate transfer linebacker Ben Holt, the son of defensive coordinator Nick Holt, and blue-chip local product George Karlaftis should ease the transition — especially since the Boilermakers return all three starters at linebacker. Holt was a captain and the leading tackler at Western Kentucky last year, racking up 116 tackles as well as 11.5 TFLs, 2.5 sacks, five pass breakups, and nine QB hurries. Karlaftis arrives as the No. 59-rated player in America, fourth among strong-side defensive ends and as the No. 1 high school player in Indiana according to 247Sports.
5. Fix the secondary
Purdue finished last season dead last in the Big Ten and No. 128 nationally in pass defense (287.7 ypg). The Boilermakers surrendered an average of 7.7 yards per pass, which was slightly better, statistically speaking, and ranked 11th in the conference and 92nd in the country. But the lack of a pass rush and poor play in the secondary combined for a dismal experience overall.
For better or worse, Purdue must attempt to improve its performance while also replacing multiple contributors in the defensive backfield. Starters Jacob Thieneman and Antonio Blackmon leave holes at strong safety and cornerback, respectively, and experienced corner Tim Cason also is out of eligibility.
Free safety Navon Mosley returns as the leader of the secondary after recording 93 total tackles, an interception, and one sack last season. Brennan Thieneman should replace his brother and take hold of the other safety spot, with rising sophomore Dedrick Mackey is in line to replace Blackmon opposite interception leader Kenneth Major, who picked off three passes as a redshirt freshman.