The Purdue Boilermakers are set to begin spring practice this week, eager to put a disappointing 2019 season in the rearview mirror. Purdue played in bowl games in each of the first two seasons under head coach Jeff Brohm, but injuries, inconsistency, and ineffectiveness last year doomed the Boilermakers to a 4-8 final record, including a 3-6 mark in Big Ten play.
Nevertheless, there is reason to be optimistic Purdue will be better in 2020. Brohm and his coaching staff have raised the talent level considerably over the last few years, and the injury woes allowed several young players to receive more playing time than expected last season. In fact, 33 true and redshirt freshmen saw the field, including 13 as starters in 2019. That experience, better health for the roster as a whole, and some new blood on the coaching staff could combine for a major turnaround.
But before we look too far ahead, we explore five storylines to watch for the Boilermakers this spring.
5 Storylines to Watch During Purdue's Spring Practice
1. Quarterback situation
Elijah Sindelar, who appeared in 24 games and made 12 starts (including the season opener in each of the last three years), was granted a sixth year of eligibility due to injuries he's suffered, including a shoulder injury that cost him the majority of 2019. However, Sindelar decided he would not play in 2020. That leaves Jack Plummer and Aidan O'Connell as the most likely candidates to start for the Boilermakers next year.
Plummer led the team with 1,603 passing yards, 11 touchdowns, and eight interceptions in nine games as a redshirt freshman last season, which included a team-high six starts. Unfortunately, Plummer also was injured and sidelined. O'Connell, who appeared in six games as a sophomore, started the final three. He completed 62.8 percent of his passes for 1,101 yards and eight touchdowns with four interceptions. Both Plummer and O'Connell averaged 6.7 yards per pass attempt.
If healthy, Plummer should have the inside track to start in 2020. Paul Piferi, a 2019 recruit, should also be in the mix. True freshman Michael Alaimo, a four-star signee ranked as the No. 12 pro-style quarterback in the 247Sports Composite, will join the competition this fall.
2. Injury updates to key players
Quarterback wasn't the only position hit hard by injuries last year. First and foremost, All-American receiver, returner and all-purpose performer Rondale Moore appeared in only four games last season because of a hamstring injury. Moore still ranked third on the team with 387 receiving yards, which he gained on 29 receptions, and scored two touchdowns last season. In his absence, David Bell emerged as one of the best receivers in the Big Ten and led the squad with 86 receptions and 1,035 yards. Bell tied with graduated tight end Brycen Hopkins for the team lead with seven touchdown receptions. A healthy Moore and Bell should be one of the best pass-catching duos in the conference in 2020.
Along the line of scrimmage, starting center Viktor Beach missed more than half the season because of a back injury, and defensive tackle Lorenzo Neal was forced to redshirt because of a knee injury. Safety Marvin Grant, who was the highest-rated defensive back in Purdue's 2019 recruiting class according to 247Sports, played in only three games and redshirted after suffering a shoulder injury. And of course, the team missed linebacker Markus Bailey, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the fourth game of his senior season.
It's not completely clear how much action Plummer, Moore, Beach, Neal, and Grant will see this spring, or if they will be on the field for the spring game at Ross-Ade Stadium on April 4.
3. Improvement in the running game
The running back position was not spared from injury, which helps explain – at least in part – why Purdue finished dead last in the Big Ten and No. 126 nationally with an average of 83.25 rushing yards per game. The Boilermakers also ranked 126th with an average of 2.92 yards per carry.
Seniors Tario Fuller and Richie Worship combined to appear in just five games. Zander Horvath finished as the team's second-leading rusher with 377 yards on the ground, but the rising junior had just two carries from Sept. 28 to Oct. 19 last season and missed the Maryland game entirely. Horvath ended on a high note with 164 rushing yards and his only two touchdowns of the season in the finale against Indiana, and there’s hope he can carry over that excellent performance into 2020.
Freshman King Doerue proved to be the most dependable running back for the Boilermakers over the course of the season, and he led the team with 451 rushing yards and five touchdowns. But Doerue's production dropped off in November as Hovarth's health improved.
Four starters return on the offensive line, plus Beach, who started the first five games at center. However, only left tackle Grant Hermanns started all 12 games last season for the unit. Better health and more consistency in the backfield and on the line should help Purdue pose more of a threat in the ground game in 2020. The addition of freshman running back Tirek Murphy, a 220-pound four-star signee in the most recent recruiting class, will add to the competition this summer.
4. New defensive coordinator Bob Diaco
Purdue allowed 436.3 total yards per game and 6.02 yards per play in 2019, which ranked No. 100 and No. 91 in the country, respectively. After such a difficult campaign, Brohm made the difficult decision to part with defensive coordinator Nick Holt, who had followed the head coach to Purdue from Western Kentucky.
To replace Holt, Brohm hired Diaco, the former UConn head coach who spent the 2019 season at Louisiana Tech, where the Bulldogs won 10 games, led the nation with five interception returns for touchdowns, and capped things with a shutout of Miami in the Independence Bowl. Previously, Diaco was the defensive coordinator at Notre Dame, where he won the Broyles Award as the nation’s best assistant in 2012.
5. Stopping the run
Diaco's top priority will be to improve Purdue's performance against the run. Last season, the Boilermakers surrendered an average of 192.5 rushing yards per game and 4.74 yards per carry, both of which ranked No. 12 in the conference, and sat 99th and 95th in FBS, respectively.
Fortunately, Diaco inherits a solid foundation on the defensive line. In addition to Neal, who made 28 starts from 2016-18, returning starters George Karlaftis (a Freshman All-American last year), Derrick Barnes and Lawrence Johnson are set to return, along with experienced reserves Anthony Watts and Giovanni Reviere, who have both started more than a dozen games for the Boilermakers during their careers.
Diaco's defense operated out of a 4-2-5 base last season, so it’s likely Barnes stays at the defensive end position he played primarily in 2019. However, the senior has also played linebacker during his career, and since the defensive line is the deepest position group on the unit and depth and experience at linebacker is lacking because of the departures of Ben Holt and Markus Bailey to graduation, and Cornel Jones to transfer, Barnes and Semisi Fakasiieki could both move back to linebacker for the new play-caller.