Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm remains one of the brightest offensive minds in college football. Yet the Boilermakers took a step back in 2019 because of a string of devastating injuries to key players and a porous defense that ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in most statistical categories.
In his fourth year, Brohm is eager to show that last year’s 4–8 campaign was an aberration. Overall, Purdue has gone 6–12 since its 2018 upset of No. 2 Ohio State, the high point of the Brohm era in West Lafayette.
There is reason for optimism, as several underclassmen stepped into prominent roles last season due to injuries and gained valuable experience. Those players will need to continue to develop for Purdue to make progress in an improving Big Ten West.
Previewing Purdue's Offense for 2020
Sophomore receiver David Bell is back after a stellar freshman season in which he had 100 or more receiving yards in six of Purdue’s final nine games. Bell scored eight TDs (seven receiving, one rushing) in his debut season. If fleet redshirt sophomore receiver Rondale Moore (1,645 career receiving yards, 14 TDs) can return to full speed after a season-ending leg injury last season, Purdue could end up with the most dynamic receiving tandem in the Big Ten.
The question remains: Who will throw them the football? Purdue kept its quarterback competition open this spring, with sophomore Jack Plummer and junior Aidan O’Connell both getting first-team reps. Both will battle this fall with UCLA grad transfer Austin Burton, who made one start for the Bruins last season and completed 44-of-64 passes for 365 yards and a TD. Plummer (1,603 yards, 11 TDs, eight interceptions) started six games as a redshirt freshman after Elijah Sindelar went down with a broken collarbone last season. O’Connell (1,101 yards, eight TDs, four interceptions) then started Purdue’s last three games when Plummer went down with a broken ankle. Plummer is more mobile, but his decision-making caused him to get benched against Illinois last season.
Purdue would benefit greatly from an improved run game after finishing last in the Big Ten in rushing yards (83.3 ypg) and yards per carry (2.9). The Boilermakers return their top two running backs from last season, sophomore King Doerue (451 yards, five TDs) and junior Zander Horvath (377 yards, two TDs) but need improved push up front to open holes for both backs. Left tackle Grant Hermanns is the best of three starters back from a line that needs to run block better to create more balance.
Previewing Purdue's Defense for 2020
New coordinator Bob Diaco, hired from Louisiana Tech, is tasked to fix a Purdue defense that ranked next to last in the Big Ten in total defense (436.3 yards per game) and 12th against the run (192.5 yards per game). Diaco experimented with multiple 3-4 and 4-3 fronts during the first two weeks of spring drills before practices were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Eventually, Diaco would prefer to run a 3-4 defense, but that could depend on the health and depth of the defensive line and linebacker groups.
Sophomore defensive end George Karlaftis is an emerging star, a Freshman All-American who posted 7.5 sacks last season. Karlaftis proved to be both durable and reliable in starting all 12 games for the Boilermakers. The return of fifth-year senior defensive tackle Lorenzo Neal, who sat out the entire 2019 season recovering from knee surgery, should also help up front. The 6'3", 315-pound Neal is the inside run stuffer that Purdue’s defense sorely lacked last season.
There are more questions at linebacker, although there is hope that junior college transfer DaMarcus Mitchell could make an immediate impact as an edge rusher. Senior Derrick Barnes is moving back from defensive line to inside linebacker this season to help address some of Purdue’s issues stopping the run.
In the secondary, sophomore cornerback Cory Trice displayed big-play ability in coverage last season with three interceptions, including one returned 37 yards for a TD. At 6'3" and 215 pounds, Trice has the strength and size to match up with bigger receivers. Trice will be flanked by junior cornerback Dedrick Mackey, who also picked off three passes last season. Sophomore Cam Allen, senior Simeon Smiley, senior Brennan Thieneman and graduate transfer Tyler Coyle will rotate at the safety spots. Coyle led UConn in tackles in each of the last two seasons and will bring physicality to the back end of the defense.
Previewing Purdue's Specialists for 2020
J.D. Dellinger is back after making 13-of-16 field-goal attempts last season, including a career-long 53-yarder against TCU. Brooks Cormier and Zac Collins will battle for the punting job in camp. Cormier has the stronger leg but was inconsistent last season as a freshman. New special teams coach Marty Biagi wants to get more out of the return game, but that will depend on the health of Moore, who returned punts and kicks before going down last season.
Brohm is stockpiling talent, but it remains either young or coming off injury. Losing spring practice time obviously doesn’t help matters. If Diaco can get the defense to improve and key players can avoid season-ending injuries, Purdue could move up the Big Ten West standings this season and return to bowl eligibility after a one-year hiatus.