The pandemic-shortened 2020 season for Purdue exposed familiar flaws on defense and special teams. At 19–25 in four seasons at Purdue, head coach Jeff Brohm faces a critical fifth season in 2021. Speedy receiver Rondale Moore declared for the NFL Draft, leaving the Boilermakers in search of a new dynamic playmaker. Purdue hasn't been to a bowl in either of the last two years after making appearances at the end of Brohm's first two seasons as coach. Brohm replaced defensive coordinators for the second straight offseason, bringing in Brad Lambert from Marshall to take over for Bob Diaco, whose defense surrendered 34 points or more in each of Purdue's final three games last season.
Purdue has gained depth and experience the last two seasons. With some potential impact transfers added to the roster, Brohm is hopeful Purdue can move up the Big Ten West standings in 2021.
Previewing Purdue's Offense for 2021
Junior receiver David Bell will again be the focal point of the offense. Bell followed up his Big Ten Freshman of the Year campaign by finishing with 53 catches for 625 yards and eight TDs as a sophomore. His combination of speed, hands and route-running ability makes him difficult for opposing Big Ten defenses to stop. Junior Milton Wright (24 catches, 305 yards, two TDs) emerged as a solid starting receiver last season, while tight end Payne Durham (16 catches, 166 yards, three TDs) was reliable in the red zone. Both Wright and Durham could see their roles expand in the offense this season.
The quarterback competition again remains wide open after senior Aidan O'Connell (916 passing yards, seven TDs, two INTs) and junior Jack Plummer (938 yards, eight TDs, two INTs) split time at the position last season. UCLA senior transfer Austin Burton and redshirt freshman Michael Alaimo also will get consideration to win the job. Alaimo impressed Purdue coaches this spring with his arm strength.
Purdue again is in desperate need of a running game after finishing last in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game (81.5 ypg) for the second straight season. Senior Zander Horvath (89 carries, 442 yards, two TDs) made strides last season, but junior King Doerue (17 carries, 64 yards) took a step back after rushing for 451 yards and five TDs as a freshman in 2019. Horvath also is valuable catching the ball out of the backfield; his 30 receptions led all Big Ten running backs last season.
Purdue returns three starters on the offensive line, losing starting left tackle Grant Hermanns, who declared for the NFL Draft after making 33 career starts. Sophomore Cam Craig is expected to replace Hermanns at left tackle, while Greg Long, a grad transfer from UTEP, returns after making six starts at right tackle last season. The interior of Purdue's offense is experienced and deep with the return of center Sam Garvin, guard/center Gus Hartwig, guards Spencer Holstege, DJ Washington and Mark Stickford and the addition of Western Kentucky grad transfer guard Tyler Witt.
Previewing Purdue's Defense for 2021
Lambert spent the spring installing a 4-3 defense that should highlight the strengths of junior edge pass rusher George Karlaftis (9.5 career sacks). In addition to Lambert, Purdue brought in Mark Hagen from Texas to coach the defensive line and Ron English from Florida to coach cornerbacks.
Karlaftis and DaMarcus Mitchell (six tackles for a loss in 2020) project as bookends, with Anthony Watts and Lawrence Johnson playing inside on the defensive line. South Carolina transfer Joseph Anderson and Branson Deen will add depth to the defensive front as well.
At linebacker, Purdue could get a lift from the addition of Auburn transfer OC Brothers. The 6'1", 236-pound Brothers will join an experienced group led by returning starters Jaylan Alexander and Jalen Graham.
In the secondary, Purdue's best cover corner, junior Cory Trice, returns. Junior Cam Allen, who had two of Purdue's three interceptions last season, also is back to start at free safety. Sophomore Marvin Grant, a hard hitter who forced two fumbles last season, will start at strong safety. The addition of Florida transfer C.J. McWilliams will provide depth at cornerback.
Previewing Purdue's Specialists for 2021
A three-way competition will take place in fall camp to replace departed J.D. Dellinger at kicker, with Edward Dellinger (J.D.'s younger brother), Chris Van Eekeren and Oklahoma State transfer Ben Freehill battling for the job. Jack Ansell, a 23-year-old freshman from Australia, has been brought in to compete with Brooks Cormier for the starting job at punter. Wide receivers TJ Sheffield (20.9 ypr) and Jackson Anthrop are expected to handle return duties. Purdue needs to shore up all of its special teams units after allowing a kickoff return for a TD last season against Rutgers and a blocked punt that led to a TD against Nebraska.
Scoring points has never been the problem during Brohm's tenure. Instead, Purdue must develop a more rugged defense and more reliable special teams to handle the rigors of the Big Ten. If Purdue can improve on those two phases, the Boilermakers could find themselves back with a winning record in 2021 after two disappointing seasons.
National Ranking: 60
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(David Bell photo courtesy of purduesports.com)