A season that began with modest expectations wound up a breakthrough year for Purdue football in 2021.
Purdue capped a nine-win season, its highest win total since 2003, by beating Tennessee 48–45 in a wild overtime shootout at the Music City Bowl. Other big wins included an upset at No. 2 Iowa and an upset of No. 5 Michigan State at home. Purdue was in the mix for the Big Ten West Division title until the last week of the season but fell a game short of Iowa in the final standings.
The challenge for Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm in his sixth year is to build off that success even after losing his best offensive player, Big Ten Wide Receiver of the Year David Bell, and best defensive player, defensive lineman George Karlaftis, to the NFL Draft. The return of second-team All-Big Ten quarterback Aidan O'Connell gives the Boilermakers experience and stability at their most important position, but there will be plenty of position battles that will be determined through the grind of fall camp.
Previewing Purdue's Offense for 2022
O'Connell, back for his third season as a starter, possesses the arm strength and intelligence to run Brohm's intricate, high-powered offense. Purdue's passing offense has ranked either first or second in the Big Ten in the last four seasons under Brohm, including in 2021, when the Boilermakers finished second behind Ohio State at 355.4 yards per game.
O'Connell will have some new receivers to work with, including Iowa transfer Tyrone Tracy, who could help make up some of the lost production from Bell's departure. Senior Milton Wright (57 catches, 732 yards, seven TDs in 2021), sat out the Music City Bowl and spring for academic reasons and was ruled out for '22 this summer, dealing a setback for the offense. Senior receiver Broc Thompson had a breakout game in the Music City Bowl with seven catches for 217 yards and two TDs but didn't practice in the spring because he's recovering from surgery on both knees. Receivers TJ Sheffield (36 catches, 325 yards, five TDs) and Mershawn Rice (six catches, 69 yards, one TD) will take on increased roles in the offense, as will sophomore Deion Burks, who will line up in the slot. Brohm also sought late help from the portal, landing Iowa transfer Charlie Jones as an instant impact contributor for '22.
Purdue is stacked at the tight end position, with Payne Durham (45 catches, 467 yards, six TDs), Garrett Miller and Paul Piferi all returning. In the run game, Purdue brings back leading rusher King Doerue (135 carries, 533 yards, two TDs), who has averaged 3.7 yards per carry in three seasons with the Boilermakers. Dylan Downing and transfers Kobe Lewis (Central Michigan) and Sampson James (Indiana) will back up Doerue. James, a former four-star recruit who committed to Ohio State before rushing for 371 yards and three TDs in two seasons with the Hoosiers, broke off some impressive runs during Purdue's spring game.
The offensive line is a veteran unit that includes bookend tackles Cam Craig and Eric Miller and center Gus Hartwig. Sophomore guard Marcus Mbow and sophomore tackle Mahamane Moussa impressed coaches during spring drills and will be key performers up front.
Previewing Purdue's Defense for 2022
Ron English and Mark Hagen will serve as co-defensive coordinators, as Brad Lambert departed after one season to take over as defensive coordinator at Wake Forest. English will call the plays, becoming the fourth different Purdue play-caller on defense in the last four seasons. With Lambert calling plays last season, Purdue's defense showed marked improvement, ranking seventh in the Big Ten in scoring defense (22.4 ppg) and eighth in total defense (366.6 ypg).
English and Hagen will run a 4-2-5 alignment with playmaker Jalen Graham as the up safety. There's talent in the secondary, with safeties Cam Allen and Chris Jefferson also returning, along with cornerback Cory Trice, a big corner at 6'3", 215 pounds who has three career interceptions. Jamari Brown and Indiana transfer Reese Taylor will battle for the other starting cornerback job.
Auburn transfer OC Brothers (3.5 tackles for a loss in 2021) will enter his second season for the Boilermakers and will start at one of the linebacker spots with super senior Semisi Fakasiieiki. The defensive line loses two talented pass rushers in Karlaftis (five sacks) and DaMarcus Mitchell (four sacks), but there is hope that returning defensive end Kydran Jenkins and Murray State transfer Scotty Humpich can pick up some of the slack. The 6'1", 270-pound Jenkins was a pleasant surprise as a freshman with five sacks, while Humpich posted seven sacks in three seasons at Murray State. Purdue has plenty of experience on the interior of the defensive line, with Branson Deen and Lawrence Johnson both back for their second straight seasons as starting defensive tackles.
Related: Big Ten Football 2022 Predictions
Previewing Purdue's Specialists for 2022
Starting kicker Mitchell Fineran returns after leading the Boilermakers in points (112) last season. Fineran went 24-of-29 on field-goal attempts. Jack Ansell is back at punter after averaging 38.3 yards per punt, including 13 downed inside the 20-yard line. In the return game, Purdue has options with Sheffield, Jones, Burks and Taylor all capable on punts and kickoffs.
Purdue will need impact players to develop to make up for the losses of Bell and Karlaftis. O'Connell should thrive in his third season running Brohm's offense, but pass-catchers such as Tracy, Sheffield and Durham will need to step up in order for Purdue to move the chains as effectively as it did last season. In a balanced Big Ten West, Purdue has enough talent, depth and experience to contend for a division title again this season.