WEST LAFAYETTE — There are two ways to look at Purdue’s linebacker room.
On one hand, it's where you'll find Purdue’s best player: Markus Bailey. He’s a versatile, physical and smart linebacker who should rack up a ton of tackles when he moves back inside to his natural position. But at the same time, you’ll also find some of Purdue’s biggest question marks at linebacker.
“Of all the positions, linebacker we’re the thinnest,” Purdue coach Jeff Brohm said at Big Ten Media Days in Chicago this week. “If some guys get nicked up or injured, it will be challenging.”
No position group lost more this offseason than the linebackers. Four linebackers exhausted their eligibility, taking with them experience, production and leadership. Perhaps the biggest loss is Ja’Whaun Bentley, a three-time team captain who the New England Patriots selected in the fifth round.
With so much turnover, a trio of young linebackers should have ample opportunity. But they’ll need to make their mark — and stay healthy — because there aren’t many options behind them.
Key returners: Bailey (junior), Derrick Barnes (sophomore), Cornell Jones (sophomore), Tobias Larry (sophomore)
Notable newcomers: Jaylan Alexander (freshman), Ja’Qurius Smith (freshman)
Key losses: Bentley (fifth-round pick by New England), T.J. McCollum, Danny Ezechukwu, Garrett Hudson
Greatest strength: Bailey's experience and versatility
Bailey finished second on the team last year with 89 tackles, helping Purdue become a top-25 scoring defense. Solid numbers. But they're more impressive when you consider he played out of position at outside backer, using his versatility as a means to get the best 11 players on the field.
This year, Bailey has already received national attention, earning a spot on the Butkus Award Watch List. He’ll switch back to his natural position at inside backer and will be expected to lead an inexperienced defense.
“Markus Bailey is our best football player on the team,” Brohm said. “He’s a guy that we want closer to the ball. He’s very instinctive. He can avoid blocks. He can run around blocks. He can run through them. We’ve got to have him where he can be around the ball.”
It's worth noting, while the departures opened the door for Bailey to move inside, Brohm said there are times when the junior linebacker might play outside, especially in emergency situations if Purdue loses some depth.
Biggest question: Are young linebackers ready for the spotlight?
The Boilers took the redshirts off of Barnes, Larry and Jones last year as a way to get the true freshmen experience. Now, they’ll need to grow up fast to fill the holes left by veterans.
Barnes is the most ready of the three. At 6-foot-1 and 240 pounds, he's got the size to fit in the Big Ten. If all goes as planned, he should start alongside Bailey at inside linebacker in the opener.
Position battles: Outside linebacker
Bailey and Barnes likely have the inside linebacker positions locked up. But on the outside, there are a few more questions.
Jones was recruited as an inside linebacker. But during media days, Brohm said he’s the third linebacker, which would mean he'd play outside. Fellow sophomore Larry should also challenge for playing time at Sam backer.
Worth considering: Could Purdue adjust its scheme to fit its personnel?
Defensive coordinator Nick Holt stepped into an ideal situation last year, finding that his hybrid 4-3 system was ideally suited for Purdue's current personnel ... at least it was.
Now that four key linebackers are gone, it’s possible the Boilers adjust. Brohm hinted in Chicago that the defense could deploy more nickel packages this year, substituting a linebacker for a defensive back.
“The thing about college football now is sometimes you can use just two linebackers and have a nickel guy in there and do some different things,” Brohm said.
Across all levels of football, teams are increasingly using nickel and dime defenses as their base personnel grouping. Typically, coaches are doing it to match personnel, as football evolves into more of a passing sport. It’s better to have a speedy defensive back on a receiver than force a linebacker into coverage.
But Purdue might do it for a different reason: to hide its limited depth at linebacker. It makes sense. The only challenge is the Big Ten is a physical, running league. That might not always work against teams like Wisconsin or Northwestern.
“When you’re facing a physical team, you’ve got to have some mass and some size up there,” Brohm said. “That’s when it gets a little hairy. We’ve got to make sure we’re sound at that position.”