EDITOR'S NOTE: In Jeff Brohm's first season at Purdue, he took what was supposed to be a rebuilding year and turned it into a winning one. The Boilermakers posted their best season since 2011 with a bowl victory and a 7-6 record. As we count down to fall camp and Season 2, we’ll be previewing the Boilermakers position-by-position. This is the fifth installment in a multi-part series.
Defensive coordinator Nick Holt sparked a dramatic transformation in his first year at Purdue.
The Boilermakers jumped from the 117th scoring defense in 2016 to 24th in 2017. Impressive turnaround. The only problem is that improved defense is almost all gone. Just four starters return and 12 of the top 24 players left the program.
The defensive line was hit especially hard. Not only did three key upperclassmen exhaust their eligibility but Eddy Wilson chose to forego his senior season and test his luck in the NFL.
That leaves the defensive line with just 29 returning tackles from last year ... and 22 of them came from junior defensive tackle Lorenzo Neal. Purdue will need to break in plenty of young players fast if the defense is going to come close to last year's production.
Key returners: Lorenzo Neal (junior), Kai Higgins (junior), Alex Criddle (junior), Keiwan Jones (senior), Ray Ellis (senior)
Notable newcomers: Robert McWilliams (redshirt freshman), Giovanni Reviere (redshirt freshman), Jeff Marks (freshman), Willie Lane (freshman), Branson Deen (freshman), Lawrence Johnson (freshman), Jack Sullivan (freshman), Kevin Stokes (freshman)
Losses: Eddy Wilson (left early for the NFL), Gelen Robinson, Austin Larkin, Antoine Miles
Biggest strength: Neal’s potential
After a pair of productive seasons in West Lafayette, Neal has all the elements for a breakout year.
He has the experience of 16 career starts. At 6-2 and 315 pounds, he has the physicality to command double teams. And, as the son of a former-NFL player, he has the genetics to reach an even higher ceiling.
His first two years, Neal was one of the youngest players on the defensive line, carving out a niche on a veteran-laden unit. Now, as he turns the corner to the second half of his college career, it’s the junior’s turn to lead a young defense.
Biggest question: How quickly can newcomers get up to speed?
Purdue doesn’t have long to break in its new defensive linemen. Northwestern comes to West Lafayette the first week of the season. Most of the defensive linemen have little, if any, experience in college. They’ll be tested against a Big Ten competition right off the bat.
Position battles: Everyone but Neal
Unless something crazy happens, Neal has locked up a starting spot to anchor the defensive line. Beyond that, it wouldn’t be surprising to see anyone get bumped out of position.
During spring football, Watts, Criddle and Ray Ellis got most of the work on the interior defensive line. But nothing is guaranteed with Jones returning from a knee injury and all those freshmen coming in.
On the outside, Reviere and Marks are the two top contenders for playing time at defense end. Higgins and McWilliams will be battling for the “Leo” position, a hybrid defensive end/ linebacker spot. But again, the freshmen could add some intrigue to the position battles.
Worth considering: Could Purdue have more depth than last year?
Coach Jeff Brohm made an interesting comment at Big Ten Media Days this week. While the defense doesn’t have nearly as much experience as last year, Brohm believes it could have more depth.
“There are a lot of guys that graduated, but I think we have good, young players," Brohm said. "Now, they don’t have the experience. And it might not happen right off the bat. But I think we have some guys who worked hard to improve that will give us a chance. And I think there are guys behind them who aren’t too far behind that, if they’re not performing, can step in and provide some competition.
"It will be a work in progress. But I’m very optimistic they’ll have a very good year."