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.
When history remembers 2017 Purdue football season, one of its defining moments will be tight end Cole Herdman diving across the goal line to celebrate the Boilers’ double reverse, pitch back flea-flicker against Ohio.
The thrilling play from Brohm’s first win at Purdue told us two things about the new coach. He loves his trick plays. And he loves to feature his tight ends in the offense.
Even before Brohm earned his first head coaching job, tight ends have always played a prominent role in the coach's passing game, especially when detached from the line of scrimmage to create mismatches. Brohm walked into an ideal situation at Purdue last year with a pair of reliable targets he used often.
Herdman went on to catch 20 passes for 331 yards and three touchdowns, while Brycen Hopkins snagged 25 passes for 349 yards and three touchdowns. Both should be integral parts of the offense again this year.
Key returners: Cole Herdman (senior), Brycen Hopkins (junior), Darius Pittman (sophomore)
Notable newcomer: Payne Durham (freshman)
Biggest strength: Quality and versatility
Herdman earned national attention before the season started with a spot on the Mackey Award watch list, an award given to the most outstanding tight end in college football. He went through high school as a traditional “hand-in-the-dirt” tight end, but began to realize his pass-catching ability in college. He’s continued to develop into a well-rounded tight end who can contribute on all three downs.
The interesting thing is while Herdman earned his spot on the watch list, Hopkins might have even more upside. He was a basketball standout who solidified an offer when Purdue’s former staff saw him dunk in a game. Hopkins only started playing football in high school and is still continuing to learn the nuances of the game. Add in genetics from a father, Brad Hopkins, who played in the NFL and there’s plenty of reason for optimism for the tight end group.
Biggest question: Does Purdue have an overpowering blocker?
Brohm said he went out this offseason with the goal of finding a dominant run-blocking tight end. He found one in Durham, a 6-foot-6, 245-pounder.
"We wanted a physical, imposing tight end," Brohm said. "We feel like we have a guy who has huge upside in Payne Durham that can grow into a dominant blocker. He can be physical at the point of attack, he’s got some toughness to him. ... Definitely his physicality and blocking ability is his strength. We’re excited about him."
Position battles: Can Pittman earn more snaps in Year 2?
Purdue nearly redshirted Pittman last year. However, after some consideration, the Boilermakers determined he was advanced enough physically to contribute to a Big Ten roster, mostly on special teams.
There’s plenty to like about Pittman’s game. The only problem is two veteran tight ends are blocking his path to the playing field. Time will tell if Pittman can find his niche in the offense this year.
Worth considering: Could Purdue find unique ways to use its tight ends even more?
During Big Ten Media Days, Purdue quarterback David Blough shared some of his ideas to get the tight ends more involved in the offense. He said when Purdue goes 10 personnel (one running back, no tight ends, four receivers), the advantage would be two slot receivers could play at the same time. The disadvantage is you have to take both tight ends off the field.
So what’s the solution?
“I think you could see some different looks out of us,” Blough said. “You might see the Boilermakers maybe split some tights out wide or send in some different personnel groupings where we can keep tight ends, who are some of our receiving strengths, on the field as well as get some of those fast, speed guys on the field as well.”
Right now, it’s just an idea. But it makes a ton of sense.
Purdue is really deep at slot receiver with Jackson Anthrop, Rondale Moore, Terry Wright, KeyRon Catlett and Tyler Hamilton all filling that body type. But Purdue doesn’t have many proven outside receivers. With Blough’s idea, Purdue could keep its best players on the field at the same time and cover up some of the depth questions at outside receiver.