Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
The Big Ten's only new head coach isn't new at Purdue. Danny Hope was there for Purdue's rebirth in the late 1990s and returned last year as head coach-in waiting and offensive line coach. Those tags have since been removed, and Hope is going through his first practices as the man in charge. Purdue comes off a 4-8 season and missed a bowl for just the second time since Joe Tiller's arrival in 1997. Hope brought in five new coaches during the offseason, including offensive coordinator Gary Nord and defensive coordinator Donn Landholm.
The Boilers have competition at quarterback, running back and wide receiver as they try to turn things around in Hope's first year. I caught up with Hope earlier this week.
A few practices in, is the team where you thought it would be? Ahead of schedule? Behind schedule?
Danny Hope: We're ahead in some ways. Obviously, when you have a guy like Curtis Painter, who was accomplished as he was at the quarterback spot, you've got a lot of work to do. We are eight receivers short from the roster of 2008. So I didn't really know what to expect when we went out the first day in shorts last Wednesday, but I was very pleased with what we've got done so far. We are able to go out there and execute the offense to some degree, which is a good sign for us this early in spring. The good thing about our quarterback spot, even though we don't have a bona fide returning starter, is our top two quarterbacks played in 2008.
How does the quarterback competition shape up right now?
DH: Joey Elliott was a very good No. 2 quarterback for us, was actually putting pressure on Painter and starting to get in some games, and then he got injured. You're not getting a rookie. He's a football junkie. He loves it. He had shoulder surgery and his health status is much better than I thought it would be at the start of spring. He's throwing the ball better, got a little more zip on it. He's a guy who knows more about the offense than anyone else we have on that side of the ball right now. So him being healthy enough to go out there and throw was a huge shot in the arm for us. And obviously, Justin Siller, even though he wasn't that well prepared because he had not been in the lineup before and was working as a running back, we beat Michigan with Justin Siller and he's a great athlete. He has some game experience. So we don't have two varsity rookies out there. That's a good sign. And I really like what I'm seeing out of our freshman, Caleb TerBush, who was on the scout team all of last year, he's out there getting some great reps. We're further along at the quarterback spot than I thought we were going to be, but when you're comparing it to the likes of Drew Brees, Kyle Orton and Curtis Painter, we're nowhere near that.
Do you have a timetable on when you'd like to make a decision on a starter? Will it go well into preseason camp?
DH: Everybody asks that, and the most important thing to me is the development at the quarterback position, not just one particular quarterback. Last year is a classic example of what I'm talking about, where Painter went down and Joey Elliott got hurt and we had to take Justin Siller from running back and move him to quarterback, and he wasn't prepared to do so. I think the development of all of our quarterbacks is key this spring, and certainly the No. 1. We'll play as many players as we can, so I'm not really concerned about saying there has to be a certain deadline or due date as long as each and every one of our quarterbacks are improving and can get themselves in position to help us win. That's more important than naming a guy.
You brought in two new coordinators. Will the offense look a lot different under Gary from what Purdue used to do?
DH: I guess it depends on what you refer to as what we used to do. Before, we ran a spread offense when Drew Brees was here. We lined up in certain formations and called certain pass routes and we had a certain offense that was the Purdue offense. Then when I came back in 2008, we were still in the shotgun and spreading the field from a formation standpoint, but really the play calling was different, the route structure was different and some of the plays, too. To make it simple, we'll go back and do a little more of what we used to do when I was here last time, the Drew Brees years. That's the offense I took to Eastern Kentucky with me and won a championship. We won a Big Ten championship with that [in 2000]. There's been some wrinkles to the spread offense in the last five or six years, and we'll add some of those wrinkles to our spread offense. We'll certainly feature the shotgun run. I'd like to be a little more proficient at running the football than what Purdue has been in the past decade. Last year, Kory Sheets rushed for 1,300 yards and that was a big step for our program. We want to be a better running football team.
So you noticed some pretty big differences between the spread Purdue ran in 2008 and the one you ran the first time you were there?
DH: There were some differences in the route structure, how it was taught, how it was presented. They both are great offenses. In the last five years, they've scored a gazillion points. But again, you want to run an offense that you know as the head coach. I don't anticipate it happening, but if [assistant] coaches come and go, you need to have a handle on what's being taught as far as your offense, your defense and your special teams. I don't know for the fans sitting in the stands, if anybody noticed some subtle differences, but from a teaching standpoint and how you read the plays and how you attack the defense, we'll do what we've done in the past at Purdue when I was here, what we did at Eastern Kentucky. And then, obviously, coach Nord coming on board brings some wrinkles to the spread offense that I really like. It's really worked out pretty neat because everyone on the staff, I've either worked with them for years and years as an assistant coach at Purdue or Louisville, or they worked for me at Eastern Kentucky. It's pretty easy to get on the same page with these guys. We have a chance to put an exciting offense on the field.
For people who haven't followed Eastern Kentucky that closely, how would you describe Donn's philosophy with the defense and where you want to go with that unit?
DH: Hiring Donn is going to allow us to maintain a lot of continuity on defense from a coaching standpoint. We ran the same style of defense at Eastern Kentucky as we've ran here at Purdue, a base 4-3 defense, hanging our hat on the same things that are important: Playing with em
otion, enthusiasm, fundamentally sound, aggressive. Those things won't change. The names of the defenses that are called and the blitzes that are called and the alignments, those will stay the same. So there will be very little learning from the defensive players' standpoint. Coach Landholm is the one who has to get on the same page with us, and all he has to do is change his terminology. So he's not coming in and installing a new defense. There will be some new wrinkles. He's a very aggressive defensive coordinator, a very disciplined defensive coordinator. I certainly wouldn't expect us to lose any momentum on the defensive side of the ball because we changed coordinators.
Who are some of the guys you're excited about on that side?
DH: I like what I see out of our secondary. We have three of our four starters back, with David Pender and Brandon King, those guys are very good corners. Both of them are guys pro scouts have been in and looked at. Then obviously getting Torri Williams back for an extra year, back at the free safety spot. Dwight Mclean played a whole lot for us in the secondary last year, and he's back. From an experience standpoint, that's a good place to start.
Our defensive line, we have some good players back with Mike Neal. He has the potential to be a dominant player in our league, bench presses over 500 pounds. Ryan Kerrigan ended the season last year in the upper echelon of defensive ends in the Big Ten. Those two guys are exciting. [Linebacker] Jason Werner is healthy and ready to go, and we've got two linebackers last year who had not played any and were moved into the starting lineup the first week of the season, Chris Carlino and Joe Holland. They grew into the position and adjusted and acclimated into the position, and those guys are now experienced players. Last year, they were novice players, first time Carlino had ever been in a college huddle and Joe Holland being rolled out from the secondary into the box.
We've got some guys competing at the end position with Gerald Gooden and Robert Maci and Nickcaro Golding, they're good players. Then we've got a couple freshmen competing at the defensive tackle spots, Kawann Short and Monroe Brooks. Both of those guys are great, big guys who can hold point inside.
What spot do you expect to be most improved?
DH: It could be the offensive line. You hate to use '08 as a measuring stick because we weren't very good due to injuries. We played with a lot of young guys last year, a lot of guys who were injured and missed a lot of preseason training. I see us being in better shape on the offensive line. We don't have as many fat guys. We trimmed up, we run a little bit better. Guys like Kenny Plue that were true freshmen last year that ended up being a starter, he's now a much more polished player. Dennis Kelly, we took the redshirt off of last year as a true freshman. He's competing for a starting spot at 6-foot-7, 290 pounds. Jared Zwilling, who was moved from defense and then got injured at the end of the season, was one of our better offensive linemen. He's back and playing. Same thing with Zach Reckman. So even though we're young on the offensive line, we're young and experienced.
You mentioned not having as many fat guys up front. Will the Purdue player on your team look different from those on previous teams? I remember talking with you last summer about wanting more small, quick receivers. Is speed a bigger priority now across the board?
DH: We'd love to be real big and real fast, but if you're going to be real big and kinda fast, that's not where I want to be. We had some guys on the offensive line who were too big and not very fast. Kenny Plue's a classic example. He was 6-foot-8, 377 pounds. Now he's 327 pounds, 50 pounds lighter. He can run and get downfield and make plays. He's a lot quicker out of his stance. I wasn't a science major, but I believe force is mass times velocity squared. We want to fly in there twice as fast to create our force.
In order for us to increase the speed on the perimeter, if we have to scale down a little bit size wise, we will. I don't want to go out and sign a bunch of 5-foot-6 guys that can run real fast, but I don't have any real problem with a receiver being 5-foot-11 or 6-foot tall if he's an outstanding athlete. So there may be a mixture of both, some big, good receivers and some medium-sized burners. I would be really happy with that.
I don't think you'll see an entirely different physique on the field, but we're going to be trimmed down on the offensive line. It was a funny thing last year, in the spring, Matt Light came back and some of the other players who had played when I was the O-line coach the last go-round [at Purdue]. Matt stopped by and said hello, I had a bunch of our current players here, and he was the smallest one in the group by a long shot. One of the best players in professional football, one of the best offensive linemen I've ever coached. That made some impression on the guys. They said, 'That's Matt Light?' I said, 'Yeah, he's one of the best players in the game. You don't have to be 400 pounds to play on the offensive line.'
Is [running back] Jaycen Taylor out there for you this spring?
DH: He's going through some drills, but he's not going to be scrimmaging with us. Hopefully, by the end of the spring, he might be able to get some [contact], from what the medical people are telling me.
What is the biggest challenge for you this spring? Is it for players to get used to you and your expectations, or is there a position that would be a major challenge?
DH: I don't know if you'd say challenge, but I know what our goals are going into the spring. Practicing more at game speed will really be a benefit for our football team. We've emphasized that, not only from a lip-service standpoint, but also from a practice schedule, management standpoint. Tried to put some high-tempo drills in there, organize our practice schedule to allow our team to do some of the scrimmage reps earlier. We allow them to go a little more full speed, some more game speed. If you get the speed of things picked up in practice -- the speed of the drills, the speed of the images, the speed of the play in practice -- getting more game-like, we think that will help us prepare for when fall rolls around.
And then honestly, after last season, the way the injuries took a toll on our team, we want to go through spring as relatively injury free as possible, but still come out a physical football team. So it's the management that has to be dealt with. We'll take certain drills that we've used in the past that demand the player to be physical and try to manage those drills to where you're less apt to have an injury occur. If we can come out of spring practicing and preparing at game speed and come out a physical football team without a whole long list of guys injured and needing to get surgery, those two things would be great for our football team.
I don't think there's really going to be an acclimatization as far as the team to the coaching staff or the style of coaching. A lot of things are done the same way they've been done in the past, and I've been here for a while. That part of it is going to jell pretty good.