Purdue backs provide pleasant surprise in spring

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Cornell Jackson started spring practice with just a basic working knowledge of the Purdue running backs he was hired to coach.

He wouldn't have wanted things any other way.

Everything Jackson knew about the Boilers backs came from his job interview with head coach Danny Hope, who briefed him on each of the players. After being hired, Jackson chose not to watch any film on the backs, giving them a blank canvas to display their skills.

"As a position coach, you want to see your guys perform live," Jackson said. "In morning workouts, I watched them run around. And then once we started spring ball, that was my deal, to watch them run, to watch them block, to watch them catch, all those things."

Needless to say, he liked what he saw.

Although Purdue didn't have its most experienced back (Jaycen Taylor) or quite possibly its most promising runner (freshman Al-Terek McBurse) on the field this spring, Jackson and Hope came out of the 15 practices feeling optimistic about the running back position.

Arguably no player in the Big Ten had a more eye-popping spring performance than Boilers sophomore Ralph Bolden, who rushed for 420 yards and four touchdowns on 66 carries in four scrimmages. Junior Dan Dierking added 211 rushing yards and three touchdowns, including 95 yards and two scores in the Black & Gold game.

The emergence of both Bolden and Dierking bodes well for Purdue, which loses almost all of its starting skill players from last season, including quarterback Curtis Painter and running back Kory Sheets. Both backfield positions looked shaky entering spring ball, but running back could end up being a surprising source of depth for the Boilers this fall.

"I was pleased that those kids did exactly what we asked them to do and how we asked them to do it," Jackson said. "Those kids proved to me that they want to contribute to this football team. From the standpoint of depth, I feel good."

Bolden, Dierking and burly senior Frank Halliburton all impressed Jackson during the practice, and the group will get even stronger this fall.

Taylor, who split carries with Sheets in 2006 and 2007, is on schedule to return from a torn ACL sustained in training camp last summer. He was held out of contact this spring but brings plenty of experience and leadership to the field.

McBurse, the team's top incoming recruit, gained clearance from the NCAA in late April after eligibility issues prevented him from participating in spring ball.

"He was here in the spring, he was involved in meetings, he saw guys at practice," Jackson said of McBurse, a heralded back from Winter Springs, Fla. "In his mind, he's thinking, 'Hey, I can do this, too.' When we start camp, the young man is going to want to get in the mix and we're going to get him in there."

Bolden was a virtual unknown before spring practice. He tore his ACL toward the end of his senior year in high school and was still somewhat limited last season at Purdue, where he had 16 carries in eight games as a reserve.

"Ralph's got the quick feet," Jackson said. "He's a small back (5-9, 194), so sometimes he can hide behind those offensive linemen, find that seam and break through. Here's a guy that has got a low center of gravity, got great vision and got tremendous speed."

Halliburton brings power to the backfield at 6-2, 251 pounds, while Dierking is closer to Bolden's size but boasts a thick frame and good blocking skills.

Purdue has been primarily a pass-first team during the spread offense era, but the run game could play a bigger role in new coordinator Gary Nord's scheme.

"The thing I want to accomplish out of all these guys," Jackson said, "I don't care who's in the ballgame, I don't care what situation it might be. I just don't want the offense to change because you've got to put a different guy in there. I want the offense to stay the same. I think we accomplished that this spring."