Danny Hope sees progress amid 'tragedy'

Purdue coach Danny Hope occasionally uses the word "tragedy" when discussing what happened to Purdue last fall.

That might strike some as a bit extreme. No one died. Purdue found a way to put enough players on the field every Saturday.

But when you really examine what happened to the Boilers last fall, Hope might not be too far off. No college football team in the country lost more key players to injury -- quarterback Robert Marve, running back Ralph Bolden and receiver Keith Smith, among them. And arguably no team dealt with a tougher situation at the most important position on the field.

The Boilers became so depleted at quarterback that they ultimately had to choose between a true freshman (Sean Robinson), a redshirt freshman with a mangled throwing hand (Rob Henry) or a receiver who hadn't played quarterback in two years and was coming off of a foot injury (Justin Siller).

How bad did it get?

"We're out there on Sundays [after games] teaching guys the snap count," Hope told me. "That's unbelievable. Never could you ever put it together because of the quarterback position. It was really a struggle. God bless those kids, they put everything they had into it, but it was a tough time to play that level of competition, injured.

"Looking back on it, I think we made great progress, even though it was a lot of tragedy."

It's hard for some to see progress in a 4-8 record, Purdue's third consecutive losing season. But if you look closely, it's there.

Although Purdue's supposedly deepest positions (quarterback, receiver) suffered significant losses, some of the Boilers' question marks turned out to be pleasant surprises. A secondary featuring four new starters grew into a playmaking unit led by dynamic freshman cornerback Ricardo Allen.

Purdue improved its rush defense and became a more physical and aggressive unit, leading the Big Ten in both sacks and tackles for loss. The offensive line, another uncertain area, fared decently with the run as Purdue had to reinvent itself on offense because of all the injuries. Purdue finished fifth in the league in rushing despite at times having to use young receivers like Antavian Edison in the backfield because of injuries to the running back spot.

"I was really proud of our guys to go out in some of the games, knowing that we were really limited from a point-scoring standpoint and still compete," Hope said. "Last year made us stronger. Guys can see the progress on the film, if you don't look at the scoreboard, as young players get better and better and better."

Hope is encouraged by the progress of players like Bolden, Smith and Marve as they work their way back from injury. Backup quarterback Caleb TerBush also is expected to return to action after being academically ineligible this season.

While Purdue expects all to return and contribute, it knows it can't take anything for granted.

"I'm not going to put all my eggs in those baskets," Hope said. "I think those guys will be OK, but we have to get some other guys ready. This year, we didn't know Keith was going to get hurt and Robert was going to get hurt.

"The message I've sent to every member of our football program is everyone has to be accountable to a level of being a difference maker."