- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Purdue's oldest defenders have endured only one complete coaching change since they arrived on campus. So why does it feel like more?
Former Boilermakers coach Danny Hope made changes to the defensive coordinator position after the 2009, 2010 and 2011 seasons. After Hope's ouster, another new defensive play-caller, Greg Hudson, arrived with Darrell Hazell last season.
The changes don't excuse a defense that last fall finished 111th in points allowed, 104th in yards allowed, 114th against the run, 101st in pass efficiency and 120th in red zone defense. Purdue's offense might have been historically bad, but the defense wasn't far off.
The good news: the Boilers get a chance to push the reset button with the same coordinator and scheme.
"It's the first spring these older guys have gone into where they're speaking the same language," Hudson told ESPN.com. "Now you're able to have football conversations with them. They're starting to retain it."
Hudson sees it in the increased numbers of players at Mollenkopf Center on their own time. He sees it in their willingness to learn and in the questions that they ask.
"It's very, very important that the players build equity in the defense," he said. "The more equity, the more ownership."
Purdue's seniors, in particular, have to take ownership of the defense. Hudson has applied the necessary pressure -- "If they don't play well, we're not going to be very good," he said -- while also making it clear that the coaches will go with younger players if they're deserving. Seniors such as end Ryan Russell, safety Landon Feichter and linebacker Sean Robinson all have plenty of snaps under their belts.
None are guaranteed to start when Purdue kicks off the season Aug. 30 against Western Michigan. Russell looked like Purdue's next elite pass rusher after the 2011 season, but his production the past two years has been spotty.
"It's do or die for him," Hudson said. "He's running out of reps. The ability's there. He's got to be at 100 miles an hour instead of 75. I just told him it's like driving. You need to break the speed limit every time the ball's snapped."
Hudson needs his seniors to elevate their play, but he's also optimistic about several younger players, including ends Evan Panfil and Jake Replogle, both of whom saw the field as true freshmen last fall. Replogle is working with the first-team defense in spring, while Panfil is backing up Russell.
Last spring, Purdue coaches stressed the need for players to become "Big Ten strong." It didn't show up in the fall, as the Boilers dropped all but one of their Big Ten games by 14 points or more and six league contests by 20 points or more.
Is Purdue any closer?
"We've taken another step," Hudson said. "There's another level out there that we need to get to. There's a fine line between building athletes and building football players. We have to find that fine line. They still have to play the game in this league at a very powerful level. I don't want to recruit a bunch of guys at Gold's Gym, but we've moved forward."
Hudson's two main goals for the spring are comprehension of the scheme and relentless play. The first is helped by greater familiarity for players; the second by constant competition.
"There's not very many guys that can separate themselves from the guy behind them," he said. "Their names are written in pencil."