- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Darrell Hazell and Greg Hudson have every right to reserve judgment and hide the hyperbole when it comes to Purdue defensive tackle Bruce Gaston.
They have yet to coach Gaston in a game for the Boilers. The only full-pads, full-go assessment opportunity they've had with the senior took place in the last two weeks of spring practice, when he Gaston returned after his rehab from thumb surgery.
It didn't take Gaston long to dazzle his new coaches. Now they can't help but gush about him.
"We were a different football team," Hazell, the Boilers' first-year head coach, told ESPN.com. "Different football team, not defense. I didn't realize how good he was. When he came back, we had to scheme him on offense. That's how good he was."
Hudson, Purdue's defensive coordinator, is still figuring out the pieces as he constructs his first defense in West Lafayette. But he knows where to start, thanks to Gaston.
"The man in the middle, no doubt about it," Hudson said. "He is The Guy. He's our Derek Jeter. In baseball, you better be good up the middle. When I grew up [in Cincinnati], it was [Pete] Rose and Joe Morgan and Johnny Bench up the middle. They were tough.
"We've got to be strong up the middle in our defense, and he's the closest one to the ball, so it starts with him."
Gaston relishes the responsibility. He spent the past three seasons understudying Kawann Short, a three-time All-Big Ten selection and a second-round pick of the Carolina Panthers in April's NFL draft. The 6-foot-2, 310-pound Gaston also has been around long enough to share a line with Ryan Kerrigan, the 2010 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and a first-round pick in the 2011 draft.
He has been around elite players. After recording two forced fumbles and 5.5 tackles for loss as a junior, Gaston wants to be one in his final season at Purdue.
"I’m a senior now, I know a lot," said Gaston, who has 17 career tackles for loss, four sacks, three fumbles recovered and a blocked kick. "The young guys, they really don't know much what to do against some of the guys who have been here. They expect for me to be a leader. The way I am, I present those qualities, and they expect me to follow those qualities, be a leader, be a dominant player on defense and help us get to the next level.
"It’s my obligation to pay back. My tribute to the university, really."
Gaston brings personality to a Boilers defense that surrendered 31.2 points per game last season and more than 500 yards in five contests. Like Short, who continues to motivate his teammates with encouraging text messages, Gaston makes communication a priority in practices and meetings.
Yelling is easy, according to Hudson, who adds that most who do it don't know what they're talking about. Gaston, meanwhile, is more of a "conversationalist."
"He'll talk to anybody," Hudson said. "He’ll try to reach out to the young guys and give them advice, but he also is involved in the development of the older guys. I like that he's bought into everything that Coach Hazell has laid out for us on this road to where we're going.
"He'll be a big voice in how we move forward and develop."
Gaston understands the value of the defensive tackle position -- "What we do affects the rest of the play," he said -- and has a long list of areas to improve, from keeping his pad level lower to creating a better burst off of the snap to taking a quicker step and a more agile step to reach the second level.
Hudson sees parallels between Gaston and Jay Ross, a Buffalo Bills defensive tackle who Hudson coached at East Carolina. The two are similar in size, and Gaston boasts a strong speed-to-power ratio.
"Anybody that's over 300 pounds and can bend and wiggle like him, and then has very good strength, it's a good combination of things," Hudson said. "Is he going to be like a five-tool guy in baseball? Maybe. Now he’s got to develop 'em and become an exceptional player."
Gaston still has his left hand in a cast, and while he doesn't know when it will be removed, the injury is healing at "an exceptional rate." He doesn't expect to be limited from a technique standpoint.
The bigger question with Gaston, like many larger defensive tackles, is durability. How many plays can he remain on the field this season? Purdue needs him out there more than in past years, especially because of the attention he'll command without Short flanking the other side.
Hazell hopes new defensive line coach Rubin Carter, a former All-American nose tackle at Miami who went on to play 12 seasons for the Denver Broncos' celebrated "Orange Crush" defense, can keep Gaston in the game.
"[Carter] played nose guard for the Broncos for all those years when there were no rules," Hazell said. "They were high-lowing him. So he understands, 'Get back in.' That's what Bruce needs right now, a little bit of get-back-in-the-game mentality when you feel a little nicked up.
"That's a good match."
Gaston's chief goal as a senior is crystal clear: to dominate. He won't spend time overanalyzing it. He knows it will take greater consistency and durability to achieve.
And he'll know when it's happening.
"It's almost a feeling of euphoria," he said. "It's like when you’re lifting, the endorphins, the relief, it just feels good. You're truly in the moment, you're helping a team, all of it.
"All good things."