Big Ten: Ryan Russell

Position battles: Purdue Boilermakers

February, 13, 2015
Feb 13
The long wait until football returns is only beginning, but spring practice is at least another day closer. To help pass the time until Big Ten teams are back in pads, we're looking around the entire league at key position battles that could help sort out the race for a championship by the time fall eventually arrives.

Up next: Purdue.

1. Quarterback: Despite leaving the job in the hands of Austin Appleby down the stretch last season, the Boilermakers still don't appear to be completely settled on him as the starter. So the competition is once again open at Purdue, with Danny Etling still an option behind center and coach Darrell Hazell facing a critical decision heading into his third season with the program. The coaching staff will also take a close look at redshirt freshman David Blough, but this is a race that could certainly use a clear winner if the Boilermakers are going to make up any ground in the league.

2. Running back: After sorting through the options at quarterback, the next priority will be finding somebody to hand the football to and establishing a pecking order in the backfield. Both Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert are gone, taking a combined 1,478 yards and nine touchdowns with them and leaving little experience behind for the Purdue ground game. Keyante Green did get a taste of action as a redshirt freshman and averaged more than 7 yards per carry during his limited appearances, but he'll need to prove he's capable of becoming an every-down tailback for the Boilermakers and might face a challenge for playing time from sophomore Keith Byars II or redshirt freshman D.J. Knox.

3. Defensive end: The Boilermakers didn't generate much of a pass rush a year ago, and losing both starters at defensive end wouldn't seem to be all that encouraging moving forward with Ryan Russell and Jalani Phillips both out of eligibility. But, for the most part, Purdue received most of its production from the inside anyway, and Purdue does appear to have some young talent coming up to potentially provide a lift for the line moving forward. Evan Panfil and Gelen Robinson are at the top of the list for the Boilermakers, and this could be a big camp for that tandem to establish itself as capable of starting in the Big Ten.

Season report card: Purdue

January, 29, 2015
Jan 29
The postseason Big Ten report cards continue with a review at the Purdue Boilermakers:

Offense: C-minus

Purdue accomplished enough on offense to reasonably expect another win or two. But the Boilermakers simply didn’t make it happen with enough consistency. In fact, the consistency was downright poor. After mid-October, the offense went into a shell, reverting to the levels of its dismal 2013 season. So what happened in the three-game stretch against Illinois, Michigan State and Minnesota that raised hopes? Well, there was the newness of QB Austin Appleby and excellent balance. Purdue ran for 298 yards against the Gophers behind the big-play ability of Raheem Mostert and a nice effort by Akeem Hunt. Clearly, though, the offensive line couldn’t sustain that level, and the quarterbacks -- Appleby or Danny Etling -- were unable to shoulder the load.

Defense: D

It’s difficult to find one game outside of the win over FCS-level Southern Illinois in which the Boilermakers came close to a complete performance on defense. Individually, safety Landon Feichter, cornerback Frankie Williams and defensive end Jake Replogle showed nice improvement. But as a unit, coordinator Greg Hudson’s group didn’t give Purdue much of a chance. The Boilermakers, statistically, were bad against the pass (last in the Big Ten in opponent QBR) and the run, surrendering 194 yards per game. The Boilermakers blew a nine-point lead and the opportunity for a statement win in the final four minutes at Minnesota. A week later, Purdue surrendered a season-low 297 yards at Nebraska but still lost by three touchdowns. So it went all year.

Special teams: C-plus

Place-kicker Paul Griggs enjoyed an outstanding year, connecting on 16 of 20 field goal attempts, including all three attempts from beyond 50 yards. Thomas Meadows was serviceable at punter. Mostert, asked to handle a heavy load on offense, lacked the explosiveness on kickoff returns displayed early in his career. Returning punts, Williams made the most of 11 attempts, averaging nearly 16 yards. Purdue struggled in coverage, ranking 115th nationally in opponent starting position on kickoffs and 110th in opponent punt-return average.

Coaching: C

Darrell Hazell continues to search for a breakthrough after two years in West Lafayette. He seemed to find it in October 2014 before the Boilermakers progressed in the wrong direction over the final month. Yes, the talent is lacking, but the Purdue coaches didn’t get the most out of what they had last season. The quarterback change from Etling to Appleby was likely the right move, though it failed to make a major difference. Where was the breakout year anticipated for defensive end Ryan Russell, and what happened to the 2013 production of receiver DeAngelo Yancey? Purdue also struggled with details such as third-down efficiency, kick coverage and creating turnovers.

Overall: D-plus

One step forward, one step back. Midseason momentum evaporated, aided by the season-ending knee injury to receiver Danny Anthrop, who emerged as Appleby’s favorite target. But three wins in Hazell’s second year -- and a six-game skid to end -- just wasn’t good enough. In a double whammy to end the season, the Boilermakers failed in their bid to escape the Big Ten cellar with a 23-16 loss at Indiana in a game that could have left the Hoosiers winless in Big Ten play for the second time in four years.

Purdue Boilermakers season preview

August, 19, 2014

» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

Previewing the 2014 season for the Purdue Boilermakers.

2013 overall record: 1-11 (0-8 Big Ten)

Key returnees: Danny Etling, QB; Justin Sinz, TE; Ryan Russell, DE; Frankie Williams, DB; Raheem Mostert RB/KR.

Key losses: Ricardo Allen, CB; Bruce Gaston, DT; Greg Latta, DE; RT Justin Kitchens, RT; Kevin Pamphile, LT.

Instant impact newcomer:

Projected starters

Offense: QB: Danny Etling, So., 6-2, 221; RB: Raheem Mostert, Sr., 5-11, 190; WR: DeAngelo Yancey, So., 6-2, 218; WR: Cameron Posey, So., 6-1, 182; TE: Justin Sinz, Sr., 6-4, 235; WR: Danny Anthrop, Jr., 6-0, 191; LT: Jack De Boef, Sr., 6-7, 290; LG: Jason King, So., 6-4, 309; C: Robert Kugler, Jr., 6-3, 298; RG: Jordan Roos, So., 6-4, 312; RT: J.J. Prince, So., 6-6, 302.

Defense: DE: Ryan Russell, Sr., 6-5, 273; DT: Jake Replogle, So., 6-5, 269; NT: Ra'Zahn Howard, So., 6-3, 323; LB: Jimmy Herman, So., 6-4, 230; LB: Jalani Phillips, Sr., 6-4, 265; LB: Sean Robinson, 6-3, 239; LB: Joe Gilliam, Sr., 6-1, 230; CB: Antoine Lewis, Sr., 5-10, 186; S: Frankie Williams, 5-9, 189; S: Landon Feichter, Sr., 6-0, 192; CB: Anthony Brown, Jr., 5-11, 195.

[+] EnlargeDanny Etling
AP Photo/Doug McSchoolerDanny Etling threw for 1,690 yards and 10 touchdowns last season.
Specialists: P: Thomas Meadows, Jr., 6-0, 183; K: Paul Griggs, Jr., 6-1, 197.

Biggest question mark: Picking just one for a team coming off a train-wreck season like Purdue did a year ago is a challenge, because there is so much improvement to be made across the board. But if the Boilermakers are going to start threatening anybody in the Big Ten, they're going to have to find a consistent way to move the ball. Whether that means getting Mostert and his dangerous speed more involved for a rushing attack that gained just 805 yards collectively or trusting Etling's arm to air it out without turning the ball over so much doesn't make much difference. One way or the other, Purdue is going to need to score more than 15 points per game if it's going to climb out of the cellar.

Most important game: Oct. 4 at Illinois. Purdue is still a long way from even thinking about contending in the Big Ten as Darrell Hazell reshapes the program, but it can certainly show progress by climbing the ladder against the presumptive bottom half of the league. With a mostly manageable slate outside of the league, Purdue has a chance to post three wins in September to build some momentum and put a potential bowl bid in reach, but beating a team like the Illini on the road would likely be a necessity to keep that possibility alive.

Upset special: Nov. 22 against Northwestern. By late November, a team that already has plenty of experience elsewhere on the roster should have a quarterback with enough game reps to be considered a veteran. And if Etling is able to stretch defenses enough to open rushing lanes for a game-breaking weapon like Mostert, Purdue could make a late run to bowl eligibility by exposing a Northwestern defense that has question marks of its own to give Hazell another sign that his program is heading in the right direction.

Key stat: Purdue opened Big Ten play last season by getting outscored 158-17 during the first half of league play. That incredibly lopsided margin could have been worse if not for a surprisingly low-scoring loss to eventual conference champion Michigan State, which won only 14-0 at home against the Boilermakers.

What they're wearing: The Boilermakers will truly be representing the student body when they take the field on Sept. 27 against Iowa, debuting a helmet that will have pictures of students and season-ticket holders wearing team gear on the sticker. After the game, Purdue is planning to send out a digital copy of the "Motion P" logo with the approximately 1,000 photos the program is hoping to receive on it.

Team's top Twitter follows: Sophomore offensive lineman Jason King (@Jason72King) provides his view from the trenches and has been updating fans on training camp. Tight end Justin Sinz (@JSinz84) isn't afraid to weigh in on other sports, and recently informed his followers about his graduation. Defensive end Ryan Russell (@RKRelentless) is always good for some inspiration, and the official team account (@BoilerFootball) provides no shortage of behind-the-scenes footage.

They said it: "Obviously we didn't finish as well as we'd like to last year. There's a lot of things for improvement. But I think this is the time where you rip off the rearview mirror and you take a look at what's in front of you and all the things we need to do to be successful in this 2014 season." -- Purdue coach Darrell Hazell.

Stats & Information projection: 3.56 wins.

Wise guys over/under: 3.5 wins.

Big Ten blog projection: 4 wins. The rebuilding job is going to take time, and Purdue hasn't made up much ground on the rest of the conference quite yet. The Boilermakers should be able to put themselves in position to top that over/under from the wise guys thanks to a modest, manageable nonconference schedule -- excluding the matchup with Notre Dame in Indianapolis. It will come down to knocking off another program trying to find the way up in the Big Ten, a team like Illinois or in-state rival Indiana, if Purdue is going to get over the mark. If the program is truly taking a step forward this season, it should win one of those league games.

Best case/Worst case: Purdue

August, 6, 2014
The season is inching closer and closer and, with that, so is our series on the best- and worst-case scenarios for every Big Ten team in 2014.

These aren't predictions or scenarios that are illustrative on the most probable outcomes. They're simply meant to show the potential highs and lows in a season, and any game-by-game breakdowns are more of a means to an end than anything else. Also an important reminder: We're trying to have some fun with these.

Up next are the Purdue Boilermakers.

Best case

Last week Purdue tailback Raheem Mostert predicted an offense that would score "30-something points a game." In the final weeks of the season, Mostert surveys the media room and utters three words.

“Told you so.”

The Boilermakers start the season hot enough. They trounce both directional Michigans as the offense posts more than a combined 90 points on the two outmatched opponents. There are no believers yet in West Lafayette, Ind., but that all changes Sept. 13 thanks to a nationally televised game against Notre Dame.

No one gives the Boilermakers a shot. But Darrell Hazell has this game circled. He throws everything at the Fighting Irish he can -- including a fake field goal that leads to a critical third-quarter touchdown -- and quarterback Danny Etling takes care of the rest with a game-winning, two-minute drive that culminates in a 12-yard fade to DeAngelo Yancey. Purdue wins 28-24.

The win is dismissed as a fluke. But Boilermakers fans can’t help but grow excited. Etling jerseys fly off the shelves, and Hazell is heralded as a genius. Fans pack into Ross-Ade Stadium the next week to watch the home team thrash Southern Illinois. And then they watch Mostert and Akeem Hunt run all over Iowa in an upset that’s decided on a last-second field goal.

They beat Illinois, too, to start 6-0 -- something that even Drew Brees didn’t accomplish. Purdue is bowl-eligible now, and West Lafayette can’t contain itself. Michigan State is up next but, for a change, the Boilermakers truly feel they have a shot.

They lose by two touchdowns, but the atmosphere at Ross-Ade is still rocking. Most admit Purdue just lost to the better team. But that starts a slight return to earth, as the schedule toughens up and the Boilermakers drop three more conference games. But they still finish 8-4 and punch their ticket to a mid-level bowl.

There’s some talk about making Hazell the Big Ten coach of the year, but most agree the second-half of the season put to sleep any real hopes. He’s a contender but loses out. Yancey earns a spot on the All-B1G first team, while Etling and defensive end Ryan Russell earn mention on the second team.

But there’s hope in West Lafayette for the first time in a long time. And, with a relatively young team, fans are actually excited about 2015.

Worst case

Grab the paper bags and shield your eyes -- because this isn’t pretty.

Purdue opens the season by struggling to get a win against lowly Western Michigan. It’s just first-game jitters, Hazell tells reporters, but then Week 2 comes. Along with a 31-24 upset loss to Central Michigan. Purdue fans are stunned and quickly become the butt of endless jokes around the conference. Confidence is already shot, and Hazell is asked at every opportunity if Austin Appleby or David Blough will see time at quarterback.

Truthfully, he knows it’s not going to matter. The defense can’t stop anyone, the offense is just as bad as last season, and every adjustment seems to lead to the same result. The Boilermakers lose big to Notre Dame but rebound with a win against Southern Illinois. But that’s when Purdue completely derails. It loses every single game from there on out and finishes 2-10.

Hunt and Mostert are beside themselves. They make plays when they find space, but their line can’t give them enough time to find any kind of room. It doesn’t help that center Robert Kugler Jr. goes down before the conference season. Appleby and Blough get some time too, but they’re no better than Etling.

Purdue hits rock bottom. It can’t get any lower. But fans wonder aloud if the hole isn’t so deep that there’s no climbing out of it. Hazell is on the Hot Seat and runs out of ways to defend himself. Last season’s attendance gains are wiped out. Alumni are embarrassed by the program.

Sure, there’s always next year. But the mood around West Lafayette is, “What does it matter?”

Big Ten Thursday mailbag

July, 31, 2014
Mere hours now until teams around the Big Ten hit the practice fields. We're answering questions daily here on the blog as the preseason gets underway. Got something for me? Send it here. The latest offerings:

Mitch Sherman: That's an excellent observation, Jay, and an aspect of the Scarlet Knights largely overlooked in this transition to the Big Ten. Rutgers has blocked 35 kicks over the past five seasons, nine more than any other FBS program, and it's consistently won the battle on special teams. While Kyle Flood, his staff and players must prepare for eight new league opponents this fall -- a tall task -- perhaps they can surprise a few foes with strong play in the kicking game. It's a powerful card to play; few plays in football change momentum like blocked kicks. Facing a brutal league schedule, Rutgers will likely get more aggressive than ever in going after kicks.

Mitch Sherman: Start with the schedule. Three of Purdue' five most difficult games -- against Michigan State, Wisconsin and Iowa -- are at home. A fourth is to be played at a neutral site (perhaps better labeled off-campus) against Notre Dame in Indianapolis. Ryan Russell is primed to enjoy a big senior season. Among a stacked group of Big Ten defensive ends, he is perhaps the most underrated. Seniors Raheem Mostert and Akeem Hunt possess legitimate speed. If Purdue can create space for them to run, the big-play threat is real. And while the quarterback spot is not entirely settled, Danny Etling showed real improvement toward the end of his true freshman season. Mark it down: the win total will rise from last year's one. I'll place the max figure at six, though four or five looks more likely.

Mitch Sherman: I'm not going to overthink this. It looks like Derrick Willies, and I think it will be Willies. The 6-foot-4 redshirt freshman starred in spring scrimmages. I expect his strong play to carry over to this season. Iowa features veterans in Kevonte Martin-Manley, Damond Powell and Tevaun Smith, but none possess the athleticism of Willies. He may not start from the outset, but look for his playing time to increase as Willies shows his big-play potential. For quarterback Jake Rudock, the presence of a big target who can make plays on the ball provides a great comfort. If Willies emerges as expected, the Iowa offense -- already solid if not flashy -- gets an added dimension.
CHICAGO -- Purdue tailback Raheem Mostert nodded. He knew the stat.

The Boilermakers averaged just 14.9 points per game last season. Only four teams in the FBS fared worse. But Mostert just smiled Monday when asked about the offense's ceiling this season.

"Thirty-something points a game," Mostert said during Big Ten media days. "We feel really confident that we're going to score a bunch of points on opponents."

Easy follow-up question: Are you crazy?

"No, I'm not crazy at all," Mostert said with a laugh. "Just confident."

Despite a disastrous 2013 season, confidence was the theme of the day for the Boilermakers, as player after player talked about how Purdue was moving forward this season. Defensive end Ryan Russell even made mention of Big Ten title hopes, while linebacker Sean Robinson praised the freshmen along with sophomore quarterback Danny Etling.

That swagger came as a bit of a surprise considering Purdue's lone win last season came against FCS opponent Indiana State. The Boilermakers haven't beaten an FBS squad since Nov. 24, 2012, against Indiana. But players insisted those struggles are in the past.

"Last year, we didn't know what we were doing on offense. We didn't understand what was going on," Mostert said. "Now that we have that year and we've settled on what plays work, that's really going to help us in the long run -- understanding what we have to do and what our jobs have to do for us to score a lot of points."

The offense was admittedly young and inexperienced last season. Etling and his top target, DeAngelo Yancey, were true freshmen. And it didn't help that coach Darrell Hazell was trying to turn around a program in Year 1. But this season Purdue is hoping to take a step forward -- and Mostert isn't shy about aiming a little high.

"The confidence level is through the roof -- we're looking forward to scoring a lot of points," Mostert said. "We didn't have that last year."
Big Ten media days are right around the corner. Earlier today, we took a closer look at the players coming to Chicago from the East Division. Now it's time to do the same for the West.


Simon Cvijanovic, Sr., OT: He's a two-year starter on the Illini offensive line, spending last season at left tackle for one of the more explosive offenses in the league. He and his younger brother, Peter, a freshman, will be playing for a new position coach, as Tom Brattan was officially hired last week.

Jon Davis, Sr., TE: A versatile player who can line up at tight end or out wide, Davis is one of the Illini's few returning receiving threats after catching 25 balls for 208 yards last season.

Austin Teitsma, Sr., DL: A returning starter at defensive tackle, Teitsma will be a leader on the defense this season. The Illini hope he can help improve a rush defense that was worst in the league last year.


Carl Davis, Sr., DT: A second-team All-Big Ten selection last year, Davis is one of the top defensive tackles in the league. He has been projected by some as a possible first-round NFL draft pick next year.

Brandon Scherff, Sr., OL: Scherff is almost guaranteed to be a first-round pick and should challenge for All-America honors as the Hawkeyes' left tackle. Also, he can do this, which is insane.

Mark Weisman, Sr., RB: A former walk-on who was one of the biggest surprises in the Big Ten in 2012, Weisman finished 25 yards shy of 1,000 yards rushing last season. His role might change a little in a crowded backfield this fall.


David Cobb, Sr., RB: Cobb had the 12th-highest rushing total in Gophers history last season with 1,202 yards. But he'll face some competition, as Minnesota is loaded at running back.

Mitch Leidner, So., QB: Philip Nelson's offseason departure paved the way for Leidner to take over the Gophers' quarterback job. He's a dangerous runner who needs to become a more accurate passer for Minnesota's offense to take the next step.

Cedric Thompson, Sr., S: A two-year starter at safety, Thompson led the team with 79 tackles a year ago. He also has an intriguing back story.


Ameer Abdullah, Sr., RB: One of the star attractions of media day, Abdullah led the Big Ten in rushing last year with 1,690 yards. He's the heart and soul of the Nebraska offense.

Kenny Bell, Sr., WR: Us media types were very excited to see Bell -- a tremendous personality -- included on the list of player attendees. Expect some excellent quotes from Mr. Afro Thunder. He also happens to be an outstanding receiver known almost as much for his ferocious blocking as his speed and ball skills.

Corey Cooper, Sr., S: Cooper led the Huskers with 91 tackles last season and has 17 starts under his belt. He should be one of the leaders for the Blackshirts.


Ibraheim Campbell, Sr., S: Campbell has been an anchor for the Wildcats' secondary since he was a freshman All-American. Last year, he had 73 tackles and four interceptions.

Collin Ellis, Sr., LB: In his first year as a starter in 2013, Ellis had 78 tackles and three interceptions, returning two of them for scores in the opener at Cal. He shifted to middle linebacker in the offseason.

Trevor Siemian, Sr., QB: The quarterback job is all his now after he split time with Kain Colter the past two seasons. Siemian has a big arm, as evidenced by his 414-yard, four-touchdown performance in last year's finale against Illinois.


Raheem Mostert, Sr., RB: He can claim the title of fastest man in the Big Ten after his success in track this offseason. A dynamic kick returner, Mostert will try to make a big impact on offense this year with a full-time switch to running back.

Sean Robinson, Sr., LB: Converted last summer from backup quarterback to defense, Robinson quickly became a starter and key contributor. His experience and unselfishness makes him a leader for the Boilers.

Ryan Russell, Sr., DE: A veteran of 35 starts, Russell might be Purdue's most athletically gifted defensive player. He had 5.5 tackles for loss and two sacks in 2013.


Melvin Gordon, Jr., RB: Another media day main attraction, Gordon is one of the most explosive players in the country. He ran for 1,609 yards while averaging 7.8 yards per carry as a sophomore.

Rob Havenstein, Sr., RT: There won't be many bigger players in Chicago than Havenstein, who checks in at 6-foot-8 and 327 pounds. He has started the past 27 games at right tackle and made second-team All-Big Ten a year ago.

Warren Herring, Sr., DL: Herring will be a key player for the Badgers' defensive line, which lost all three starters from last season. He's also got some pretty sweet moves.

B1G media day preview: Purdue

July, 21, 2014
Big Ten media days are officially just one week away. To get you more ready than you ever thought you needed to be, we're looking at three questions facing each Big Ten team and the potential answers we could hear.

Next up is Purdue, which is bringing head coach Darrell Hazell, running back Raheem Mostert, linebacker Sean Robinson and defensive end Ryan Russell to Chicago for the festivities.

1. What reasons are there for optimism in Boilermakers country?

There's simply no way around it. The first season under Hazell was an unmitigated disaster, as Purdue went 1-11 and ranked at or near the bottom of virtually every major statistical category on offense and defense. Teams often improve in the second year of a new coach, so there's a place to start. And the Boilers' nonconference schedule is much easier than it was last fall, leading to a possible quick improvement on the wins total by the end of September. Still, there aren't many big names on either side of the ball -- look at that player list again and notice the lack of any all-conference honorees -- and this program has to make huge strides just to be competitive in Big Ten play. It's up to Hazell and the players to create some reasons to get interested again in the Boilers.

2. What's the identity on offense?

Hazell has often talked about wanting to be a power-run based team, but the roster he inherited was built more for a spread attack. That meant the offense often looked lost without any discernible identity last year except for throwing the ball a bunch after falling behind early in games. Danny Etling did some nice things as a true freshman quarterback after taking over midseason for Rob Henry a few games into 2013. Despite a lack of playmakers around him, he put up decent numbers down the stretch -- the only question is whether he's the future at the position, or whether David Blough eventually supersedes him. DeAngelo Yancey also had a nice freshman year at receiver and could be a leader there this year. The backfield should boast plenty of speed with Mostert -- who piled up Big Ten sprint titles during track season -- and Akeem Hunt. Offensive coordinator John Shoop has to find better ways of maximizing the talent on hand and increasing the production of a unit that averaged a sickly 14.9 points per game last season.

3. Who steps forward on defense?

Not to belabor the point, but the defense was just as bad as the offense last year while allowing 38 points per game. It also lost a couple of its best players in interception-hogging cornerback Ricardo Allen and defensive tackle Bruce Gaston. Russell has had all the tools to become a star but has yet to put it all together in his career. Massive defensive tackle Ra'Zahan Howard had an encouraging spring. The Boilers' linebacker corps has been a sore spot for the past several years; Robinson, a former quarterback who converted to defense just last summer, is already one of the best players at his position. Perhaps some newcomers like Gelen Robinson can make an impact. There's little doubt that more playmakers are desperately needed on that side of the ball. Who will they be?
The ball is snapped and Ra'Zahn Howard explodes, big-footing across the line of scrimmage to maul running back Akeem Hunt, jarring the ball free. About an hour later, as Purdue's workout ends with team sprints, a huffing and puffing Howard is the last man to cross the line.

The two moments during one of Purdue's practices in March encapsulated the defensive tackle's prodigious potential and how far he still must go to maintain that level of play.

Boilermakers coach Darrell Hazell isn't big on hyperbole. He answers questions directly and succinctly, but the Jim Tressel disciple doesn't heap undue praise upon a player, especially an unproven one. Still, Hazell can’t hide his excitement about the 6-4, 315-pound sophomore this spring.

"The most exciting football player on our team right now," Hazell told "He's got uncommon quickness. He's got unbelievable power. He can be very disruptive.

"He's really special."

[+] EnlargeRa'Zahn Howard
AP Photo/Scott BoehmRa'Zahn Howard appeared in six games last season.
Whether Howard becomes a special player for Purdue remains to be seen. The Boilers could use one after a 1-11 season where nearly nothing went right on either side of the ball.

For now, he's an interesting player -- from his backstory, to his path to Purdue, to his conditioning challenges as a Boiler, to his versatility, to his confidence.

"When we line up in one-on-one, I don't lose," Howard said. "And as far as the run game as far as my get-off, me being the big, explosive athlete that I am, I am aware of the things I can do.

"I just want to continue to humble myself and get better."

Alrighty then ...

Howard, a New Jersey native from what he calls a rough background, didn't start playing football until his junior year in high school. He inherited his size from his father, a 6-foot-8, 330-pound giant who, according to Ra'Zahn, had a scholarship offer to Ohio State before taking "the street route."

Howard played his junior season at Winslow Township High School in southern New Jersey before moving north to Asbury Park, N.J., where he earned all-state honors and led Asbury Park High School to a state championship in 2011. Howard recorded 31 tackles for loss and 12 sacks as a senior.

He committed to Towson a few months later, where his cousin, Marcus Valentine, played defensive tackle and served as a co-captain. But in an effort to boost his stock and his grades, Howard attended a prep school, Atlanta Sports Academy in Dawsonville, Ga., where he "just blew up."

Former LSU defensive tackle Brandon Washington coached Howard at Atlanta Sports Academy, telling him he had the ability to take over games.

"I got bigger and stronger, of course, and I just got better offers," Howard said. "I got better as a defensive tackle."

One recruiting service rated Howard as the nation's No. 4 defensive tackle. His suitors included Tennessee, Penn State and Mississippi State.

So why did he pick Purdue? His jersey offers a clue. Howard wears No. 93, the same number as former Purdue's standout defensive tackle Kawann Short, a three-time All-Big Ten selection and a second-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft.

"He's one of the reasons I committed here," Howard said. "I had watched a lot of his film. Originally coming out of prep school, I was going to go to Tennessee, but when I came here and met him, it was like a dream come true."

Despite his late introduction to the sport, Howard is somewhat of a football film junkie. He studies defensive linemen such as Timmy Jernigan, Anthony Johnson and Adrian Clayborn, picking up moves and nuances to evolve his game. In his mind, he's making up for lost time.

At prep school, Howard played the 5-technique, the 4-technique, nose guard and even a bit of defensive end. He spent most of the spring playing nose guard at Purdue.

"Ra'Zahn, he might be the most talented person on the defense," Boilers senior defensive end Ryan Russell said. "I've seen a lot of players come through and I've had great tackles, Bruce Gaston and Kawann Short. I definitely think his talent level is up there with them."

The challenge is keeping that talent on the field. Howard was pushing 350 pounds when he arrived at Purdue. He trimmed down to 315 by spring practice and, according to Hazell, is now south of 310.

Howard recorded four tackles, including a sack, in six games last season. Hazell expects much more from him this fall.

"I saw flashes last year," Hazell said. "You saw the power more so than the quickness. Now you’re seeing the power along with, he ran stride for stride with a back down the line on a toss play. He just put his foot in the ground and redirected."

Asked about his sprint struggles at practice and whether there would be a different result in preseason camp, Howard smiled.

"I'm going to have the same ability, of course, but I'm going to be much faster," he said. "I'm going to be around 303, 305, more cut-up."

With size, speed, power, confidence and, potentially, fitness, Howard could be the man to provide a spark for a Purdue defense that desperately needs one.

"He's a different cat," Hazell said. "He really is."
The 2015 NFL draft is nearly a year away and doesn't even have a determined location, so why should you get excited about it? Because the Big Ten could have a breakthrough.

ESPN's Mel Kiper has produced lists of top prospects at quarterback, defensive end, running back and defensive tackle. If Kiper's projections prove true, it will be a very good draft for the Big Ten, which hasn't had a top-10 pick since 2008, when Michigan tackle Jake Long went No. 1 overall.

Check out each of Kiper's lists on ESPN Insider for more detailed analysis, but here's where the Big Ten players stack up.

[+] EnlargeRandy Gregory
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesThanks to players like Nebraska's Randy Gregory, defensive line talent is a strength in the Big Ten this fall.
Defensive end
Running back
Defensive tackle
We know about the Big Ten's strength at running back with Abdullah and Gordon at the top, but defensive line once again figures to be the league's strength when it comes to top draft prospects. Two players soaring on the early draft boards: Nebraska's Gregory and Ohio State's Bennett.

What do you think about the Big Ten projections?
Welcome to June. The 2014 college football season is just a little bit closer. With that in mind, we're looking at the most indispensable players on each Big Ten team.

By indispensable, we don't necessarily mean best. We mean the players who would be hardest to replace between now and the start of the season if they got hurt/suspended/fell through a moon door, etc. That could be because of their value to the team or because of a lack of depth at their position.

We'll pick two players from each team, usually offense and defense, but not always. Today, we examine Purdue.

[+] EnlargeRobert Kugler
Kirk Irwin/Getty ImagesRobert Kugler was Purdue's offensive MVP in 2013.
Robert Kugler, C

OK. We know what you're going to say the second you see the headline of this post. How can anyone be indispensable for a team that went 1-11 last season and was historically bad on both sides of the ball? A fair point, and it's not like Darrell Hazell's team is oozing with irreplaceable superstars in Year 2. Still, losing some players would hurt much more than others. Case in point: Kugler. He may not be one of the more recognizable names in the Big Ten, but he was named Purdue's offensive MVP for the 2013 season. The Boilermakers also lost four seniors off last season's offensive line and are replacing both starting tackles. They will be counting on juco transfers David Hedelin and Corey Clements to contribute right away. Even if that goes smoothly, they will need veteran leadership on the unit, and Kugler is just the man to provide it.

Ryan Russell, DE

The Purdue defense had a serious lack of playmakers last season, and it lost two of its best ones in cornerback Ricardo Allen and tackle Bruce Gaston. So there are major question marks for Greg Hudson's defense at several positions going into 2014. Russell has looked like a star-in-the-making for quite some time, with his ideal blend of size and quickness at the end position. But he hasn't yet put it all together, disappearing for long stretches. Still, the senior is one of the most experienced players in the program, and the potential remains there for a breakout season. Purdue needs him to lead the way for younger players on the line like Ra'Zahn Howard, Evan Panfil, Gelen Robinson and Kentucky transfer Langston Newton.

Big Ten lunch links

May, 12, 2014
Happy belated Mother's Day to all the moms out there. I got to spend the first part of Sunday with mine before flying home to see my wife on her first Mother's Day. Good times.

To the links ...

Purdue spring wrap

April, 28, 2014
The spring workouts are in the books and the long offseason has arrived. But before diving into summer and the painful wait for football to return, we’re taking a look back at the developments from March and April, sneaking a peek at what to expect in the fall for Purdue.

Three things we learned in the spring
  • The quarterback competition continues: Danny Etling, who started eight games as a true freshman last season, apparently enters the summer months with a slight edge over fellow sophomore Austin Appleby. Neither took command of the position in the spring, leaving the door open for early enrollee true freshman David Blough.
  • Ryan Russell is ready for a big senior season: Much has been expected from the 6-foot-5, 275-pound defensive end since he arrived in West Lafayette out of Carrollton, Texas, in 2010. He’s started all but two games over the past three seasons but has yet to play at an elite level. This may be the year after his strong spring.
  • The Boilermakers should run the ball better: That’s not saying much after Purdue ranked as arguably the worst team in the nation last season on the ground, averaging 67.1 yards per game (better than only Washington State) and 2.5 yards per attempt (better than only Florida International). Running backs Raheem Mostert and Akeem Hunt performed well in the spring.
Three questions for the fall
  • Can Purdue muster some offensive firepower?: No one expects Darrell Hazell’s group to line up and hammer Big Ten foes. Purdue must spread the field and rely on the big-play potential of Mostert, the Big Ten's 60- and 200-meter dash champion, and receiver Danny Anthrop. Perhaps tight end Dolapo Macarthy, named the most improved offensive player of the spring, can help here.
  • How can this team improve defensively?: As poorly as the offense performed last season, the defense wasn’t much better, allowing 38 points and nearly 460 yards per game. Russell offers a start. Fellow end Antoine Miles and tackle Michael Rouse III played well in the spring game, and the secondary shows promise behind cornerback Frankie Williams and big-hitting safety Robert Gregory.
  • Who has the highest ceiling at QB?: There’s an argument to make that it’s the 6-foot-1 Blough, who came to Purdue from the same Texas high school as Russell. Of course, he is the most inexperienced. Etling (2012) and Appleby (2011), like Blough last summer, showed well at the Elite 11 finals, so all three come from a strong pedigree. After throwing for 1,690 yards last fall, Etling will be tough to overcome.
One way too early prediction

Purdue will win a Big Ten game next fall. Yes, that’s bold. In all seriousness, the schedule was brutal last season as Purdue faced six straight foes that won nine or more games, then got Iowa and Penn State as a reprieve. Still, the Boilers were not competitive after a seven-point loss to Notre Dame on Sept. 14. Next year will be different. Remember, Purdue won its final three games in the Big Ten in 2012 before last season. A return to better days are near.

Spring game recap: Purdue

April, 14, 2014
No team in the Big Ten wants the 2014 season to arrive faster than Purdue, which wrapped up spring practice Saturday with the Black & Gold spring game at Ross-Ade Stadium. The Gold team scored a late touchdown to record a 12-7 win against the Black squad before an announced crowd of 7,125.

For more coverage, read here and here and here.

[+] EnlargeRyan Russell
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesDefensive end Ryan Russell shined in Purdue's spring game.
Star of the game: Defensive end Ryan Russell. Purdue has waited years for Russell to take the next step, and it could finally happen in his last season. He came on strong late in the spring and recorded a game-high 11 tackles, as well as 3.5 sacks (some against non-live quarterbacks) and a forced fumble. "He's going with such a higher motor than I've ever seen him go with," quarterback Danny Etling said Saturday. "He's tough to go against. I feel sorry for the other quarterbacks who have to go against him."

How it went down: Both defenses controlled play for most of the game, generating two interceptions, two forced fumbles and 10 tackles for loss, seven by the Black squad. Although Purdue's offense looked better at times this spring, there are some unanswered questions entering the summer, namely quarterback.

Etling completed 10 of 17 passes for 96 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions and faced a lot of pressure from Black team defensive linemen. He led the game-winning touchdown drive and appeared to emerge from the spring with a slight edge against Austin Appleby, who struggled, completing seven passes for 21 yards with two interceptions and no touchdowns. Stretching the field proved to be very difficult for both Etling and Abbleby, although freshman David Blough made some plays, including a 41-yard scoring pass to Danny Anthrop.

To be fair, neither Etling nor Appleby played with a full complement of receivers or top linemen.

"The package was very limited with what they called," coach Darrell Hazell said. "I'm sure there was more on the call sheet."

Purdue needs improvement from the quarterbacks this summer, but it can feel better about the potential at running back. Raheem Mostert had an excellent spring and finished with a decent day (44 rush yards on 10 carries). Akeem Hunt ended the spring on a good note with 54 rush yards and 73 receiving yards. Mostert and Hunt form a nice 1-2 punch, and both are threats on returns as well.

The Gold team repeatedly forced three-and-outs and received nice lifts from tackle Michael Rouse III (two tackles for loss, forced fumble), end Antoine Miles and cornerback Anthony Brown. Miles and Brown both had interceptions.

Big Ten's lunch links

April, 14, 2014
I missed all the spring games this weekend because I was busy attending Joffrey's wedding.