- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Purdue is getting a little bit of a buzz as a sleeper team for 2012 after breaking through with a bowl game (and win) in 2011. The Boilermakers opened spring practice last week and went for a couple of days straight before taking off for spring break. I had a chance to catch up with Purdue head coach Danny Hope to talk about how things are going in his program and the areas of concentration this spring.
Did you sense any different attitude this offseason after getting to that bowl game last year?
Danny Hope: I think we ended the season on a high note and with some momentum, and I think it carried over into the offseason. I think we're really hitting on all cylinders with our new director of sports performance, whom we hired last year about this time. It's the first time since I've been the head coach at Purdue that we're going into spring with a quarterback that's healthy that's played any football. Caleb TerBush wasn't penciled in as the No. 1 [quarterback], but he became No. 1 about a week before the opener. He had to get his feet wet and learn throughout the course of the season, but by the end of the season he was playing pretty good. That momentum carried right over into the bowl preparation and the win carried right into the weight training offseason and that carried into spring practices. And having experienced quarterbacks is important. It's the first time since I've been here we've been able to do something as simple as getting signals in early in spring. It's a little different tempo out there right now as a result. We've got some good players back and we've got some confidence as a football team.
You have quite a few experienced quarterbacks now, in fact. How are you splitting up the reps for them this spring?
DH: Well, Sean Robinson is playing on defense right now. It's hard to get four quarterbacks ready in spring ball, and he wasn't going to get as many reps as he needed to. So we're going to try him some at the linebacker position. That leaves TerBush and Robert Marve, who's finally healthy. I think Robert did some good things last year, but I think he's in position to take some big steps in his development because this is the first time since he's been here that he's been able to get a lot of reps without concern about an injury or an eligibility situation. Then Rob Henry is back. He's a little bit limited right now because he's coming off knee surgery, but I'm really pleased with where his recovery is, and most of the time when he's out there right now you can't tell much of a difference. But you have to limit his reps a little just because you don't want to overdo it and create a swelling issue. So the numbers are kind of taking care of themselves in some ways. We went into the spring with TerBush as No. 1 and all those other guys are competing.
DH: We had a real strong running attack last year. We were fifth in the Big Ten in rushing. The past couple of years, we've been able to establish a strong running game. I like the progress that we've made and having good running backs is a big part of that, and any more, having a couple of running backs you can play is a big part of it. We had a lot of different guys rush for us last year, probably 10 different guys who were utilized as ball carriers. We really like Akeem Shavers. He's a fast, physical back who finishes runs. Akeem Hunt is an excellent sprinter who's a member of our track team and was a state champion track performer in Georgia. So he's a class sprinter in a lot of ways for a football player.
We've also got a kid we redshirted last year in Doug Gentry, and he's a skilled player. We have Gavin Roberts, who has good size but was injured last year. He's a big back we can utilize in the backfield. Then we've got a couple fullbacks in Derek Jackson, who weighs about 240 pounds, and Kurt Freytag. So we've got some guys still in the stable even though Ralph is out. And we've utilized Antavian Edison and Raheem Mostert some as ball carriers out of their slot position, and both those guys are really skilled players. So we've got some athletes who can tote the mail, and we spread the wealth out around here.
Were you upset about the new kickoff rules because you have such a weapon at kick returner in Raheem Mostert?
DH: Well, we all play by the same rules. You'll have to make decisions about bringing some out, so the return man is going to have to be a good decision-maker. From a kickoff standpoint it might change some things. You can kick them all deep and try to force the touchback if you want to, but you're going to be giving the opponent the ball at the 25. Or you can kick the ball high and deep and try to pin them down and do a great job covering. So there's going to be some game planning and schemes involved. I think it will all even out. ... I don't think it's going to shut down all kick returns, but I think there will be about 25 percent less, is my guess.
I thought Ryan Russell really came on last year at defensive end. How do you see his development going?
DH: He's doing very well and is really gaining momentum as a player. He's a big defensive end, which are hard to find. Sometimes you have some big strong ones and sometimes you have some small, quick athletic defensive ends, but he's really big and really athletic. He's about 6-5, 265 pounds, so that's good size for a young defensive end. He's got the ability to be an excellent edge rusher and also has the lower body strength and leverage to be a physical player and knock the linemen back and be a dominant player against the run as well.
He started the season last year and was just learning how to line up. You knew he was there, but he wasn't a difference-maker. By the end of the season, he was lined up and was a difference-maker. And he's way better now than he was at the end of the season. He's got tremendous upside. Over a period of time, he can be a great player at his position in our conference and maybe at a national level.
Looking at your defense, it seems like safety -- where you lost both starters -- and linebacker might be the areas of concern. How are those two spots shaping up so far?
DH: The safety situation, we're in good shape, numbers-wise, because they don't have to be our best safeties. They just have to be our best defensive backs. What we're looking for coming out of the spring is, who are our top DBs, and then we'll get those guys lined up at the different corner and safety positions. We have a couple guys back who have played well, and one of them is Max Charlot. He played quite a bit last year, a junior college guy who's a good student, has a good body who runs fast. So he's a favorite to be our potential starter next year. And then a guy who was injured almost all of last year but was highly regarded in recruiting is E.J. Johnson. He was an all-state player in Florida who had bunch of great stats for a DB. He's got good size, good range and is really fast. So those two guys would probably have the edge going into the spring and maybe coming out of spring at the safety positions.
But we also have some other talented players who could line up at any spot in the secondary. We have Ricardo Allen and Josh Johnson back, and they're as good a pair of corners as there are in the league. Normondo Harris was our starting nickel last year, and he's a heck of a player. Taylor Richards played some at nickel and corner, and we redshirted Frankie Williams. So we have a handful of really good players at the corner spot who can compete at that position and safety as well.
At linebacker, I think we have great potential in numbers in the secondary and great potential in numbers across the defensive front. So that makes it a little bit easier to get caught up at the linebacker spot. But we're going to really miss Joe Holland, who I think was one of the most underrated players in the Big Ten. We have Will Lucas back, and he's a talent. He was starting to figure out his assignments a lot better as the season went on. He could be an outstanding linebacker.
We have a couple young guys we're working inside in Mike Lee and Antwon Higgs. We redshirted Armstead Williams, and he's got a shot at one of our outside spots. Then we have Nnamdi Ezenwa and also Joe Gilliam who played a little bit last year. So we've got some bodies, and we're also keeping our fingers crossed that things work out for Dwayne Beckford. That's the one spot on our team we don't have as many starters back or much experience, but they're surrounded by a pretty good front and a pretty good secondary.
What's the status of Beckford?
DH: He's got to take care of business. He's got to get caught up with his school and make sure he's conducting himself the way he's supposed to. Then we're hoping things work out and he'll be a member of our team again in the future.
You lost a few starting offensive linemen. How is that position coming along this spring?
DH: Well, two of our top offensive linemen are out this spring. Peters Drey is one of the offensive linemen we have who can play all five positions. He missed the second half of last season with a back injury. He's moving around pretty good, and I think he'll be OK for next season but he's limited this spring. And also Justin Kitchens, who started some for us last year, is out for the spring with a shoulder injury.
That forces us to give some guys some work with the ones and the twos and get some guys ready to compete. It also increases your experience from a depth standpoint. We've got Trevor Foy at left tackle. He started last year for us at right tackle, and I really like him. He missed a year in there with a shoulder injury, but he's about 6-7, 290, and I think he'll be a heck of a player. Kevin Pamphile is penciled in there at left guard and is big and talented. We moved him over from defense last year and he didn't know enough to really make a difference during the season. But he looks like a guy who can be a really good player. Rick Schmeig is our center and one of our better offensive linemen.
We've also got Cody Davis, who's been in the program for a while, and I like him in there as an inside player. Josh Davis is a young guy who was a backup last year who's competing at the tackle and guard spots. So we have some guys who are getting great reps, and I'm pleased with what I've seen so far. But we still have a lot of work to do on the offensive line, and two of our best players are out, so that makes it a little misleading sometimes about where you're at.
It seems like you have some pretty good numbers and depth now in your fourth year. Is the roster getting to where you want it to be?
DH: We're farther along than we have been. We're a faster team than we were a couple years ago. Again, this is the first time since I've been here that we're going into spring with a quarterback that has started or played in a game. You can't believe what a difference that makes for the whole execution of a football team in practice. So I feel like we're much farther ahead, just because the quarterbacks are farther ahead. I think our defensive line can be very good next year, our secondary can be very good, and I like the potential to get the ball to skill players on offense at running back and receiver. So there's a lot of potential. But there's still a lot of work to do.