Team preview: Purdue
Blue Ribbon Yearbook previews the 2005 college football season, exclusively on Insider.
The true measure of Joe Tiller's impact on Purdue is that last season's 7-5 record -- deemed a disappointment -- would have been grounds for euphoria a decade ago. With a 40-24 (.625) record in Big Ten games and eight consecutive bowl appearances, Tiller has made Boilermakers football fun and, at times, ferocious. Just 22 victories shy of Jack Mollenkopf's 84, Tiller could become the school's winningest football within three years. Last year, senior quarterback Kyle Orton burned Syracuse for four touchdowns and 287 yards in the opener, a 51-0 rout that marked Purdue's biggest scoring output against a Big East opponent. The ground game pitched in 237 yards and the defense limited Syracuse to 197 yards. Orton was even sharper in week two, completing his first 15 passes on the way to a five-touchdown day and a 59-7 shellacking of Ball State. The Boilermakers were nearly flawless -- scoring seven touchdowns and a field goal on their first eight series -- and Orton went 23-of-26 for a school-record 88.5-percent completion rate. The defense showed cracks in a 38-30 win at Illinois, but the Boilermakers won their Big Ten opener for the eighth straight year as Orton tossed four touchdown passes. Improving to 4-0 was more fun as Purdue walloped Notre Dame 41-16 for its first win in South Bend since 1974. Jerome Brooks returned a kickoff 100 yards and Orton added four more touchdowns, including a 97-yarder to Taylor Stubblefield, racheting up the Heisman chatter. "He's got my vote," Notre Dame defensive end Justin Tuck said. During a 20-13 victory at Penn State, Orton's third-quarter interception was Purdue's first turnover of the season. Though he threw a second interception, the Boilermakers climbed to 5-0 and a No. 5 ranking in the AP poll. That set up a showdown against fellow Big Ten unbeaten Wisconsin, which Purdue led 17-7 with eight minutes to play. But the 10th-ranked Badgers rallied for two late touchdowns, the go-ahead score coming on a 40-yard return of an Orton fumble. Down 20-17, Orton re-energized his team for a final drive only to see place-kicker Ben Jones misfire from 42 yards out. The following week brought similar heartbreak after No.13 Michigan pulled ahead, 16-14, with 2:45 to play. Dorien Bryant caught an Orton pass in Wolverine territory but fumbled when he was sandwiched by defenders. Purdue was fortunate to be in the game at all, considering Orton finished 14-of-30 for 213 yards and suffered a hip pointer. Michigan piled up 397 yards of offense, 206 of that by freshman tailback Michael Hart. The skid reached three games when Northwestern upset the Boilermakers, 13-10, the decisive points coming on Noah Herron's 3-yard touchdown run with 38 seconds left. Orton was 15-of-33 for 143 yards with an interception and a fumble when he was benched in the third quarter. Orton was held out of a 23-21 loss at Iowa. Backup Brandon Kirsch threw for 280 yards and three touchdowns but lost a fumble and two interceptions in the fourth quarter as Purdue tried to rally. Just as costly for the Boilermakers was Jones having field goals of 32 and 27 yards blocked. Purdue finally snapped its four-game losing streak -- and gave Tiller his 100th win -- by beating Ohio State, 24-17. This time Orton came off the bench in the fourth quarter to steer the game-winning drive. Blasting Indiana, 63-24, in the regular-season finale, the Boilermakers found their firepower again. Orton threw for 522 yards and six touchdowns, and Purdue rang up a conference-record 763 yards of offense. Stubblefield had 14 catches to set the NCAA career receptions mark, surpassing the 300 catches made by Louisville's Arnold Jackson from 1997-2000. In the Sun Bowl, however, Purdue absorbed more late-game misery. Arizona State's Sam Keller threw the decisive touchdown pass with 44 seconds left in a 27-23 win.
With Orton moving on as a fourth-round pick of the Chicago Bears, junior Brandon Kirsch (6-3, 208) takes over the offense. More mobile than Orton, Kirsch is capable of hurting defenses on rollouts, draws and scrambles. But first and foremost, Air-Tiller's system requires a reliable triggerman, and Kirsch can be that guy, too, as evidenced by a career completion rate of better than 60 percent. He has 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions on his resume, along with a 3-3 record in six career starts. "Brandon's played a fair amount of football for us," Tiller said. "He knows the offense, and we know what he can do, so it's not like we're breaking in someone new. We're going to experiment with some things, but Brandon is Brandon." Boilermaker fans remember the dual-threat Kirsch from 2002, a freshman who ran for 125 yards and threw for 208 before being knocked out of a game against Michigan State. Since then, he has had a sometimes bumpy ride: Charged with consumption of alcohol by a minor in January 2003, forced to red-shirt the next season by a shoulder injury, and arrested last November after yelling at police and refusing to leave the scene of a bar fight. But Tiller likes Kirsch's outgoing personality, which could have a positive effect on team chemistry. The backup is red-shirt freshman Curtis Painter (6-4, 212), a former PrepStar All-American who also ranked as the No. 21 pro-style quarterback in the nation by Rivals.com. While the Vincennes, Ind., native doesn't appear to be a threat to Kirsch right now, that hasn't stopped him from improving. "The thing that is significant about him is that he has made steady progress," Tiller said. "I think some guys plateau out, which he hasn't done. It is still a learning process, but he is a smart guy. He understands what we want to get done, and has a good thought process."
Tiller's system doesn't feature the running backs, but the fact that there are only four on the roster is scary. Luckily for Purdue, seniors Jerod Void (6-2, 212) and Brandon Jones (5-11, 236) form a reliable tandem that can share the workload. Void, a converted fullback, scored 23 rushing touchdowns his first two seasons but had only three last season. He ran for 625 yards, though, and fumbled only once in 184 touches. Void also excels as a pass blocker, the main reason he retains a slight advantage over Jones, who ran for 477 yards last season and averaged a team-high 4.2 yards per carry. While both tailbacks caught 22 passes, three of Jones' went for scores, including a 63-yarder against Michigan. Red-shirt freshman Kory Sheets (6-0, 201), the former Connecticut player of the year who ran for 400 yards in a state semifinal, could see some action. The only fullback is red-shirt freshman Anthony Heygood (6-2, 215).
Gone is Stubblefield, Division I-A's all-time receptions leader, who surprisingly went unselected in the NFL draft. But Tiller's system will plug in another crew of hard-working, sure-handed receivers. This year's biggest numbers should come from junior Kyle Ingraham (6-9, 228), a lanky target who is particularly effective using his size in the red zone. He made 51 catches for 624 yards and seven touchdowns in 2004. Ingraham's biggest days came against Ohio State (72 yards and two touchdowns) and Indiana (209 yards and two touchdowns). Ingraham will be surrounded by field-stretching receivers, such as sophomore Bryant (5-10, 175), senior Ray Williams (6-2, 193) and senior Brian Hare (6-3, 190). Bryant, was rated one of the nation's top 10 receivers by Rivals.com when he originally signed with Boston College. After a year at prep school, however, he signed with Purdue and made a quick contribution, posting 38 catches for 584 yards and three touchdowns. Bryant had a season-high six catches for 68 yards against Wisconsin, before torching Indiana with a 65-yard scoring catch and a 62-yard rushing touchdown. Williams, who joined Bryant on the 4 x 400 relay team that finished seventh at the NCAA indoor championships, should take a larger role in the attack this season, after making 14 catches for 146 yards last fall. The same goes for Hare, who averaged 26 yards per reception last season but made only 13 of them. He fueled the blowout of Syracuse with a 75-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter and added an 80-yarder in the Sun Bowl. The top reserves are junior Andre Chattams (6-0, 204) and senior Kevin Noel (6-3, 203) -- who combined for six catches in 2004 -- though they may be surpassed by a talented assortment of incoming freshmen. Senior Charles Davis (6-6, 260), coming off a season of 34 catches for 416 yards and three touchdowns, could become the Big Ten's top tight end this fall. He's an agile athlete who reported to the Purdue basketball team after the Sun Bowl and played in 19 games off the bench. Davis had a 55-yard catch and run against Penn State, followed by a career-long 61-yard touchdown against Indiana. Sophomore Dustin Keller (6-4, 245) is a second-string tight end who made only five catches last year, but two of those went for scores.
The unit looked reliable early last season but lost its effectiveness in the later stages and went into off-season workouts as a concern. Tiller wanted his linemen to develop more toughness, knowing that could have made the difference during the string of narrow losses. While senior center Matt Turner (6-3, 290) was the most consistent performer, junior left tackle Mike Otto (6-5, 292) has the most potential. But Otto's play diminished last season, and he'll have to rebuild his reputation as a potential All-American. Junior left guard Uche Nwaneri (6-3, 313) is the third and final returnee, ahead of sophomore Nick Fincher (6-4, 287). At right guard, sophomore Jordan Grimes (6-3, 313) ended spring with the first string, leading sophomore Neal Tull (6-3, 292). The right tackle job could go to freshman Sean Sester (6-8, 282), though sophomore Robbie Powell (6-5, 283) is pushing him. Behind Otto at left tackle is freshman Dan Zaleski (6-4, 288). Nick Maynard (6-3, 261) is Turner's backup at center.
Former walk-on Ben Jones (6-1, 213) went from a Lou Groza semifinalist in 2003 to one of the disappointments of 2004. He wound up 10-of-18 on field goals, with critical misfires in several losses. His 42-yarder would have tied Wisconsin, his 29-yarder might have saved the day at Norhwestern, and he missed from 32 and 27 yards in a two-point setback at Iowa. While three of Jones' kicks were blocked, he wasn't the weapon Purdue expected him to be last season, but the feeling is he'll regain his form as a senior. If not, junior Casey Welch (5-9, 165) is waiting. Long-snapper Brandon Villareal (6-2, 289) and holder Kyle Smith (6-4, 216) are back also, so timing and execution shouldn't be a worry. Kickoff duties were shared by Jones, who was 13-of-39 on touchbacks, and Aaron Levin (five touchbacks in 31 tries).
While Brock Spack is recognized as one of the Big Ten's premier defensive coordinators, he won't chalk up 2004 as a satisfying season. "We've always been pretty good here, but we weren't last year," he said. "We had a brand new crew." Nothing was more dispiriting than the Sun Bowl loss, during which Arizona State rallied in the final two minutes behind its second-string quarterback. "When you lose them like that, it kind of messes up your whole year," said Spack, who believes defensive assignments will be more second-nature this season, allowing players to be more ball-conscious and create turnovers. Though Purdue led the Big Ten in sacks, Spack thinks the unit needs to generate more pressure from its front four, and that depends on the development of the ends. On the surface, it looks like junior Ray Edwards (6-6, 270) had an outstanding sophomore season -- he started 12 games, made eight sacks that tied for second in the conference, recovered a fumble to clinch the win over Illinois and became a semifinalist for the Ted Hendricks Award. But Spack wants a more consistent effort from Edwards, challenging him to be the player who made 2.5 sacks and forced a fumble at Notre Dame, not the player who disappeared for stretches of other games. Edwards finished the season with 45 tackles, including 11 for loss, and had a career-best five stops on four occasions. "He needs to play every snap at a high intensity level," Spack said. On the opposite end is another junior, Anthony Spencer (6-3, 263), who made 7.5 sacks and tied for the Big Ten lead with three forced fumbles. His mission during spring practice was the same as Edwards' -- cut down on the wasted plays. "Both of those guys had a tendency to coast, but they've gotten better," Spack said. Spack doesn't have to worry about motivating his top backup, senior Rob Ninkovich (6-3, 251), a junior college transfer who isn't as talented yet maximizes production. Ninkovich matched Edwards for the team with eight sacks, four of those against Indiana. He also played tight end in goal-line situations, catching a short touchdown pass against Notre Dame. "With Rob, I feel like we have three starters at defensive end," Spack said, "and if Eugene Bright keeps coming along, we might have four." The sophomore Bright (6-4, 250) is the fastest of the group and made 13 tackles and one sack. He also recovered a fumble in the Sun Bowl. A pair of fifth-year seniors -- Brandon Villareal (6-2, 289) and Brent Grover (6-3, 303) -- give the Boilermakers experience at defensive tackle. Villareal is an active player who finally got his chance to start last season and produced a team-high 17.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. One of those resulted in a safety against Arizona State in the Sun Bowl, where Villareal was chosen most valuable lineman and matched his career high with seven tackles. He finished the season with 50 tackles and 5.5 sacks. Grover, a converted linebacker who has made 34 career starts, recorded 41 tackles last season and tied for the team lead with eight pass breakups. He missed spring drills after undergoing foot surgery, but expects to be full speed by fall camp. The backups are a concern, led by former walk-on Dan McGowen (6-0, 279), who made four tackles as a sophomore last year. Red-shirt freshman Ryan Baker (6-6, 287) arrived last season as one of the nation's top tight end recruits, but he suffered a quadricep strain in the opener and sat out the rest of the year, eventually switching to defense during bowl workouts. Several incoming signees will have a chance to step into the rotation at tackle.
Spack works with the linebackers specifically, and he figures to have a deeper, more reliable unit this fall. "I just thought that last year we got worn down at the end," he said. "You could tell there were times when we didn't have a lot of fuel left in the tank." Weak-side linebacker Stanford Keglar (6-2, 227) started every game as a sophomore, highlighted by an interception that sealed the win over Ohio State. He also made 61 tackles and showed good athleticism, but the learning curve was steep for a player who excelled as a swimmer in high school. "He's not a natural football player, because he hadn't played a whole lot of football when he got here," Spack said. "But he learned the system last fall and we're expecting a big improvement." Keglar spent the spring engaged in a spirited position battle against freshman Kyle Williams (6-2, 206), a former Iowa signee who left the Hawkeyes after a few practices in 2004 when his ACT score was disputed. Williams was thought to be headed for prep school but subsequently passed the ACT and enrolled at Purdue during second semester. He practiced this spring while awaiting word from the NCAA on whether last year's travels constitute a transfer, which would force him to sit out the 2005 season. "From a layman's perspective, it looks like the kid's got a pretty good case, but you never know until the experts look at it," Spack said. "We figured we'd gamble and give him a lot of reps." Whenever Williams is cleared to play, he should make an immediate impact. "He has some intangibles you can't coach," Spack said. As a senior at Bolingbrook, Ill., Williams was rated a five-star prospect by all the major recruiting services. In three seasons as a high school starter he compiled 257 tackles, nine sacks and five interceptions. He also showed athleticism on the offensive side by scoring 18 touchdowns while rushing for 1,393 yards. Williams -- who sports a "Bonecrusher" tattoo on his bicep -- said sitting out last season made him thirstier to contribute. "I want to win a couple of Big Ten championships and play in the Rose Bowl," he said. "Hopefully we can go 11-0 and compete for the national championship. Individually, I want to be All-Freshman Big Ten. Throughout my career I eventually want to be an All-American and be a first-round draft pick in the NFL." If Williams can't appease the NCAA this season, junior Al Royal (6-0, 236) climbs into the second spot. Strong-side starter Bobby Iwuchukwu (6-2, 246) missed the final four games of 2004 with a knee injury but looked crisp in spring and projects to have a marvelous senior season. "He's a gifted kid physically, our best all-around linebacker," Spack said. "He's got a lot of attributes that the next-level guys really like, so he'll be a draft pick." Along with being a valuable special-teams contributor -- his five blocked field goals have tied the school's career record -- Iwuchukwu made 40 tackles last season and recovered a fumble to nip an Illinois comeback. Sophomore Cliff Avril (6-3, 231) should provide some quality snaps after starting the final four games for Iwuchukwu last season and making 30 tackles. Junior George Hall (6-2, 250), who began his career at fullback and now is labeled by Spack as the prototypical middle linebacker, made 92 tackles and led the Boilermakers with two interceptions. "He's real tough, physical and emotional," Spack said. "He's not real fast, but he plays hard." Hall is backed up by sophomore Dan Bick (6-1, 216), who is light for the position but makes up for it with more quickness. Primarily a special-teams contributor last year, Bick was in on eight tackles.
While Purdue's 89th-ranked pass defense last season was partly attributable to several blowout victims abandoning the ground game, the young secondary played too timid for Spack's liking. The inexperience gap was widened after the lone senior back there, cornerback Antwaun Rogers, pulled a hamstring in the preseason and played in only six games before tearing his ACL. "Too often, when you're that young, you're afraid to make a mistake," Spack said. "But sometimes you need to take a risk if you're going to make a play on the ball." By being more aggressive, this year's secondary shouldn't allow 239 yards per game. Sophomore Paul Long (6-2, 193), who worked at safety during the spring of 2004, returned to cornerback in fall camp and paid dividends when Rogers went down. Long made an interception against Syracuse in his first start and concluded the season with 23 tackles and four breakups in seven starts. Long must shoulder even more responsibility this season. He's backed up by red-shirt freshman Fabian Martin (5-11, 188). Back after starting all 12 games at the other corner is fifth-year senior Brian Hickman (6-0, 178), who missed spring practice because of surgery to remove a bunion. Hickman played a huge role in the win over Ohio State, intercepting a pass in the end zone and recovering a fumble at the Purdue 5-yard line. He finished the year with 52 stops. Providing depth is red-shirt freshman Zach Logan (6-1, 174), probably the fastest player on the team. As a high school track star, Logan won the Ohio state title in the 400 meters with a time of 46.64, beating current Ohio State phenom Ted Ginn Jr. Purdue figured to use Logan last season, but he suffered a hamstring injury in the opener and wound up red-shirting. Spack challenged Logan in the spring to build on his reputation as a burner by becoming a productive football player. "He has turned out to be real competitive, but he's just got to work hard in the weight room," Spack said. "At this level, even if you can run like Zach, you need to be strong enough to get off blocks." The secondary's enforcer is junior strong safety Bernie Pollard (6-2, 226), who made a team-high 96 tackles. "He's a safety in a linebacker's body," Spack said. "He's a big hitter. He'll really check your hole card." While Pollard was exceptional against the run, he spent the off-season trying to develop range and improve his man coverage skills. Sophomore Grant Walker (6-2, 190) continues to be the understudy at strong safety after making 11 tackles in 2004. At free safety, sophomore Torri Williams (6-2, 200) is a skilled athlete on the verge of a breakthrough season, but he may not be able to push aside senior Kyle Smith (6-4, 216). Savvy and instinctive, Smith is a converted quarterback who had 76 tackles and three pass breakups last season. Williams made 14 tackles, four breakups and an interception.
After beating out senior Aaron Levin last season, sophomore Dave Brytus (6-4, 227) tightened his grip on the punting job. His 40-yard average was solid, and Brytus further impacted field-position by pinning 15 punts inside the 20, while allowing only three touchbacks. His long was a 63-yarder. Sophomore Aaron Charles (6-3, 215) is the top reserve.
The Boilermakers' return units ranged from great to feeble, ranking sixth nationally in kick returns (24.9 yards) but only 112th on punts (5.2 yards). Brooks, whose 24.8-yard average led Purdue's kick returners, transferred to McNeese State, where he hopes to get more playing time at running back. That means Bryant, who had a 53-yarder against Ball State, and Void will handle kickoff returns. The punt returners figure to be Bryant and Jake Cunningham (5-11, 186). The Boilermakers also have a kick-blocking weapon in Iwuchukwu, who has batted down five in his career.
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