WEST LAFAYETTE – As Purdue slogged through a dismal 1-11 debut season under Darrell Hazell, autumn’s hues turned from vibrant oranges and yellows to black and blue. Injuries and inefficiency derailed the positive mood hovering over the program after Hazell’s hiring, giving way to storm clouds.
One year later, the system is more familiar, team health has improved and enthusiasm has replaced apathy. At the center of Purdue’s hopefulness is a blend of veterans and youth.
“I'm extremely proud of our football team,” Hazell said. “There’s a tremendous environment right now around our facilities that’s very conducive for learning and success. Our guys have done everything we’ve asked since January, above and beyond what we’ve asked. There’s a different (type of) Boilermaker walking around our facilities. I’m excited about all the things those guys have done.”
The first glimpse comes today against Western Michigan. Hazell hopes it’s the first step toward returning Purdue to the level it reached during Joe Tiller’s 12-year run. It was called “Basketball on Grass” back then. Danny Etling has the makeup of Boilermaker quarterbacks of yesteryear, but accuracy is difficult with defenders bearing down on you.
Purdue allowed 38 sacks last season, and the lack of protection translated to the running game. The Boilermakers finished 122nd nationally in rushing yards. They can thank pass-happy Washington State for not being last. Questions linger about the offensive line’s effectiveness, especially with four sophomore starters. Both tackles – left tackle Cameron Cermin and right tackle J.J. Prince – are starting their first game.
“They’ll do a good job,” Hazell said without hesitation. “Prince has done a good job since the spring and has been a pleasant surprise for us. Obviously Cermin is new to (starting). It’s going to be baptism by fire. Hopefully he’ll get going. They’ll be fine.”
The lone upperclassman among the group is junior center – and captain – Robert Kugler, who Hazell describes as “the quarterback of the offensive line.” He’s charged with anchoring a unit that’s expected to keep Etling upright and open holes for tailbacks Raheem Mostert and Akeem Hunt.
Ryan Russell will do his best to close holes on defense. Purdue caved in on itself last season, surrendering yards and points in large quantities. The Boilermakers will have pockets of youth on defense, including true freshman linebacker Ja’Whan Bentley.
“Playing at a young age, at first it’s hard,” Russell said. “You kind of get awed and wide-eyed. You have to be sharp and on your toes. Other teams will target you. There are 10 guys out there to help you, you aren’t alone.”
In 2013, opponents made 56 trips inside the red zone, scoring 53 times with 46 touchdowns. Purdue also gave up a school-record 456 points. Those historically woeful numbers give pause, but defensive coordinator Greg Hudson sleeps easy, even if stormy skies form overhead.
“We’ll have bunch of tough guys out there running to the football,” he said. “I hope the ‘wow’ factor you see with your eyes is effort and tenacity. If we have 11 guys running toward the ball, good things will happen.”