Year 1 of the Darrell Hazell era at Purdue didn’t inspire hope for a return to the Joe Tiller days. The Boilermakers went through decades of losing before Tiller arrived in the 1990s, recruited Drew Brees and took Purdue to the Rose Bowl.
Before Tiller rescued the moribund program, Purdue had appeared in just five bowl games in its history. In the past 17 seasons, the Boilermakers have been bowling 12 times, including the Granddaddy of ‘Em All and three other New Year’s Day extravaganzas.
But the past two seasons have resulted in a combined record of 7-18 without a sniff of the postseason. The Boilermakers bottomed out last year – Hazell’s first – by going 0-8 in the Big Ten and only winning once overall, against FCS foe Indiana State. It was Purdue’s worst season in two decades.
Despite the horror story, there’s optimism in West Lafayette as the school year winds down. There are significant questions on both sides of the ball, especially quarterback and offensive line. But that didn’t stop Hazell from seeing progress during spring practice.
“The biggest thing is that we came out healthy,” a happy Hazell said post-spring. “Our guy’s concentration and willingness to listen and get better each and every practice, I can’t be more proud than I am of this football team right now.”
Live it. Learn it. Love it. That became Purdue’s mantra this spring. And, according to Hazell, the abided by it. He noticed changed attitudes and a far different level of play compared to his first spring.
“The big difference is how well they run to the ball,” Hazell said. “I also think they are playing a lot more confident right now. Maybe that’s because they are one year into the scheme and the system. Maybe it is because they feel better about themselves and about the coaching staff. They are playing a lot more relaxed and are making a lot more plays than they did at this time last year.”
Any visions of Pasadena – or any bowl for that matter – are premature, though. The spring game featured sluggish offenses and an underwhelming offensive line that must improve drastically before it faces the Big Ten’s overpowering defensive units.
Purdue’s schedule is more navigable this season, with three soft non-conference games and no Ohio State, Michigan or Penn State. But a 12-7 final score led fans of opposing teams to mock the Boilermakers. Sophomore quarterback Danny Etling paid little attention to detractors.
|2014 Purdue Schedule|
|Aug. 30||Western Michigan|
|Sept. 6||Central Michigan|
|Sept. 13||at Notre Dame|
|Sept. 20||Southern Illinois|
|Oct. 25||Off Week|
|Nov. 1||at Nebraska|
|Nov. 15||Off Week|
|Nov. 29||at Indiana|
As a true freshman, Etling was thrust into the starting quarterback job midway through the season. Purdue didn’t win a single game he started, but Etling completed over 55 percent of his passes and tossed 10 touchdowns against seven interceptions in eight games. He averaged more than 200 yards passing per game.
But the spring game gave way to David Blough, a true freshman Texan who is aiming to be another Brees. He outplayed both Etling and Austin Appleby, providing the offensive highlight of the day with a 41-yard touchdown pass. Still, Etling left the spring as the favorite to start the season opener against Western Michigan. And he exited with confidence in the players around him.
Said Etling: “The offensive line has gotten better and better. Raheem Mostert has been running downhill better and better. The receivers have done better blocking downfield and blocking for each other. The quarterbacks are doing a good job distributing the ball and making defenses try to defend the whole field.”
Taking pressure off the quarterbacks is the senior-laden backfield of Mostert and Akeem Hunt. Mostert’s played sparingly in three seasons, but averages more than five yards per carry. Hunt owns over 1,500 yards of offense and nine touchdowns.
Neither was particularly successful in a spring game dominated by the defense. Defensive end Ryan Russell recorded 11 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble. He spent more time in the backfield than Mostert and Hunt.
“It was a good spring for me, just putting everything together,” Russell said. “Having another year with this coaching staff has been great for everybody. Just concentrating on the small details for me has been very good and helped me fine tune my game some more.”
The coming season could give way to Russell becoming a household name in the Big Ten. He’s the clear leader of the Boilermaker defense and is next in line after Ryan Kerrigan and Kawann Short – Purdue defensive linemen who excelled and climbed up NFL draft boards.
“We challenged him going into this spring and he has responded well,” Hazell said. “He needs to be an impact player for us in the fall. If he can do that, that’ll be huge for us because if you can get a one-on-one pass rusher in your front line then you have some great things going on.”
Russell is no stranger to expectations and is well versed on Purdue’s recent history of churning out accomplished defensive ends. Much of the season could feature mismatches for Russell, which could give Purdue an edge defensively. He commented on how the game’s as much mental as physical.
After the spring game, chances are he and fellow defenders are in a positive state of mind. The Boilermakers tallied 10 tackles for loss, seven sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles.
“Going up against [Russell] every single day in practice, you get tired of him always in the backfield. He’s going to be a great player for us this season,” Etling said. “I think his motor is just going two-fold since last season.
“I feel sorry for any other quarterback who has to go against him.”
But opponents might welcome a matchup with Etling.