Ranking the Best Purdue Football Players for the Upcoming Season
Where has the summer gone? By the time some of you read this column, Big Ten football media days will be less than 10 days away.
Before Jeff Brohm steps to the podium inside Lucas Oil Stadium, here’s one man’s ranking of Purdue’s top 10 players for the 2022 season.
10. Gus Hartwig
The third-year starting center from Zionsville was an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection as a sophomore. He will anchor an offensive line that will probably make the difference between one of Brohm’s best offenses and just an ordinary attack.
9. T.J. Sheffield
With the departure of David Bell to the Cleveland Browns, Sheffield will be counted upon to help fill the void. His spectacular touchdown grab against Tennessee in the Music City Bowl capped a breakout 2021 season that saw him make 36 catches for 325 yards and five touchdowns.
8. Cam Allen
The hard-hitting safety enjoyed a career season in 2021 with four interceptions and 65 tackles.
7. Charlie Jones
Bringing in the reigning Big Ten Rodgers-Dwight Return Specialist of the Year from Iowa will be a big boost to an area that has been unspectacular since Raheem Mostert’s final game in 2014. Jones ranked second nationally for Iowa in 2021 with 920 return yards. That total included a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. If Jones can provide some contributions to a mostly unproven Purdue receiving corps, all the better.
6. Branson Deen
The defensive tackle will be a third-year starter coming off his best season as a Boilermaker. Deen recorded three sacks among his 26 tackles, keeping opposing linemen busy while George Karlaftis and Kydran Jenkins pressured the quarterback.
5. Broc Thompson
The Music City Bowl most valuable player stepped up big for Purdue, which played Tennessee without David Bell and No. 2 wide receiver Milton Wright. On two bad knees, which were surgically repaired during the offseason, Thompson caught seven pass for 217 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He will be Purdue’s No. 1 receiver this fall.
4. Kydran Jenkins
Maybe the biggest surprise from an improved defense a year ago, Jenkins recorded five sacks among his 35 tackles. Not bad for a freshman. The Boilermakers will need his pass rushing skills in the wake of Karlaftis’ departure to the Kansas City Chiefs.
3. Jalen Graham
The senior linebacker/safety is entering his fourth year as a starter and is probably Purdue’s top NFL prospect. Graham recorded 64 tackles and an interception a year ago.
2. Payne Durham
A possible candidate for the John Mackey Award as the nation’s best tight end, Durham put on a show for NFL scouts in the Music City Bowl with his refusal to go down during what turned out to be a 62-yard touchdown reception late in the fourth quarter. He caught 45 balls for 467 yards and six touchdowns. Look for that production to go up in 2022.
1. Aidan O’Connell
Once upon a time, the former walk-on from Waukegan, Ill., was ninth on Purdue’s quarterback depth chart. The sixth-year senior now is regarded as the Big Ten’s second-best QB behind Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud. O’Connell outdueled the more heralded Hendon Hooker of Tennessee with 534 yards passing and five touchdowns.
O’Connell has come up big in important games for the Boilermakers. In a 24-7 victory at No. 2 Iowa, O’Connell threw for 375 yards and two touchdowns. Against No. 3 Michigan State, a 40-29 victory in Ross-Ade Stadium, O’Connell tossed for 536 yards and three touchdowns. Even in defeat at Ohio State, O’Connell threw for five touchdowns and 390 yards.
If he can remain healthy and approach last season’s numbers of 3,712 yards and 28 touchdowns, O’Connell will enter a lofty place in Purdue’s passing record book. Only Drew Brees (11,792 passing yards), Curtis Painter (11,163) and Mark Herrmann (9,946) seem out of reach for O’Connell. As for touchdown passes, only Brees’ career total of 90 seems safe. Another 28 TD passes from O’Connell would match Herrmann for second at Purdue with 71.
Stephanie White and Brittany (Rayburn) Bertsch, Indiana Miss Basketball winners who also starred at Purdue, are among the inaugural class of the Greater Illiana Sports Hall of Fame. The pair of Boilermakers join the newly created honor which will be housed in the David Palmer Arena in Danville, Ill.
The Greater Illiana Sports Hall of Fame was created to honor the outstanding athletic achievement by athletes, coaches, teams and others from 50 high schools and Danville Area Community College in eastern Illinois and western Indiana.
Other notables inducted include Butler basketball coach Thad Matta and the late Jim Hellwig, a Fountain Central graduate better known as pro wrestling star “The Ultimate Warrior.”
White, the 1995 Miss Basketball from Seeger, was instrumental in guiding Purdue to the 1999 NCAA National Championship, the only one ever won by a team from the Big Ten. She also joins the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame this year.
Rayburn attended Attica prior to her time in West Lafayette. A lethal sharpshooter, Rayburn was named the 2008 Indiana Miss Basketball. She guided the Boilermakers to a 2012 Big Ten Tournament title and garnered a trio of All-Big Ten honors. She is fourth in Purdue history with 201 career 3-pointers. …
In addition to once again playing at Florida State (Nov. 30) in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and against Marquette (Nov. 15) in the Gavitt Games, the Purdue men’s basketball team will face another NCAA tournament team in Davidson on Dec. 17 in Indianapolis. That game is part of the new Indy Classic, which replaces the Crossroads Classic that ended after the 2021 edition.
Purdue is still awaiting its draw in the Phil Knight Legacy (Nov. 24-27) but it seems likely that the Boilermakers will have to face two of the combination Duke/Gonzaga/Florida/West Virginia on its side of the bracket.
The season opener will be Milwaukee on Nov. 8 in Mackey Arena. Three days later, Austin Peay pays a visit. New Orleans (Dec. 21) and Florida A&M (Dec. 29) close out the non-conference slate.
Purdue has sold out season tickets for the 2022-23 season.
Kenny Thompson is the former sports editor for the Lafayette Journal & Courier and an award-winning journalist. He has covered Purdue athletics for many years.