Coming off a season filled with adversity and being one of the youngest football teams in the Big Ten Conference, the Purdue Boilermakers have a lot to prove in 2020.
When the season opens Saturday afternoon in Ross-Ade Stadium against Iowa, the Boilermakers will again be one of the youngest Big Ten teams.
The Purdue roster lists only 12 scholarship seniors or fifth-year players. Fortunately, each of them are likely to be regulars or key reserves for fourth-year coach Jeff Brohm.
NFL defensive tackle prospect Lorenzo Neal is back for his fifth season after sitting out all of 2019 recovering from an ACL tear in the 2018 victory against Indiana. Neal will have another fifth-year tackle alongside in Anthony Watts.
Senior Derrick Barnes returns to linebacker after playing his junior season as a rush end opposite Freshman All-American George Karlaftis. Barnes and Karlaftis tied for the team lead with 7.5 sacks apiece.
Barnes could be joined by fifth-year senior Semisi Fakasiieki, who was thrust into a more prominent role when senior captain Markus Bailey was lost for the season with an ACL tear.
Graduate transfer Tyler Coyle, who played for new Purdue defensive coordinator Bob Diaco at Connecticut, is a likely starter at safety or linebacker in Diaco’s 3-4 scheme.
Fifth-year senior Simeon Smiley started six games a year ago at cornerback. Fifth-year senior safety Brennan Thieneman started eight games in 2020.
Another graduate transfer, Greg Long (UTEP), could shore up the offensive line – Purdue’s weakest link in 2019. The anchor of that maligned line is fifth-year tackle Grant Hermanns, who has made 27 career starts.
Fifth-year senior wide receivers Jackson Anthrop and Jared Sparks will have to fight for playing time in a talented group led by All-American Rondale Moore and Freshman All-American David Bell. Anthrop will start the season on the sideline with a shoulder injury.
Another fifth year senior, kicker J.D. Dellinger, was 13 of 16 on field goal tries and kicked 40 touchbacks a year ago.
Anthrop’s injury isn’t the only adversity Purdue has faced leading up to the delayed Big Ten season.
Brohm tested positive for COVID-19 this past weekend and will not be on the sideline against the Hawkeyes. Earlier this week, Brohm said his absence – or any other COVID-related losses during the season – will not be an excuse.
“Every week is going to be different,” Brohm said. “Things will come up for our team and other teams throughout the season. We've got to adapt to it and move forward and we'll continue to do that, and I think that no matter what happens to our team as we go, we're going to be ready to play. It's about going out there and competing and laying it on the line and having fun playing the game.”
“I don't really think one person makes a team, whether it's a coach or a player. It's a combination of everybody working together, so I think our team will respond and go out there and play hard and play well.”
The Boilermakers received great news when Moore decided to return for his third season. The All-American had opted out in August to prepare for the NFL Draft but changed his mind when the Big Ten reversed its decision to cancel the season in September.
Only the third true freshman All-American in college football history, joining two all-time greats in Herschel Walker of Georgia and Adrian Peterson of Oklahoma, Moore’s injury in the Minnesota game was probably the most devastating to Purdue’s season hopes.
As a freshman, Moore broke the Boilermakers’ single-game (313 vs. Northwestern) and season (2,215) all-purpose yards records. He also caught 114 passes for 1,258 yards and 12 touchdowns to earn the 2018 Paul Hornung Award as the nation’s most versatile player.
Bell succeeded Moore as Thompson-Randle El Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2019. In his final nine games, most of them as Purdue’s top receiving threat, Bell averaged nearly nine receptions and 100 yards per game. That average was boosted by a season-high 197 yards receiving at Iowa.
But who will throw the ball to Moore and Bell? Brohm knows but will keep it a secret until warmups for Saturday’s game.
Purdue appears to have three solid options in sophomore Jack Plummer, former walk-on Aidan O’Connell and UCLA grad transfer Austin Burton.
Plummer became the starter when Elijah Sindelar was lost for the season during the Minnesota game. Plummer threw for 1,603 yards and 11 touchdowns before also being lost for the season with an ankle injury during the victory against Nebraska.
O’Connell led the Boilermakers on their winning drive against the Cornhuskers and followed up by completing 34 of 50 passes for 271 yards and two touchdowns in the come-from-behind win at Northwestern. In three starts, O’Connell completed 88 of 142 passes for 968 yards and seven touchdowns.
Burton, who has junior eligibility, threw for 236 yards and rushed 64 in his only career start for UCLA against Oregon State a year ago.
“We do think between the three quarterbacks competing now for a starting spot, which we have named one internally, the other guys have some different elements that we want to make sure that we have a plan together if we need a spark for the team,” Brohm said.
There is evidence that no matter who Brohm chooses, Purdue will have one of the Big Ten’s top passing attacks. Detroit Lions quarterback David Blough, Sindelar, Plummer and O’Connell combined to average more than 3,000 yards passing in each of Brohm’s three seasons.
There are two burning questions for the offense: will the offensive line at least be an average group and will the Boilermakers be able to run the ball. Sophomore King Doerue was Purdue’s leading rusher in 2019 with 451 yards on 130 carries. Former walk-on Zander Horvath enjoyed a breakout game against Indiana with 164 yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries.
With or without Brohm on the sideline, Purdue looks for its first victory in a season opener since 2016 against Eastern Kentucky. Iowa won’t be easy but the Hawkeyes at home are a better option than the two previous Big Ten 2020 schedules. Originally, Purdue was supposed to travel to Nebraska before entering non-conference play. Then, when the non-conference schedules for all Big Ten teams were wiped out, Purdue was set to travel to Michigan. That’s where only one Purdue team since 1966 has won a game.
“We're going to have to find a way to beat them at their own game, which is playing roles and discipline and not turning the ball over and not making mistakes,” Brohm said of Iowa. “This is a team that's going to control the football, not give you a lot of possessions. We were fortunate enough in the first two years to hit some big plays over the top against Iowa to find a way to win.
“I do know that this will be a great test to see how we stack and measure up because this is one of the best teams in our conference.”
Game time is 3:30 p.m. on BTN. Purdue also learned this week that its game next Saturday at Illinois will be a noon EST kickoff, also on BTN.
Kenny Thompson is an award winning journalist who writes a weekly column for Sagamore News Media