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June 24, 2008
THE SCHEME: Coach Joe Tiller has tweaked his spread attack here and there over the years, but it has remained largely the same at its core. While some schools emphasize the run from their spread, Tiller's version always and forever will be pass-oriented from multi-receiver sets. The problem? When it comes to knuckling down and getting tough yards, the attack usually comes up short.
STAR POWER: It's all about senior quarterback Curtis Painter, who statistically will rank among the greatest Purdue quarterbacks when he leaves. He may even leave with the most passing yards in Big Ten history. That's great and all, but know this: Painter has failed to deliver key plays in crunch time. And his resume is devoid of any big wins. So, yes, Painter is a veteran, strong-armed quarterback with an NFL build (6 feet 4/230 pounds) and good stats. However, he won't enter Purdue's pantheon of great quarterbacks (Dawson, Griese, Phipps, Herrmann, Everett, Brees) until he delivers wins over marquee foes. It may happen this season.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: At 6-7 and 361 pounds, true freshman tackle Ken Plue blocks out the sun. Good thing, because this program needs offensive line maulers and nasty boys. Plue arrived from prep school in time to go through spring drills and he impressed, becoming the second-string right tackle. It's probably a matter of when – not if – Plue becomes a starter. The line needs to be more physical to help a rushing attack that struggles in short yardage.
IT'S HIS TIME: Senior wide receiver Greg Orton, come on down! This is your final chance to deliver on your potential. The Boilermakers are desperate for playmakers at receiver with Dorien Bryant gone. Orton has teased in the past and been held back by injuries. Orton is a big target (6-3, 199) with decent speed who needs to put it all together and become the go-to guy.
STRONGEST AREA: There is a nice stable of tailbacks for a school not renown for producing running backs. Too bad this often is a one-back set. Senior Kory Sheets is capable of hitting a home run, but one moment he's ripping off a big run and the next he's fumbling. At 5-10 and 180 pounds, senior Jaycen Taylor may be – pound-for-pound – the toughest player in the Big Ten. Taylor is pass-catching weapon out of the backfield. Dan Dierking flashed potential as a true freshman in '07. And from the we'll-believe-it-when-we-see-it files: Purdue may use a fullback more often this season.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: It's the line. The big guys were a big flop last fall. The unit was in shambles in the spring, with myriad players out with injury. The coaching staff has no idea what they have. The only semblance of a sure thing is senior tackle Sean Sester, a 6-7, 325-pounder who blocks for the run and pass with equal aplomb. Sester, entering his fourth year as a starter, will be a pro. Two other starters return, but the other spots still are littered with questions. The biggest question may be at center, where former walk-on Cory Benton – now a fifth-year senior – must be a quick study. His backup is converted defensive lineman Jared Zwilling.
THE SCHEME: Coordinator Brock Spack operates a 4-3 scheme. In a perfect world, Spack wouldn't have to dream up blitz schemes and funky coverages. He could play straight up most of the time, just turning an array of superior athletes loose to wreak havoc. Problem is, Purdue isn't, say, Florida. A lack of talent forces Spack to get creative and take chances. Why? Because it's often the best way for the defense to make a play and get off the field on third down. But risk-taking can result in yielding big plays. Not good.
STAR POWER: NFL scouts like senior tackle Alex Magee. He has a nice combination of quickness and strength. He's a true difference-maker who can make plays from the interior with a quick and overpowering first step. Spack isn't averse to sliding Magee outside on passing downs, where his quickness and size can pose problems.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: This defense always can use an injection of speed and athleticism. That's why redshirt freshman linebacker DeVarro Greaves has a chance to make an impact. He is listed as a backup, but don't be shocked if he quickly moves up to the first team once he masters the nuances of coverages and becomes more disciplined in his assignments.
IT'S HIS TIME: Senior Anthony Heygood began his career as a running back before moving to linebacker at the end of the 2006 season. It has proved to be a brilliant decision. Heygood is a natural, showing toughness, athletic ability and a nose for the ball. As he begins his second season at linebacker, he could put it all together and enjoy an all-league type of season.
STRONGEST AREA: Tiller thinks he may have the best collection of linemen in his tenure. It all starts with Magee, who must be accounted for on each play. Senior Keyon Brown has slowly developed into a feared pass rusher and may be poised to become the school's next great end, following standouts such as Rosevelt Colvin, Akin Ayodele, Chike Okeafor and Shaun Phillips. Senior Ryan Baker is a try-hard tackle. Everyone loves the potential of end Ryan Kerrigan, who showed strength and instincts as a true freshman last season. If touted redshirt freshman end Nickcaro Golding returns from suspension, the line will have another exciting dimension.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: When it comes to the secondary, start dialing 9-1-1. The unit has been an unadulterated ugly mess in recent seasons. Injuries have played a big role, but lack of talent also has been an issue. The constant shuffling of personnel has conspired to kill any hope for the unit to develop continuity and chemistry. The result has been horrid play. There are a few bright spots at cornerback, as Royce Adams, David Pender and Charlton Williams are keepers. But the safety spot has been an abyss. The murky situation is further muddled by the suspension of senior strong safety Torri Williams, who has run afoul of the law. When he isn't hurt – which is almost always – he's solid. But he may be gone for good.
OVERVIEW: It's difficult to believe, but it wasn't that long ago that Purdue's defense led the Big Ten. It's true, in 2002. In fact, Spack forged some great defenses from 2000-04. But the Boilers' defense has been a shell of itself in recent seasons. Spack coaches with the fire and passion he displayed as an All-Big Ten linebacker at Purdue from 1980-83. But the moment he gets one hole plugged, another springs up elsewhere. That the line looks strong offers hope for this season's defense. A strong front may mean Spack won't have to gamble as much with gimmick defenses and stunts that leave the unit vulnerable to big plays. Hey, it's a thought.
After a rocky debut, Chris Summers settled in to become one of the Big Ten's better kickers last season. He nailed 18 of 22 field goals after muddling through an 8-for-20 freshman season in 2006. Summers also may punt because of the loss of Jared Armstrong. Desmond Tardy could be an effective return man; he has run back a kickoff for a TD. Sheets and Taylor are other options. Adams has punt-return experience but has shown little wiggle.
This is Tiller's victory lap, as he takes one final tour before retiring at the end of the season. Tiller's second win this season will make him Purdue's career victory leader. But he wants more: He wants to take Purdue to an elite bowl in his final season. The school hatched a successor plan in the offseason that will see former Eastern Kentucky coach Danny Hope take over for Tiller. Hope, who led Division I-AA EKU for five seasons, is a former Purdue assistant under Tiller (1997-2001) who will oversee the offensive line this season before assuming command in 2009. He's seen as a good fit and has no major plans to change schemes when he takes over. Co-offensive coordinator Bill Legg was a casualty of the successor plan. Legg was nudged out, but landed the offensive coordinator gig at Florida International. Ed Zaunbrecher will take over play-calling chores after sharing coordinator duties with Legg. Spack is a good coordinator who has taken too much blame for the program's struggles in recent years. Keep an eye on defensive tackles coach/special teams coordinator Mark Hagen. He's a bright mind and tremendous recruiter who figures to be a head coach someday.
Your eyes aren't deceiving you: Purdue plays 12 games in a row. There is no off-week. Better pray for good health. The non-conference schedule offers two intriguing tests, with a visit from Oregon and a trip to Notre Dame. Those games are winnable – and losable, too. Win both, and big doings could be in store. More than anything, a fast start will give the Boilers needed confidence heading into back-to-back games against Penn State and at Ohio State. And if you're looking for defining games, look no further than the trips to Northwestern, Michigan State and Iowa. Good Big Ten teams win on the road. What's it going to be, Boilermakers?
The program will get an emotional lift from this being Tiller's swan song. And the mojo could get stronger if Purdue somehow is 4-0 with Penn State coming to town. Then again, the wheels could come off quickly if the offensive line struggles and the defense remains a sieve. What's it all mean? This probably is a seven- or eight-win team at best, headed back to another mid-level bowl.
Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.