Purdue has been at the bottom of the Big Ten for the past two seasons trying to dig itself out of a seemingly bottomless hole. The second year of the Darrell Hazell era proved slightly more successful but the Boilers still have a lot of room for improvement.
As fall camp gets underway in West Lafayette and Purdue attempts to return its program to the glory days it saw under Joe Tiller, there are still many uncertainties surrounding the team that will start to be addressed this month.
Will it be Appleby or Blough who takes the first snap?
Both quarterbacks showed promise this spring but neither emerged as a clear-cut favorite to be named the starter for the season opener against Marshall on September 6th.
Austin Appleby has been the favorite, thanks to his mobility and experience. Still, he’s got the former Elite 11 gunslinger on his heels. It could be a race that is decided in the final week of preparations before the Boilers battle the Thundering Herd.
Last year, Appleby threw 1,517 yards and 11 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He was a step up from the former starter Danny Etling but failed to secure his position heading into this fall.
David Blough has yet to see any game action but put together a nice performance in the spring game, throwing for 173 yards and two touchdowns.
With so much shuffling over the past six seasons, the Boilers desperately need to find a quarterback worth sticking with for the long haul. Whoever gets the opportunity in game one should still be the starter in the final contest of the year.
Are the linebackers good enough to lead the defense?
This may be one of the best position groups for Hazell heading into the season. It’s a young but highly talented crew that could help improve a struggling defensive unit.
Sophomores Ja’Whaun Bentley and Danny Ezechukwu have high ceilings for Purdue and are expected to perform at a high level this year. Junior Jimmy Herman’s experience will be an added benefit as well.
The defense needs to create more turnovers for Purdue and allow the offense more opportunities to score. The three linebackers mentioned are more than capable of creating chaos for opposing offense but consistency will be key.
If Purdue’s defense is going to be competitive this season, Bentley, Ezechukwu and Herman need to have big seasons. They are more than capable of leading the defense but whether or not they’re ready to do so is still a question mark.
Who will emerge as the lead running back?
Losing your two leading rushers – Raheem Mostert and Akeem Hunt – is difficult to replace. Though the Boilermakers may take a step backward in the ground attack they still have some depth and competition at the position.
Keyante Green is the most experienced running back returning to West Lafayette but his 27 carries last season don’t exactly give him a veteran status. In those minimal moments Green has shown some signs of athleticism but has yet to prove anything over the long-term.
Green’s competition, D.J. Knox, is receiving plenty of attention after a breakout spring game. The sophomore rushed for 41 yards on 13 carries, caught a 30-yard pass and scored two touchdowns.
Knox’s performance pushed him to the forefront of the running back competition, but like the quarterback race, nothing has been guaranteed.
It would be nice for Purdue if both guys could pack a one-two punch out of the backfield but who will be the go-to guy is still somewhat undetermined.
Can Replogle, Howard and Watson revitalize a disastrous defensive line?
The defensive line ranked 13th in sacks, surrendered 27 rushing touchdowns and constantly got beat in the trenches last year. Now with Ryan Russell and Jalani Phillips gone, there’s curiosity whether the defensive line can improve.
Experience between Jake Replogle, Ra’Zhan Howard and Ryan Watson should translate to more sacks and better run defense for the 2015 campaign. But over the past two years, Purdue hasn’t shown much improvement.
The linebackers might be the most skilled unit defensively but the line might be the most important group. Without pressure on the quarterback or clogging gaps in the run game, Purdue is doomed for another bad defensive season.
Eight sacks was what Replogle, Howard and Watson combined for last season but that number has to be higher for Purdue to pose a better defensive threat. If they can’t improve the level of play up front this year, it may take quite some time.
How many games must the Boilers win for Hazell to keep his job?
Many would believe that Hazell needs to reach the six-win mark and bowl eligibility in order to remain the head man in West Lafayette. While there is some validity to the argument, Hazell may be around at least one more season even if Purdue doesn’t reach the postseason.
When Hazell took over, Purdue was in a deep trench that nearly impossible to climb. As the Boilermakers continue to make strides, a low number – even four or five wins – could bide the head coach another season.
The strength of schedule ranks in the top 10 for Purdue this fall and if it shows a more competitive side, it may be enough for fans to start to buy back in to the program.
It’s a team that’s still one year away from making some big strides in the Big Ten Conference.