This is the year, Darrell Hazell.
This is the year you’ve got to show us something. This is the year you’ve got to prove that you’ve got what it takes to get Purdue over the hump. This is the year that you’ve got to give us some sign that, yes, the Boilermakers under your watch might actually approach what they were under the great Joe Tiller.
If it seems like forever since Purdue has been a factor in the Big Ten title race, well, that’s because it has been forever. The last time the Boilers were anywhere near competitive with the league’s elite teams was 2003, when they went 9-4, knocked off Wisconsin, Penn State, Iowa and Notre Dame, and finished ranked No. 12 in the country. And since then?
Well, since then it’s been a struggle. Joe Tiller took the program to bowl games in 2004, 2006 and 2007, but after his retirement in 2008, the program has been mired in mediocrity—or worse. Danny Hope went 22-27 over the course of four seasons, never finishing higher than third in the division, and Hazell, now entering his third year, has fared even worse. He’s 4-20 after two years in East Lafayette, including a 1-15 mark in league play. About the only positive he can point to at this point is that he managed to improve from 1-11 in his first season to 3-9 in his second.
Can he do any better in 2015?
We’ll answer that question and more right here, as we continue to look at the biggest issues facing each Big Ten team ahead of the 2015 college football season.
Is Hazell the right guy for this job?
I honestly don’t think we know yet. But I do believe we’ll have a better sense by the end of this season.
Look, I am all for giving coaches time to build their programs. I believe continuity matters. And, yeah, I think it’s generally crazy to fire a coach after just three seasons. But I also believe that, by the third year of a coach’s tenure, you can get a pretty good sense of whether that particular coach is a good fit for their football program. By the time Hazell got to his second season at Kent State, he had already made the big leap forward; his Flashes went from 5-7 in his first season to 11-3 in his second. They also won the MAC East en route to a bid in the GoDaddy.com Bowl. Then he was off to Purdue, where many (including Yours Truly) thought he would do quite well.
Of course, he hasn’t. So we have to wait and see if he can do something—anything—here in the crucial Year 3 of his tenure.
Can this team possibly reach six wins this season?
It’s possible. But not probable.
The good news is that 16 starters are back, and there is legitimate talent throughout the entire defense as well as along the offensive front. Frankie Williams is one of the better cornerbacks in the Big Ten, and sophomore linebacker Ja’Whuan Bentley may be in store for a breakout year.
There are certainly issues on the offensive side of the ball, but the line isn’t one of them; every single starter from last year’s unit is back, which gives quarterback Austin Appleby at least a chance of improving on his up-and-down sophomore campaign. But there is a serious lack of explosiveness here. Outside of wideout Danny Anthrop, who is recovering from an ACL injury, the Boilers simply don’t have any big-play threats. Maybe incoming freshman tailback Markell Jones can make a difference, but counting on freshmen to make plays in the clutch is never a great plan.
If Hazell is going to succeed at Purdue, there simply is no question that he’s going to have to bring in better talent. And soon.
So what’s the best-case scenario—for the 2015 Boilers, and for Hazell?
As for the team, I really can’t see any more than five wins on the schedule. I’ll give them Indiana State and, very likely, Bowling Green. The Illinois game will be a toss-up, as will the Northwestern and Iowa games, though I’d probably lean toward the Wildcats and Hawkeyes in those. Maybe they can knock off Marshall in the opener, though I’m guessing the Herd have more talent, and the season-ending Bucket game against Indiana is always a close one. In other words, no, this is not going to be a bowl team.
What that means for Hazell really depends, in my opinion, basically on how his team looks. If they’re getting blown out—and perhaps more importantly, if they’re giving up while getting blown out—then, yeah, that’s not good. But if Hazell can show a little bit of improvement (five wins would count), and if his teams play like they believe in their coach and his plan, then he should be given at least another year—maybe even two. After all, this is still a hard place to win.