Travis Miller of Hammer and Rails on the linebackers
It should be interesting. Joe Gilliam made strides in the middle but is a little questionable for the opener after a finger injury in camp. Andy James Garcia, a red-shirt freshman, beat out Will Lucas, a three year starter, at one of the outside spots. Lucas has now shifted over to the middle in place of Gilliam and seems to be doing well. Converted quarterback Sean Robinson has some promise as the third linebacker.
Honestly though, it is hoped that two four-star recruits in Drue Tranquill and Gelen Robinson (brother of Michigan basketball player Glenn and son of former Purdue great Glenn) can come in and have an immediate impact. We’re very high on them and honestly, they might be our best linebackers right now. Unfortunately, they are currently seniors in high school
If the best linebackers for a program aren't yet playing for that program, it's safe to say that position is a weakness. Greg Hudson is the Boilermakers new defensive coordinator. He moved to that position from Florida State where he was the linebackers coach for the last three years.
Florida State approached defense in a way that is only possible if they have exceptional athletes, and they did because they are Florida State, and they always have exceptions athletes. Even when they are terrible. On defense they generally rush four. In the back end they played a mixture of zone and man but the coverage was secondary to a particular skill. They can all make plays in space, not just against the pass but against the run too. That is the key attribute for the defenders in coverage. They have to be able to move, and they have to tackle.
Hudson is, probably, going to ask his new guys at Purdue to execute some of the same principals. But there is, to put it mildly, a difference in talent level. FSU had four consensus top 25 recruits in their two deep, and two more that were ranked in the top 50. Purdue has exactly two linebackers in their two deep who were ranked in the top 100 at their position in high school. Recruiting rankings aren't everything, Bearcats know this better than most. But to sketch out the talent level of a particular position group for a team it is a great place to start. The Boilermakers have struggled at linebacker for a decade because they haven't been able to find consistent productivity; let alone play making from the position. All of which is important background to a point I want to make about game planning.
* * * *
The first thing a coaching staff does when they break down an opponent is to take note of where their strengths lie. Strengths before weaknesses, always. If a coordinator is unwilling to test that strength then the defense has control of the encounter from the offing.
So the fact that Bruce Gaston is shaped like a house, but can move goes under strengths. That the Boilermakers have a quality shutdown guy in Ricardo Allen, and plenty of support from his mates in the back end goes under the strengths. Or that Ryan Russell is already built like an NFL DE and looks primed to explode for a big year goes there.
Once the strengths are identified they move on to where they aren't as good. For Purdue that would be the depth up front. Russell and Gaston are great players, but there isn't a lot of support for them, at least not proven support. A year ago they were the set up men for Kawan Short, but Short is gone to the NFL. So who is going to set Gaston and Russell up? Its an open question.
In the same mold what kind of play are they going to get from the linebacker position? The honest answer is who knows, even to Purdue fans. Linebacker is clearly the weakest defensive link for the Boilermakers. How will Hudson and Co. approach strengthening that weakness? Again, no one knows. Hudson made his bones as a linebacker coach, and a great one at that. But there is only so much that can be done to mask the deficiencies of the group he inherited. How do you cover for the fact that you don't have a wealth of talent at one position when the others are strong? Its possible, sure. But I haven't seen how Hudson will go about covering that up.
That uncertainty means a couple of things heading into tomorrows game. Every coordinator worth his salt wants to attack every defense at its strength and Eddie Gran won't be any different. There is an inherent curiosity to the act. "Are they as good as everyone says they are? Well lets find out."
That is why I think the Bearcats will start the game out by running right at Gaston and Russell. Eddie Gran and co trust this offensive line, even with Deyshawn Bond and without Dan Sprague, to get the job done on the ground. If that proves successful they will take a couple of shots with Alex Chisum and Chris Moore. Darrin Hinshaw will want to test Ricardo Allen and his mates deep.
If UC starts grinding in the run game, or pops a big one up top to Moore Purdue will adjust their schemes. They will stack the box, or bring in their nickel, or change their pre snap looks in coverage. Anything to try to complicated the Bearcats process. Most every coordinator will keep a concept in his pocket for just the right moment in a given game. It could be a general idea (get player X the ball against defender Y) or a specific play gleaned from the hours of film study.
Part of the process of game planning and then going out and calling the plays is to see whether or not that card that they hold in their hand is good. They want the defense to be reacting in a specific way so that the final card in their hand is a good one. I wouldn't go so far as to say that the whole act of a game is about getting to play that final card. But part of playing the game is seeing whether or not
It will take a while for that process to play out. It could take a quarter, it could take three, but eventually the Bearcats will have to make another adjustment. If it were me, and it is definitely not, the last adjustment I make is to put Purdue's linebackers in coverage. More than that, I would make them chase Ralph David Abernathy IV around until they cramp up (which will definitely happen at some point).
I would put RDA4 in a never ending assortment of Jerk routes, stutters, slants, screens and drags until they stop him. RDA4 is the ultimate trump card in this match up. The area of the field where he can do the most damage in is the hardest area of the field for Purdue to defense. There are precious few linebackers in the country who can hang with Abernathy in coverage. All the evidence suggests that none of them play for Purdue, and that is a big check mark in UC's favor.
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