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Purdue braces for Year Two of the Darrell Hazell era and this much we know -- up front is key.
Specifically, the offensive and defensive lines must play better. If they do, Purdue will make a major jump from last year's patsy status. If not, well, nobody wearing Old Gold and Black think likes that.
Last year's struggling offensive line play was reflected in the 38 quarterback sacks allowed and numerous quarterback hits. The defense, meanwhile, had just 14 sacks and rarely pressured the quarterback.
The result was a 1-11 record that satisfied no one, and Hazell made that point to the Boilers after the season.
“We had a very in-depth meeting,” he said. “We laid out some things, that the strong have to overtake the weak, and the right has to overtake the wrong.
“Our guys completely dove in. It's a great environment that starts with trust. Coaches trust players and players trust coaches.”
Trust leads to Monday's official start of practice. Ask Hazell where the biggest improvement has to come and he doesn't hesitate.
“It's up front for both sides of the ball. Obviously, we didn't play as well as we'd like to up front on the defensive line last year. We lost the edge way too many times. We have to be more sound, more gap sound.
“As far as the offensive line, we have some very good young quarterbacks in our program. We have to be able to pass protect and protect those guys.
“If we can do those two things, we'll have some success.”
Offensive line talk starts with center Robert Kugler, a 6-3, 284-pound junior good enough to have made the Rimington Trophy Watch List. The award goes annually to the nation's top center.
“Kugler has to be the anchor on the offensive line,” Hazell said. “There are so many guys on the line. That's our biggest question mark -- finding out who offensive tackle will be? Who our right guard is going to be? Kugler keeps those guys together.”
Those “other guys” are right guards Jordan Roos and Corey Clements, right tackle J.J. Prince, left guards Jason King and Cameron Cermin, and left tackles Jack DeBoef and Joey Warburg.
“We have some solutions,” Hazell said. “I feel good about left guard, center and right tackle. I think the combination of two guys at right guard could be the solution. Then we'll figure out who the best left tackle will be, which is obviously a key position, pretty quickly.”
The 6-8, 400-pound Clements is an intriguing prospect.
“He's going play right guard,” Hazell said. “He's one of the largest players in college football. I was watching him condition (earlier) and I was very impressed.”
Another newcomer, true freshman Bearooz Yacoobi, is a 6-5, 282-pounder out of Michigan with a big upside. He has a shot to move up the depth chart fast.
“He's very athletic,” Hazell said. “He's not as strong as you'd like as an incoming guy, but he has arms of a 6-6, 6-7 guy. That always helps at that position. He'll battle. We'll have to give him some help with the tight end and sometimes with the running back.”
As far as the defensive line, senior end Ryan Russell needs to step up after a sluggish season in the aftermath of Danny Hope's firing and Hazell's hiring. He had 35 tackles, including 5.5 for loss last season.
Sophomore nose tackle Ra'Zahn Howard must turn his youthful potential into production. Sophomore End Jake Replogle has bulked up while retaining his quickness and aggressive mindset. And while 6-4, 260-pound senior Jalani Phillips is listed as the Jack linebacker starter, he could easily move to end.
“They've all stepped up,” Hazell said. “We've simplified it for them and asked them to get lined up running the ball, and stay in your gap. We've made it simple for them.
“Ryan Russell had a great spring. Ra'Zahn was extremely explosive inside, created a lot of havoc. Jake Replogle put on 30 pounds, which is phenomenal. He plays so hard. Jalani is a different guy than seven months ago. Those front four are pretty good.”