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Posted on Tue. Sep. 02, 2014 - 12:01 am EDT

Purdue's Kugler turns transition theory into reality

Junior center builds power-and-size edge

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In a previous football life, when Robert Kugler caught passes from quarterbacks instead of blocking for them, he was a tight end with a huge upside.

That was 60 pounds and 27 Purdue football games ago.

Now, he's a two-time Academic Big Ten center who rates among the nation's best at his position (see Rimington Trophy Watch List as proof) entering Saturday's game against Central Michigan (1-0).

What changed?

Need equals willingness equals ability equals production.

Granted, it's not as sexy as, say, E=mc2, but that misses the point, which is, in 2012, the Boilers had enough quality tight ends. They had offensive line needs, particularly at center. They wanted a smart, tough, athletic guy with an open mind.

Enter Kulger, a redshirt freshman.

Twenty starts later, everybody is happy.

“In theory, if you bring a tight end's athleticism to center, you've got something special -- if the guy can make the transition,” Kugler says.

It took Kugler six games to transition theory into production. He started the final seven games of his redshirt freshman season, then all 12 last year. He was good enough last year to earn team offensive MVP honors. Centers win that about as often as Pink sings opera.

Now, he's better than ever.

“I don't think Kugler needs to do anything more than he's done for the last four or five weeks,” coach Darrell Hazell says. “He's done an excellent job. He is the quarterback of our offensive line. He makes all the offensive line calls.

“He's playing so much more physical. He's put on 15 solid pounds from last year. He's playing with greater balance. I love the way he's playing. I really love his communication and leadership skills.”

Let's dig deeper into that weight gain. Kugler is listed at 6-3 and 298 pounds. Getting bigger was a top priority in his position transition, but it was more than just size. It was building strength to handle that size while keeping as much as his quickness and athleticism as he could.

“For a while, I felt like a fat guy who put on weight and was trying to block guys,” he says. “Some guys were able to overpower me. I'm not going to let that happen this year. I feel better about it now.

“In the off-season I put in so much work. I reached the goals I wanted to. I got to some bench marks a Division I offensive lineman should be at.”

For instance?

“I wanted to get over a 400-pound bench and a 300-pound clean and a 600-pound squat. I was able to do all three of those. I've got up a lot in every lift.

“When I got here, I wasn't very strong. With all the work, it's been worth it.”

Quarterback Danny Etling is a big beneficiary.

“He's a big role model for me on how to work. He taught me when it came down to learning protections and defensive fronts and preparing for games. He's been very helpful in how to manage the college football level. He's big in leading the team and the entire offense.”

Leading comes with perspective. Kugler makes all the offensive line calls (he focus on how the front seven defensive players are lined up), but Etling makes the protection calls (he's analyzing the secondary).

What happens if Kugler sees one thing and Etling another?

“The quarterback has the trump card,” Kugler says. “He has the final say. Most of the time, we're on the same page. Sometimes we get to the line of scrimmage and there's time to adjust. At times we're trying to go quick and there's no time. You just have to react to it.

“When we're on the same page, we can get stuff done.”

Take, for instance, Saturday's Western Michigan victory. Kugler anchored a line that helped Purdue gain 226 rushing yards while not allowing a sack.

Yes, it helps to have Raheem Mostert and Akeem Hunt, as explosive a pair of running backs as you'll see in the Big Ten. Mostert rushed for 146 yards and a touchdown. Hunt added 78 yards.

Still, if you can't get them in space, you're in trouble.

Purdue hopes to get Central Michigan, which edged Chattanooga 20-16 in its opener, in plenty of trouble on Saturday. The same is true for every opponent. The Boilers (1-0) have matched last season's victory total, and they have no intention of stopping there.

“We never want to let that happen again,” Kugler says about last season's 1-11 struggles. “That was very painful. It was awful. It is motivation to do better.”

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