If you had told Joe Tiller in 1997 that he would be shuffling off this Big Ten coil before the conference's other patriarch named Joe, he probably would have been surprised. "You traveled back in time to tell me that?" he'd ask. "What the hell is wrong with you? Don't you have family members to warn or large New York buildings to save or something?" And then I'd ask "wait just a second, how do you know about the World Trade Center?" and he would go "uhhhhhh..." and I'd rip his face off, Mission Impossible style, and be confronted with the horrible truth:
So, yeah. Joe Tiller isn't going to coach football anymore and it's just as well because he's a time-traveling diabeetus alien. Also he throws hissy fits when Michigan hijacks his recruits at the last second.
Purdue's going with a peaceful transition of power, naming Eastern Kentucky head coach and former Boiler assistant Danny Hope as Tiller's heir apparent. But Danny Hope is another show. The current show is the meh end of the Tiller era. After a 9-4 2003 which saw the Boilers finish second in conference, Purdue has been locked into a cycle of mediocrity:
|2004||7-5||4-4||T-5th||L 23-27 Sun Bowl|
|2006||8-6||5-3||T-4th||L 7-24 Champs Sports Bowl|
|2007||8-5||3-5||T-7th||W 51-48 Motor City Bowl|
Please note than in 2005 and 2006, Michigan and Ohio State were off the schedule. This is not a team headed in the right direction, or any direction at all, really. Only a steady stream of puffball nonconference opponents has kept Purdue in the 7-9 win territory that has seemingly been their birthright since Tiller's arrival. (Even when they went to the Rose Bowl, Purdue finished 8-4.)
It's clear that off-field progress has stalled, but the canary in the coal mine for Purdue fans has to be the increasingly shaky recruiting of the Tiller regime as it skids to its unremarkable end. This is an excerpt from an SMQ table ordering all teams in order of average recruiting rankings over the past seven years. The leftmost year is 2002, the rightmost 2007. Interesting nearby teams are included:
Wisconsin and West Virginia certainly prove that recruiting is not the be-all and end-all, but USC, Georgia, and Oklahoma are at the top of this chart and Vandy, Indiana, and Kentucky are towards the bottom: it's an important factor in your team's success.
And what does it tell us about Purdue? Joe Tiller probably should have retired a couple years ago. The Boilers had a brief window in which they could snatch top-100 talent like Selwyn Lymon and Doug Van Dyke -- to name two highly-touted-if-star-crossed examples -- away from Michigan, but in 2006 recruiting dropped off a cliff and stayed there. Purdue's 2008 class checks in at #63, slightly ahead of Middle Tennessee and well behind Baylor. The post-cliff classes are the freshmen, sophomore, and juniors now, the large bulk of the team. Aside from the one or two guys even Indiana plucks out from underneath the big guys' noses, help is not coming. What you see returning will be what you get.
As you'll see, I see dead average people.
The numbers at right are impressive until you take a cursory look at the opponents they were run up against. Purdue missed two of the Big Ten's tougher defenses in Wisconsin and Illinois and put up big numbers against a soft candy fluffy hooray nonconference schedule: Toledo, Eastern Illinois, Central Michigan (twice!), and Notre Dame.
When the big boys came calling, Purdue's offense went and hid in a corner: seven points and under 300 yards against Ohio State. Seven meaningful points and about 150 yards of offense against Michigan before the second string came in up 48-7. Twelve points and no touchdowns against Penn State (Dorien Bryant returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown).
Unsurprisingly, these were all losses. Now, a lot of teams had trouble against the three defenses listed above. Few could muster only two meaningful touchdowns across three games. There seems to be something in the Purdue offense of late that prevents it from performing against top-notch defenses. Last year the Boilers scored three points total against Wisconsin and Penn State.
What are those things? Erratic QB play combined with an offense that requires a machine-like precision to jerk its way down the field, and that was with two bonafide playmakers in Bryant and Dustin Keller. This year a lot of field goal drives are in the offing.
Rating: 3. It's rare when an ESPN pundit causes me to re-evaluate what universe I might be in, but when Mel Kiper named Curtis Painter one of the top ten prospects for the 2009 NFL draft, I reacted... poorly:
The same cannot be said for Mel Kiper's top-rated senior quarterback for the 2009 NFL draft, Missouri's Chase Dan-- wait... what? CURTIS PAINTER?
I even had me some reasons:
Painter does have one thing in common with Ryan: an underwhelming passer efficiency rating (46th last year in Joe Tiller's QB-friendly system) against a wretched schedule. Outside of the Big Ten, Purdue went up against Notre Dame, Toledo, Eastern Illinois, and Central Michigan... twice.
Indeed, Painter's rates and ratios improved only marginally as a junior:
|Year||Comp %||YPA||TD:Int||Comp %||YPA||TD:Int|
Okay, some nominal improvement in completion percentage and a significant leap in TD-Int when the nummy soft nonconference schedule is taken into account. But it came at the expense of a full yard per attempt in conference play. Purdue finished last in the conference in YPA, with only moribund Iowa coming anywhere close.
Two major caveats to the above analysis:
- Michigan and Ohio State rotated back onto the schedule.
- Purdue was the pass-wackiest team in the league, calling 380 passes (most in conference) to 235 rushes (least in conference); many of Purdue's passes are designed to be short gains that substitute for the running game. The year before Tiller experimented with a relatively (for Purdue) run-heavy option game based on Nevada's weird "Pistol" formation that saw Purdue run almost exactly as much as they passed.
When you pass more your YPA goes down. Nash Equilibrium and all that. And when Michigan and Ohio State -- 1-2 in conference pass efficiency D last year -- show up on the schedule, your YPA goes down. Still, the picture painted is of a quarterback striving for adequacy and safety. To cut interceptions, make short, easy throws. This made for progress of a sort but was totally ineffective at moving the ball against defenses that don't run into each other on crossing routes and the like.
I think Purdue fans are at least partially with me on this. Boiled Sports took the baton handed to them when ESPN rated Curtis Painter the best quarterback in the Big Ten and jogged for a bit before slowing down and replying "what, seriously?"
In his Purdue preview, Pete Fuitak over at CFN thinks aloud that Painter's not as good as Brees, but is better than Orton. Honestly at this point in his career, I'd say Painter isn't as good as Brees or KO coming into his Senior year. But, he has one more season in black and gold to become one of the best QBs in the Cradle and definitely under Tiller. For that to happen, he has to learn how to look off of the first and second receivers and definitely NEEDS to beat some teams that are real contenders for the Big Ten title. I'm not saying he can't do it, but you might be dreaming if you think he definitely will.
I'm no dreamer. A realistic goal for Painter this year: don't backslide on his junior-year numbers against a much tougher schedule that replaces some random MACrifice with Oregon and features a Notre Dame team that doesn't figure to be the worst in school history. Be okay, and leave the Heisman to someone with moxie.
Tailback & Fullback
Rating: 3. Returning seniors Korey Sheets and Jaycen Taylor weren't touted recruits and aren't likely to be first-day NFL draft picks, but they've been productive platoon-mates the past two years. JUCO transfer Taylor is the nominal starter since Sheets has a nasty tendency to put the ball on the ground. Taylor is slightly shiftier and more likely to break a tackle and head into the open field; Sheets is slightly bigger and more likely to fall forward on third and short. As you can see at right, Taylor's headshot is way more awesome and nearly J Leman-worthy.
Off The Tracks notes Purdue's long history of tailback tandems and something else that may be of note going into the season: Sheets is the only player on the roster other than Greg Orton to feature regularly in the passing game last year. He had 30 receptions; Taylor chipped in with another eleven. With massive attrition in the receiving corps and few attractive options to replace the departed production, look for those numbers to increase significantly.
Other than that, there's no reason to expect anything other than more of the same here. Running backs rarely change much over their careers; variation in performance is usually due more to circumstance than anything else. Taylor and Sheets will split carries about evenly, average a shade under 5 YPC (they both did better than this last year, but injuries held them out of some of their tougher games and the schedule ramps up considerably this year), and be wholly average.
Wide Receiver & Tight Ends
Rating: 2. Painter's top targets are mostly gone. The zippy and productive Dorien Bryant, winner of last year's Brooks Bollinger Award for excellence in eighth-year seniority, has finally shuffled off to the end of an NFL roster. Tight end Dustin Keller went to the Jets at the end of the first round of the NFL draft. Promising sophomore Selwyn Lymon was booted after picking up his second DUI in under a year. Possession receiver Jake Standeford (who, yes, is a white guy) graduated. With them they take 230 of Purdue's 369 receptions elsewhere.
The bulk of the returning catches come from two sources: running backs and senior Greg Orton (right). Orton is a 6'2" leaper with mediocre speed in the mold of former Michigan wideout Marquise Walker, not quite fast enough to be a true vertical threat but still plenty dangerous on downfield jump balls. Last year he had 67 catches for 752 yards. That's a pedestrian 11.2 YPC, and that against an extremely forgiving schedule. Something else indicative of a lack of speed: Orton's three touchdowns came against Toledo, Eastern Illinois, and Central Michigan. He'll undoubtedly be Painter's main target and catch a ton of balls; he's unlikely to provide much after the catch.
Past him it's really dicey. Joe Whitest sounds like the perfect Purdue wide receiver, but 1) he's a black guy with dreads and 2) he's a redshirt senior JUCO transfer with one catch to his name. Senior Brandon Whittington also has one catch to his name and spent his redshirt freshman year at safety, making 15 tackles. By comparison, senior Desmond Tardy's 17 catches is a mountain of experience, but it's not good when the first comment on an Indy Star fluff piece on Tardy is this:
Man this dude fell off the map! I didn't even think he was playing anymore. But anyways, its good to hear he still there. Good luck this year!
Ouch. These are the three guys Painter cited as reasons the WR shortage was "no worry" for him.
Reinforcements are coming but they've been significantly whittled before they even reach campus. Rich Rodriguez infamously lifted Trotwood-Madison wide receiver Roy Roundtree -- according to Rivals, one of only two four-star recruits acquired by Purdue in 2008 -- from Tiller's clutches on Signing Day. Tiller would go on to rant about wizard hats and snake oil, Penn State fans would cluck disapprovingly in the face of a mountain of evidence that Penn State had no use for "gentlemen's agreements," and the internet was greatly entertained. Curtis Painter? Not so much. Adding injury to insult: leviathan (6'6") WR/TE combo Jordan Brewer failed to qualify.
The reinforcing regiment's remnants: a trio of JUCO wide receivers, one with three stars and the others with two. It appears only one had an outside offer, that from Rutgers. Aaron Valentin is that fellow's name, and he's been on campus since January. Chances are he's the #2 receiver.
It doesn't take much to be an effective Purdue wideout -- find the hole in the zone and catch the damn ball, basically -- but if there's no one who can turn five yards into fifteen that's a serious blow to Boiler hopes. A dropped ball here, a slant short of the sticks there, and Purdue's suddenly relying on Curtis Painter to be surgically precise.
Rating: 3. Purdue returns three starters, but all had offseason surgery and missed spring practice. Left tackle Sean Sester, one of the walking wounded, is getting mountains of hype -- Steele has him the #7 OT in the country, the Sporting News calls him an "unquestioned star and future pro". He's got a bulging disk in his back, however. If he's out there could be issues. The others returners are serviceable.
New right guard Justin Pierce started three games last year as a redshirt freshman when the starter went down and performed decently (I guess... Purdue's offense didn't roll over and die). Over the long haul he'll probably be pretty good; "adequate" is probably a good word to describe him this year. Center may be problematic, with a defensive lineman (Jared Zwilling) competing with senior Cory Benton.
I won't spin a web of words that makes it sound like I have any particular insight here. I believe Sester's pretty good and that it doesn't matter much in Purdue's quick-fire offense; I'm leery of a line with three starters who missed spring and may have issues that linger into the fall; I like guys who push into the lineup early in their careers like Pierce; I don't think center's hugely important, especially to Purdue. IMO: MOTS. Decent enough pass blocking with some leakiness at RT, good enough to crack open middleweight Big Ten defenses, mostly overrun by the big guys.
Much, much better statistically after two straight years of misery but with some major warning flags. Three teams from the state of Michigan put up 48 on the Boilers. Michigan with a healthy Henne, okay. Michigan State -- surprisingly, the top-scoring team in the league last year -- okay. Central Michigan? Er. Especially after playing them earlier in the year and giving up 22.
It's hard to tease out any trends from the statistics. Michigan did whatever they wanted, passing and running with equal ease. State got an excellent day from Brian Hoyer but was mediocre on the ground, averaging 3.3 YPC even when QB sacks aren't considered. Dan "I've Got" LeFevour shredded Purdue by land and air, netting over 400 yards of total offense by himself. In other games: Purdue let Indiana's Marcus Thigpen run wild, got all kinds of torched by Minnesota and Penn State's ground games, and gave up almost 400 yards passing to Notre Dame(!).
I guess what I'm saying is this: I don't believe the stats at right much. Purdue was clearly better, but they weren't good, and there's been enough attrition that further progress is questionable.
Rating: 3. Out are defensive ends Cliff Avril and Eugene Bright; back are tackles Alex Magee and Ryan Baker.
Avril capably stepped into the void created by Anthony Spencer's one-man heroics on Purdue's awful 2006 defense, racking up 6.5 sacks and 15 TFLs en route to being drafted by the Lions in the third round. (A moment of silence for his career, if you would.) Bright split time with junior Keyon Brown and had a decent season as a pass rusher.
Despite being the nominal starter, Brown -- who "enjoys sports" according to perhaps the least enlightening biographical tidbit in the history of biographical tidbits -- did nothing in particular to impress until the bowl game, when he picked up 2.5 of his 3.5 sacks on the year. As a irt sophomore stuck behind a pair of fairly productive elders there's reason to believe he'll pick his game up; "how much" is the eternally unanswerable question of season previews.
Replacing Avril will be true sophomore Ryan Kerrigan, who picked up 18 tackles as a freshman. Playing as a true freshman is usually an excellent sign for your future, but given Purdue's documented recruiting troubles he could be the best of the 50 cent prizes. A meh recruit from Muncie with mostly MAC offers (Cincinnati and Indiana were his only other BCS offers); ESPN said "he's not going to wow anyone on either side of the ball" before defaulting into platitudes about versatility and production. Even if Kerrigan is one of the guys the recruiting services overlook, he's unlikely to defy those ratings just a year after they were made. Expect him to be a major step down.
At DT, Baker (pictured) and Magee return. So does top backup Mike Neal. Baker was a highly decorated recruit and the subject of an elaborate, elongated battle between Purdue and Notre Dame. He's also a nice guy. In two years of starting, however, he hasn't made much of a difference on the field, with just 22 tackles and four TFLs last year. (He did have a good number of sacks last year.) Baker's slightly undersized at "just" 280 pounds; sometimes you can get away with that at defensive tackle but it's hard to when you're also 6'5". Leverage: Baker does not haz it.
The Sporting News claims Magee will be a "future pro"; I am not so sure. I didn't call out Purdue DTs by name in last year's UFR, but they did show up frequently. A sampling:
Kraus shoves the backside DT, then immediately releases to the second level. Long slants inside, getting in front of the DT and sort of sumo-ing him downfield. ... Kraus(+2) owns the frontside DT here, pancaking him and creating the room Hart exploits ... Boren(+1) gets control of the DT, stalemates him at the line, and seals him away from Hart ... Another cutback run for Brown keyed by the backside DT getting chopped to the ground.
There were some good plays interspersed but they mostly came when the zone scheme had Schilling attempting a tough reach block. By the time Mike Hart sprained his ankle late in the first half, he had 102 yards on 21 carries; Carlos Brown would add 64 yards on 13 more in the second half after Brandon Minor also went out with injury. And this was a decidedly poor Michigan interior line.
It's no wonder, then, that Purdue was eighth in the league in run defense, seventh in YPC. Much of the blame falls here, and the most blameless guy is off to the NFL.
Rating: 3. Before last season, Joe Tiller predicted that converted running back Anthony Heygood (pictured) would be the team's best linebacker; based on that prediction I predicted that Purdue's linebackers wouldn't be much good.
We were both right. Heygood turned in a good year, picking up 15 TFLs amongst 81 tackles and getting named honorable mention All Big Ten. Purdue's other linebackers had 14 TFLs amongst them and, with some assistance from the meh defensive tackles, contributed to Purdue's poor run defense. Dan Bick did chip in four sacks.
So it's either no big deal all these guys are gone or disturbing that no one on the team could push any of the three medicore seniors. There's little mystery as to who the replacements will be: Jason Werner will start at one outside position and Kevin Green will be the middle linebacker. Werner's a redshirt junior who spent his freshman year at safety, missed his sophomore year with a back injury, and finally got on the field last year, picking up 28 tackles as a reserve. A possible indicator of success: he won the defense's "most improved player" award in spring. He was a moderately touted recruit and got the most effusive praise of all Purdue players this spring; watch him for a possible breakout.
Green, meanwhile, could be dodgy. There's been talk of moving Heygood to the middle because Green may not be big enough to handle it. This was Brock Spack's take in spring:
"He's got to take another jump to be ready to be a full-time (middle) linebacker in this league," Spack said.
Heygood claimed Green made "lots of strides in the weight room" this offseason and all but anointed him the starter; the jury remains undecided.
Rating: 3.5. Purdue's secondary took a great leap forward from 2006, when a hodgepodge of unregarded freshmen and JUCO transfers were torched time and again. Purdue's pass efficiency defense went from 81st to 31st, and that renaissance extended to the conference schedule, where Purdue finished behind only Michigan and Ohio State.
However, the two best members of the Purdue secondary have departed. Cornerback Terrell Vinson was Purdue's leading tackler a year ago, normally a bad sign but here possibly indicative of a guy not quite good enough to handle the opponent's top receiver. Three sacks and five interceptions are good numbers to offset the tackles.
Returning at corner are David Pender, a junior baptized by fire two years ago and seven-game starter in 2007, and Royce Adams (right), another junior who's seen fire and brimstone in the sky. Though Adams appears to be moving backwards after starting 12 games as a freshman and only 5 as a sophomore, third corners still get plenty of time and he had a hand in Purdue's substantial improvement. Pender can make a similar claim.
As far as recruiting went: Pender's only other major offer was from Illinois, then in "please, God, someone come to our school" mode. Adams, on the other hand, got offers from a wide array of midlevel schools and was rumored to be on the verge of an Ohio State offer before committing to Purdue.
At safety, redshirt junior Brandon King returns. After a year of special teams and an odd sophomore year redshirt (after winning the Most Improved Player spring award, no less) he was steady and unremarkable, but that's what you want first-year starting safeties to be. Torrii Williams returns for his fourth straight year of off-field trouble and injuries. At this point projecting him to do anything between the sidelines is ludicrously optimistic, but everyone still projects him to be the starting strong safety. If it's not him it'll probably be sophomore Josh McKinley.
There's reason to be optimistic about the starting corners; lack of depth and Williams' questionable status are significant drawbacks. Though Purdue was third in the conference in pass efficiency defense last year they were closer to seventh than second, and they'll do well to hold their ground this year.
Rating: 4. 2007's best evidence that kickers are weird, weird people could be found in West Lafayette. Chris Summers went 18 for 22 a year after killing several people with errant 29-yard attempts in his 8-for-20 sophomore year. What will he do in his finale? Eh, who knows, but when in doubt go with the most recent performance.
Punter Jared Armstrong is gone; it's MGoBlog policy not to speculate on kickers who haven't seen the field due to their excessive weirdness.
Dorien Bryant's loss will be felt here as well. As noted above, he had a kick return touchdown and helped Purdue to 16th nationally in that statistic; as a punt returner he was decidedly average, however. Purdue will probably draft one of the receivers down the roster or a defensive back to take over and they'll be okay.
Assuming Summers maintains his level of performance, that alone is worthy of a 4 if you assume all other things will be basically okay.
The theory of turnover margin: it is nearly random. Teams that find themselves at one end or the other at the end of the year are highly likely to rebound towards the average. So teams towards the top will tend to be overrated and vice versa. Nonrandom factors to evaluate: quarterback experience, quarterback pressure applied and received, and odd running backs like Mike Hart who just don't fumble.
|2006||Int +||Fumb +||Sacks +||Int -||Fumb -||Sacks -|
|0.08 (51st)||14||13||2.31 (41st)||13||13||1.92 (51st)|
With a margin near zero and fairly average quarterback pressure, Purdue was unaffected by turnover luck. Painter's a year more experienced, but quarterback pressure will likely be harder to come by; expect a repeat in 2008.
Position Switch Starters
Theory of position switches: if you are starting or considering starting a guy who was playing somewhere else a year ago, that position is in trouble. There are degrees of this. When Notre Dame moved Travis Thomas, a useful backup at tailback, to linebacker and then declared him a starter, there was no way that could end well. Wisconsin's flip of LB Travis Beckum to tight end was less ominous because Wisconsin had a solid linebacking corps and Beckum hadn't established himself on that side of the ball. Michigan flipping Prescott Burgess from SLB to WLB or PSU moving Dan Connor inside don't register here: we're talking major moves that indicate a serious lack somewhere.
Anthony Heygood might move inside if Kevin Green can't handle it, and center is being contested by a defensive lineman. Nothing too serious; a couple warning flags.
Purdue is fortunate to miss the ground-and-pound offenses of Illinois and Wisconsin and will probably be a game better in the Big Ten for it.
Notre Dame 2008 figures to be considerably better than Notre Dame 2007; I don't know if anyone knows what to expect from Oregon minus Dixon, Stewart, and the host of explosive offensive players that are burned into Michigan fan retinas... but I expect they'll be considerably more talented than Purdue.
An Embarrassing Prediction, No Doubt
The defense remains moderately stiff, with a pair of senior defensive tackles backed by a suprisingly good linebacking corps and a solid secondary. Pass rush remains hard to find, keeping Purdue at a level below "great" but the unit is reminscent of the hard-nosed units earlier this decade.
Painter, meanwhile, makes a great leap forward, finding all manner of mediocre receivers to throw to, and the offense is slightly better than it was last year. It still won't be enough against the three or four beastly defenses they'll come across, and with Notre Dame on the upswing(?) and Oregon making an unwelcome appearance, 8-4 seems to be about the ceiling.
Purdue's offense isn't going to implode as long as the line returns to full health; it could be sluggish, though, if the receiving corps fails to find a secondary option behind Orton. Meanwhile, if the outside linebackers and the defensive ends fail to find a player or two the run defense could revert to the horror show it was a couple years ago; this is an especially bad time to be stiff up the middle but shaky on the edges.
5-7 is a possibility; Purdue doesn't figure to be much better than they were last year and 2-2 OOC is suddenly likely.
I'm done predicting offensive explosions from West Lafeyette and don't much believe in Curtis Painter, whose numbers last year were a mirage built on sheer repetition and wretched opponents. The massive attrition in the wide receiver corps should see Greg Orton fight double teams all year; chances are one guy will step up to be a decent secondary target.
However, Purdue had a couple guys last year that could take safe passes and turn them into big gains. While discussing the departed Dustin Keller, Boiler offensive coordinator Ed Zaunbrecher acknowleges this may not be the case in 2008:
Dustin was a guy that made a lot of plays after the catch. We'll have to see if anybody else can do things. You don't get too many guys with that type of physical ability at that position. That means we might have to complete a couple extra passes to move down the field, but we can still move it down the field.
I don't see where the extra YPA is going to come from even if Painter's often questionable accuracy improves.
Purude's offense should be slightly better than it was last year, capable of running up big numbers against befuddled MAC teams and Minnesota but just short of utterly ineffective against defenses with real bite.
Defensively, the Purdue secondary looks to be in its best shape in a long time. There are 3-5 veterans who greatly contributed to Purdue's considerable leap forward in pass defense. The front seven, however, looks to replace four starters and has only a few plausible players to fill in the gaps. Werner looks like a good bet; the defensive ends and Green not so much. Pressure will be hard to come by and performance should dip.
The following schedule guess comes with the extreme caveat that other than Michigan and Purdue I haven't taken a hard look at anyone on it:
|9/1||Northern Colorado||Functional DNP|
|9/15||Central Michigan||Probable win|
|11/10||@ Notre Dame||Tossup|
|9/22||Penn State||Probable loss|
|9/29||@ Ohio State||Auto-loss|
|11/3||@ Iowa||Probable win|
Looks like 4-4 in the Big Ten and 3-1 outside of it: 7-5 it is for Tiller's final season. I'm rooting for a CMU rematch in the Motor City Bowl.
Here's a bonus prediction: Painter, Orton, both RBs, both DTs, Heygood, and some other guys are gone after this year and all but the fifth-year seniors will be members of the Purdue Recruiting Cliff; Danny Hope's opening year is likely to be unpleasant.