By CLIFF BRUNT
Is it strange to tell fans to get excited and hold their horses at the same time?
Yes, it’s strange. And yes, that’s what I’m telling Purdue’s football fans.
The excitement swirling around the program is sky high heading into Saturday’s opener at Cincinnati, and Hazell is the main reason. USA Today recently named him one of the five coaches you need to know in college football. His business-like demeanor is just right for fans yearning for a return to the glorious early days of Joe Tiller and a team that has been mistake prone in recent years.
Hazell’s hire signaled the end of the hoping-to-be-good era at Purdue. Morgan Burke spent the cash on him and gave him the financial backing to draw solid assistant coaches and keep them — support Danny Hope said was lacking for him.
But Hazell is a first-year coach who still has Hope’s players. So what’s fair to expect this year? Well, here are some factors.
The change in the atmosphere of Purdue football was noticeable during the first of Hazell’s Tuesday press conferences this week. He speaks less than Tiller or Hope, but offers just as much of a sense of where things are going. He seemed comfortable in a suit and tie, and his players were dressed up too, giving off the signal that they are an extension of the coach. So the players at least appear to respect their leader.
We know that Purdue has one of the nation’s toughest schedules. We know the Boilermakers could play well and lose six of its first seven games, and possibly all of them, depending on how good Indiana State is. There’s not a pushover in the bunch. Cincinnati won 10 games last year and has a winning tradition and a very good coach in Tommy Tuberville. Indiana State is dangerous, with running back Shakir Bell capable of doing plenty of damage. Then, there’s a trip to Wisconsin and a visit by Notre Dame. The Boilermakers then host Northern Illinois, which just went to the Orange Bowl last year and returns fringe Heisman candidate Jordan Lynch at quarterback. Then, there’s a visit from Nebraska, with its sea of red and Heisman candidate Taylor Martinez. Then, there’s a trip to Michigan State. The kindest weeks on the schedule might be the open dates on Oct. 5 and Oct. 26.
We know that Purdue is relatively fast as a team. A year ago, everybody was talking about the team’s speed. Hope succeeded in improving the athletic ability in the program. Where he failed was molding those athletes into better football players. Hope would probably tell you it was because of the assistant coaching situation, and maybe that played a role. Here’s the real deal: Hope went into Florida and took in a lot of raw talent that wasn’t as skilled as the top recruits, but had the potential. When you recruit those kinds of players, you have to coach them up. You have to get them to buy into the system. You must develop enough players so that, in crunch time against Ohio State or Notre Dame, someone will make the play.
It isn’t so much that Purdue has lacked talent. It’s that the talent Hope brought in didn’t get better as was projected, and the team didn’t have players with the right mental makeup to make plays with the game on the line. We’ll see how Hazell does with that.
There are signs that something might be brewing with the talent, too. Gary Bush is the team’s top returning receiver, yet he’s not a starter — B.J. Knauf is slotted in his place. The No. 2 returning receiver, Dolapo Macarthy, is behind both Shane Mikesky and freshman DeAngelo Yancey on the depth chart. Those are good signs, though Hazell, ever sporting the poker face, didn’t make a big deal about it when asked on Tuesday.
We can expect solid play from the quarterback. Rob Henry is one of the most mentally tough players Purdue has had in recent years. If the ball is in his hands at crunch time, the Boilermakers will have a chance. We know he is an exceptional runner. If he truly is an improved passer, he’s capable of having the kind of senior year Joey Elliott had in 2009.
We can expect a greater sense of urgency from the defense. Ricardo Allen, Purdue’s honors candidate at cornerback, said the Boilermakers are more confident because of their close calls against Ohio State and Notre Dame last year. Yes, the Boilermakers failed to make the defensive plays late in both games, but carrying a chip from those kinds of situations into your offseason can have quite an impact on your offseason workouts. And they know the cost of not making those stops. This will be perhaps Hazell’s biggest challenge — pulling the best out of these guys in clutch situations.
Expect big things from running back Akeem Hunt if the Boilermakers can put him into position to succeed. That means they have to block for him and be in games so they don’t have to ditch their running game early. Akeem Shavers should have been a 1,000-yard back last year, but he wasn’t because the Boilermakers spent so much time coming from behind. Hunt has a similar ability level. He had a big spring game, and Hazell is high on him.
Expect the Boilermakers to be more disciplined and make fewer mistakes. Last year, Hazell’s Kent State squad forced 38 turnovers and committed just 18. Purdue threw 14 interceptions last season, fumbled 27 times and lost 13 of them. Overall, Purdue committed two more turnovers than its opponents. I expect that Purdue will be at least 50/50 this season.
My overall expectation is that Purdue will be a better football team, but it will have a worse record than last year’s 6-7 squad. The Boilermakers will be a thorn in the side for the big boys. They will be respected, even when they lose. Opposing coaches will tell their players every week to ignore Purdue’s record because Purdue is a good football team. Teams will be happy to leave West Lafayette, but they will probably leave with wins more often than not.
Most of all, what you can expect is for the Boilermakers to field a team that the fans can be proud of. So Purdue fans, don’t bail, even if the team loses some games early — and it probably will. The program appears ready to move in the right direction, so stick with it. You should keep watching so when the program gets rolling in a few years, you can tell all your friends you knew it all along.