Compared to 2013, 2014 was actually a fairly decent season for Purdue football...but that has more to do with Purdue being awful in 2013 than 2014 being good. 2013 Purdue went 1-11, with the lone victory coming against a 1-AA team that also went 1-11. So a 3-9 record in 2014 showed improvement, especially in putting a scare into Notre Dame and Minnesota. And with 15 returning starters, how much will Purdue improve in 2015?
Much of Purdue's improvement occurred when Danny Etling was benched in favor of Austin Appleby. Etling was handed the starting job in 2013 as a true freshman against the Huskers, but after the Boilermakers lost badly to Iowa last season, the switch was made... and the offense improved dramatically. Purdue beat Illinois in Appleby's first start, looked respectable against Michigan State, then nearly pulled off the road upset at Minnesota. Etling hung around through the spring, but when it was clear he wasn't going to beat out Appleby, he transferred to LSU in June. So now it's Appleby's job to lose. The 6'5" 229 lb. junior only completed 52.9% of his passes for ten touchdowns but 11 interceptions. Appleby's mobility allows him to evade a few sacks, and even generate a little offense with his feet; he gained 292 yards on the ground last season with five touchdowns. (That 6.0 yards per carry average looks pretty nice.) In preseason practice, redshirt freshman David Blough (6'1" 202 lbs) is taking reps with the first team offense after having a great performance in the spring game. Travis Miller of our SBN sister site Hammer and Rails says that Blough reminds him of Drew Brees. While Appleby likely starts the season opener at Marshall, don't be surprised if Blough gets the call at some point this season. (Purdue has a bye the week before Nebraska visits on Halloween, which might be the perfect time to make a quarterback change, if one hasn't already been made.)
With the graduation of Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert, Purdue is starting over from scratch at running back in 2015. Last year's third string running back, sophomore Keyante Green (5'9" 219 lbs.) rushed for 199 yards on 27 carries last season, but looks like he'll remain third string in 2015. Sophomore D.J. Knox (5'7" 200 lbs.) looks to be set as the top running back at the start of the season. The coaches seem convinced Knox gives Purdue the biggest game-breaking threat; head coach Darrell Hazel went so far as to call Knox a future "elite back" after the spring game. True freshman Markell Jones (5'11" 205 lbs.) enrolled in January and looks to be second on the depth chart after being named Indiana's state high school player of the year last fall.
One reason to be optimistic about the potential of Knox is that the entire two-deep returns on the offensive line, led by senior center Robert Kugler (6'3" 294 lbs.), a three year starter and third-team preseason all-Big Ten honoree by Phil Steele. In 2013, Purdue's offensive line was essentially a tire fire of suck, but improved last year to the point that SBN's Bill Connelly called them "solid" in his advanced stats. And that was with three sophomores (right tackle Jordan Roos at 6'4" 312 lbs, left guard Jason King at 6'4" 305 lbs., and J.J. Prince at 6'6" 297 lbs.) being added to the offensive line. Now, add in redshirt freshman Martesse Patterson (6'3" 345 lbs.) who pushed his way into the starting lineup this spring, and Purdue looks to have one of the more solid offensive lines in the Big Ten.
Senior wide receiver Danny Anthrop (6'0" 191 lbs.) was having a really productive season (38 catches for 616 yards and four touchdowns) until he tore his ACL in the fourth quarter against Nebraska. (His girlfriend didn't fare much better that day; Purdue volleyball player Amanda Neill broke her nose that evening in a match against Minnesota.) Anthrop was the one deep threat and clearly the biggest playmaker in the Boilermakers' passing attack, and when he went down, so did the Purdue offense. DeAngelo Yancey (6'2" 223 lbs.) regressed from a 32 catch, 546 yard freshman season (including a 55 yard touchdown against Nebraska) to just 12 catches for 147 yards as a sophomore. It's not like he didn't have his chances last season (51 passes were thrown his way); he just didn't make the catch most of the time. A couple of junior college transfers are being counted on to reel in some deep passes: sophomore Anthony Mahoungou (6'3" 200 lbs.) and junior Domonique Young (6'4" 195 lbs.) each caught nine touchdown passes last season.
Purdue's defense also improved in 2014 as the season continued - and that was with a bit of a youth movement underway. Up front, Purdue will be led by junior defensive tackle Jake Replogle (6'5" 275 lbs.) who had 40 tackles (ten for a loss) last season. He started slowly as a sophomore as he pressed early in the season and grew in confidence up. He's a little undersized in the middle, but if he picks up where he left off last season, he should be solid. Senior nose guard Ryan Watson (6'2" 298 lbs) only had 15 tackles last season, but four were sacks, which the most on the team. Both defensive end positions will be a huge question mark at the start of the season. Sophomore Gelen Robinson (6'1" 250 lbs.) looked to be a lock to start until his June arrest for operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol. That arrest, when combined with a consumption charge from last summer, has resulted in a two-to-four game suspension for the talented son of former NBA and Purdue star Glenn Robinson. Junior Evan Panfil (6'5" 262 lbs.) is expected to start on the other side, with sophomore Antoine Miles (6'3" 236 lbs.) and junior college transfer Shayne Henly (6'3" 250 lbs.) taking Robinson's spot. Panfil played sparingly last year while Miles didn't at all. (Recruitniks who remember Miles' brief commitment to Nebraska in 2012 get a gold star.) Clearly, Robinson's availability is one of the key things to watch in September.
Injuries forced Purdue to turn to sophomore linebackers Ja'Whaun Bentley (middle linebacker, 6'2" 260 lbs.) and Danny Ezechukwu (weakside linebacker, 6'2" 246 lbs.) as freshmen. They'll enter 2015 as much more experienced and should benefit from the experience. Bentley was the second leading tackler on the team last season with 76 while splitting his time between the weakside and middle linebacker positions. Junior strongside linebacker Jimmy Herman (6'4" 230 lbs.) battled a thumb injury early in the season but still finished fourth on the team with tackles with 56. Ezechukwu had to pick up linebacker on the fly last season, so a full season of seasoning should really benefit him. This is another position where things are looking up for Purdue in 2015.
Purdue's secondary defended the pass fairly well in 2014, but will need to replace both safeties in 2015. The good news is that both cornerbacks return. Senior Frankie Williams (5'9" 190 lbs.) was a second team all-Big Ten honoree last season after a 71 tackle, three interception season in 2014. He's not the biggest corner out there, but he's definitely the star entering the season on defense. Senior Anthony Brown (5'11" 190 lbs.) added 54 tackles and 10 pass breakups last season. Keep an eye on redshirt freshman safety Brandon Roberts (5'11" 174 lbs.) who looks to be making a bid to start right away along side junior Leroy Clark (5'10" 190 lbs.)
It was easy to joke about "PurDon't" in 2013; the Boilermakers were awful that season. But last year, Purdue was competitive in several conference games until Danny Anthrop tore his ACL. Many people predict Purdue might win five games, but I put their ceiling higher. I won't be surprised if the Boilers pull off a conference upset or two this season, and if they do that, they'll be playing in a bowl game.