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Gold and Black Illustrated, Vol 28 Digital 3

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Page 17 of 81

GOLD AND BLACK ILLUSTRATED VOLUME 28, ISSUE 3 18 progress and, maybe, earn a couple more victories; the third to truly emerge, qualify for a bowl and show potential to be a regular postseason attendee. But Brohm, his staff and the 2017 roster just shattered that slow-growth model. Now, outward expectations are raised. Now, the fanbase is expecting a second year of only greater heights. Just like Bailey, and probably, some of his returning teammates and former teammates. Senior captain Danny Ezechukwu said he sees no reason Purdue can't win eight — one more than 2017, obviously — next year. Now, the chatter is about how long Purdue can keep Brohm on its sidelines, about the importance of keeping the assistant coaching staff intact, fear creeping in about whether co-defensive coordinator and play-caller Nick Holt would bolt for a head coaching job. Will they all stay and keep building? Because, make no mistake, there still is building to be done. A team that'd won only nine games over four years and none in November clearly was a rebuilding project. That didn't mean the cupboard was bare from a tal- ent standpoint. It just meant Brohm, Holt and the rest of the staff needed to maximize every ounce that was on the roster. And they did. The defense was so impressive not only because Holt had the perfect scheme to suit Purdue's strength — its front seven — or, even, because he shifted players into positions that best-suited them (Gelen Robinson at tackle, Ezechukwu at rush end). It was because the players with talent delivered when the Boilermakers desperately need- ed them to. A former coach had a saying — "A players must get As." That absolutely happened … under the new staff's coaching on defense. Brohm's offensive genius showed up, largely, this season in his ability to manipulate and scheme around defenses just enough to produce just enough points. He knew, going in, he'd have to work around deficiencies on the offensive line and receiver — why else did he bring in so many transfers at those positions? — and he wasn't quite sure what he had at quarterback, either, which is why there was so much back-and-forth at the position through the first half of the year. But, still, he was able to scheme enough, to get just enough. Can he do that again? With more questions looming at those same spots, line and receiver, and an interesting co- nundrum now at quarterback? And, the bigger question for 2018 may be, can Holt? Because it's almost a role reversal for Year 2. The experienced defense from this season now will be forced to replace seven starters and, likely, a key backup defensive tackle. While the offense will have the experi- ence, expected to return most of its key pieces, including quarterbacks David Blough and Elijah Sindelar, the top four running backs, the top two tight ends and four-of-five starting linemen. So is this when Holt proves (again) his worth, by (again) transforming a unit that won't have much expect- ed of it into one that can be consistently productive? The improvement from that unit in 2017 was mind-blowing. Even though Holt did everything he could to load up to stop the run — putting eight men in the box often by bringing one safety down — Purdue still had to deliver. And it did, including in the finale against Arizona QB Khalil Tate, who entered the game averaging 10-plus yards per carry. He managed only 2.9 yards per carry as the Wildcats, who entered the game with one of the nation's top rushing of- fenses, had only 128 yards total on 43 carries, three yards per attempt. Now, Holt will have to work his magic with a unit that doesn't appear to have many potential stars. Bailey is a no-doubter. Jacob Thieneman, who will be a senior, is a consistent, steady presence at safety. Junior-to-be Lorenzo Neal has shown flashes of dominance but must increase his fitness to get more snaps — because Purdue will need him on the field a lot. Otherwise? Holt hopes the three linebackers who played this sea- son as true freshmen, Derrick Barnes, Tobias Larry and Cornel Jones, can take big steps as sophomores. He'll need underclassmen to emerge to fill both starting cor- nerback spots, and perhaps Jacob Abrams, Kenneth Major and Dedrick Mackey can fight for those. He'll desperate- ly need to find multiple players to fill large holes up front — and he'll have few experienced options to choose from there, though end Kai Higgins has played some and could morph into a nice rush-end prospect. At least Holt can take solace that a culture shift started this season.

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