After making huge defensive strides, Boilermakers will count on new crew

In Purdue coach Jeff Brohm’s first season, the Boilermakers made significant strides on defense and finished with a winning record. There’s also a renewed interest from the fan base in the program.

Jeff Brohm arrived at Purdue last season with a well-earned reputation as an offensive workhorse.

As a three-year starting quarterback at Louisville, he threw for 5,451 yards and 38 touchdowns. After seven years as an NFL backup, he got into coaching at his alma mater in Bobby Petrino’s high-powered attack and eventually became coach at Western Kentucky.

In three seasons at Western Kentucky, Brohm’s offenses averaged 45 points, 357 yards passing and 526 yards of total offense.

Yet in Brohm’s one-year flip of Purdue from Big Ten laughingstock to a 7-6 record and a bowl victory (38-35 over Arizona), the key was defense.

The transformation was stunning, as shown by these improvements in national rankings from 2016 to 2017:

» Rushing defense: 115th to 29th

» Total defense: 91st to 52nd

» Scoring defense: 117th to 24th

Let’s simplify the turnaround with this statistic: In the final year under Darrell Hazell, Purdue allowed an average of 20.8 points in the first half of games. Last year under Brohm, the Boilermakers gave up 20.5 points in full games.

The worry at Purdue is how to replace seven defensive starters and several other top backups.

According to SBNation’s calculation of “returning defensive production,’’ PU is 125th nationally.

Overall, 10 players who made at least 10 tackles are gone. The biggest losses are defensive tackle Gelen Robinson and linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley, who had a combined 148 tackles, including 24 for loss. Both starting cornerbacks graduated, too, as did the top backup.

So it’s no secret what Purdue worked on in spring practice.

“Our front seven has got to get better,” Brohm said. “We’ve got to be able to disrupt the run and the pass there. That’s a work in progress.

“We’ve got a chance to be as good in the secondary. But will we have the experience and the bona fide guys that have been there and done that before? No.”

As for the offense, good health would be a start.

David Blough, the 2017 season-opening starter at quarterback, suffered a gruesome dislocated ankle in November and had surgery. But he bounced back fast enough to play in April’s spring game.

Quarterback Elijah Sindelar, who took over as the starter in midseason, played the final 3½ games with a torn ACL, then underwent surgery after the bowl game. Sindelar wasn’t ready for spring ball, but is expected back for summer workouts.

Sindelar and Blough combined for 27 touchdowns passes with 11 interceptions.

Five offensive linemen who started at least half the games last season return, as do two running backs any team in the league would like to have when healthy — Markell Jones (566 yards) and D.J. Knox (561 yards).

The Purdue administration was so happy with Brohm’s inaugural season that they gave him a two-year extension to boost his contract length to seven years and his pay to $3.8 million a year. They also needed to act because Tennessee made a run at him.

It’s a good idea to keep Brohm locked in. His four Big Ten victories last season were one more than his predecessor posted in the previous four years combined.

Lee covers Big Ten and Nebraska football, Nebraska basketball and college athletic financial and administrative issues for The World-Herald. Follow him on Twitter @leebeeowh. Phone: 402-444-1024.

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