Purdue, though it didn’t win many games and ranked 10th in the Big Ten in rushing, had a couple of legitimate home-run threats on the offensive side of the ball last season.
The Boilermakers’ two-headed monster at running back was the fastest monster in the country. Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert provided a pair of lightning-quick speedsters who if given a hole could take the ball a long way in the blink of an eye.
But this offseason, Purdue lost both guys. And in addition to finding a general answer at the running back position, the Boilermakers need to find a new element of explosiveness to an offense that’s been mostly ineffective in two seasons under Darrell Hazell.
True, for all the speed and explosiveness Hunt and Mostert provided, it didn’t translate into too much offensive success. As mentioned, Purdue’s 157.2 rushing yards per game ranked them 10th in the conference, ahead only of Northwestern, Maryland, Illinois and Penn State. Hunt tied for eighth in the league in rushing, and Mostert ranked 18th. They still accounted for more than 78 percent of the team’s rushing yards but only for slightly better than 32 percent of the team’s non-kicking points.
[MORE BIG TEN: Big Ten preview: Can Purdue get out of the Big Ten's basement?]
Even still, it’s a big hole to fill. And Purdue is going to fill it in a very different way. Instead of plugging in more speedsters, the Boilermakers are going the bruiser route.
"We did lose two good running backs in Akeem and Raheem,” Hazell said last month during Big Ten Media Days. “But I think with this group of running backs, they are completely different than that group, that speed group. We have a much more powerful group. We have a guy by the name of Dexter Knox. Be ready to write some things up on Dexter because he's pretty special. He's about 5-foot-8, 5-foot-9. He's 202 pounds. He benched 410 pounds last week in our weightlifting test. He's an uncommon back with the ball in his hands. He's quick. He's explosive. He has tremendous balance. And he's pretty fun to watch. But we also bring in a guy named Markell Jones who is a 5-foot-11, 210-pound guy, extremely powerful. We have Keyante Green back.
“I think you're going to get a little different style of running back which will help our football team in the area of toughness. I think what you're going to see is when these guys break a tackle or run someone over, you're going to see defensive players jumping off the bench getting excited about these guys. I think that will enthuse some excitement from our whole football team."
Maybe a new style can finally be what cures the Purdue running game. But what about elsewhere on the offense?
While quarterback Austin Appleby threw more interceptions than he did touchdowns last season, Hazell & Co. are looking to their wide receivers to step up and fill the explosive void left by those home-run hitters at running back.
"I think you're going to get it out of the running back room, but I think you have to get it out of the receiver room,” Hazell said. “You know, Danny Anthrop was a guy that (suffered an) injury at the end of the season. So our productivity dipped a little bit in those last three or four games. You need a Greg Phillips, you need a DeAngelo Yancey to step up. We have some other young receivers that I will not mention right now that I look forward to watching them play this year. Because I think they have a lot of ability to help us win football games."
Purdue’s offense has struggled since Hazell took over, even when it did have explosive players like it did coming out of the backfield last season. Those guys are gone, and it’s unknown if the element they took with them can be replaced, even by the receivers. Anthrop and Yancey combined for just seven touchdown catches last year.
If the Boilermakers are going to be better than they have been over the past two seasons, when they won a combined four games, they’re going to need someone to step up and make big-time plays.