Purdue Coaching and Special Teams
Considering I’m the person who puts together OTE’s coaching hot seats you didn’t really expect me to not talk about coaching, did you?
While the offensive staff remained the same as 2020, Jeff Brohm completely rebuilt the defensive coaching staff heading into 2022 after firing the DC/LB coach, D-line coach, and CB coach. Only one assistant on the defensive side of the ball survived the cuts following the 2020 season but he went and left for Penn State giving Brohm a clean slate to work with. The newcomers showed that they actually knew what they were doing and the basic defensive fundamentals that had been missing around Purdue for over a decade were once again seen on the field. A trio of co-defensive coordinators and Jeff Brohm collaborated on defensive game planning while LB coach/co-DC Brad Lambert actually called plays and should be considered last season’s DC for all intents and purposes. No matter how you define the DC situation, the defensive turnaround engineered by the coaching staff was incredibly impressive.
As for special teams, a new kicker and new punter had mixed results. Incoming transfer K Mitchell Fineran had a tremendous season and was extremely reliable. This probably shouldn’t be too surprising considering he was 43/56 on field goal attempts at Samford over three years. The punting game however finished last in the B1G in yards/punt. Proving that punting is not winning.
The return game was incredibly bland for Purdue last season. While they didn’t have special teams miscues, they also didn’t have much of a return game at all. This lack of any sort of a return game particularly hurt in the Minnesota game when the Gophers punter continually outkicked his coverage but Purdue didn’t do anything on the return and Minnesota continually flipped field position. Despite Purdue outgaining the Gophers by 150 years from scrimmage, the Gophers were able to win.
Co-Defensive coordinator/LB coach Brad Lambert has left Purdue after just one season to go to Wake Forest. Lambert has deep ties to Wake Forest and the Midwest was far from all of his previous coaching stops so I’m not shocked that he wanted to leave. It’s unfortunate for Purdue fans though as his play calling last season was very solid. Although I thought the LBs were the weakest of the 3 groups last season, I still thought they were much improved from previous years.
WR coach Jamarcus Shepherd has left Purdue for Washington where he will be the associate head coach/WR coach/passing game coordinator (guys the title creep in college football is ridiculous). This one stings a bit as Washington has been considered one of the best WR coaches in the country and it’s a title that is well deserved. In addition to developing a bunch of WRs capable of torching Iowa, Shepherd helped Rondale Moore and David Bell become early round draft picks in the NFL. He was also an excellent recruiter. Shepherd likely has a good career ahead of him, but with Brohm calling plays on the offense there wasn’t much room for him to take on further responsibilities with the Boilermakers program.
Special teams coordinator Marty Biagi left Purdue for Ole Miss. Biagi has been noted as one of the top special teams coordinators around by several groups that rank these things but honestly I never saw it at Purdue. In his two seasons at Purdue, Purdue’s punting game was near the bottom of the conference, kick returns were non-existent, and until bringing in an already incredibly capable kicker that developed at Samford for this past season the kicking game had been rough as well. Where Biagi will be missed was his recruiting in-roads in Louisiana. While 4 star class of 2023 commit Rickie Collins didn’t decommit after Biagi left (and seems pretty solid in his commitment), keeping him on board and recruiting Louisiana in general will be more difficult without Biagi.
CB coach James Adams left Purdue to join Lambert on Wake Forest’s staff. Adams did a good job teaching defensive technique to Jamari Brown and Cory Trice who didn’t give a 15 yard cushion and actually played the ball. He will be missed. Trice’s defensive pass deflections early in the season before his season ending injury was the moment I knew Purdue finally had good defensive coaches.
Assistant O-line coach Neil Callaway has retired at the age of 66. I know several Boiler fans will greet this news with joy, but I’ve felt that Purdue’s O-line woes the past two years have been primarily due to playing underclassmen not poor coaching. The reasons Michigan State’s O-line was so good last year was they were playing exclusively upperclassmen on their O-line: redshirt juniors and seniors of the redshirt and non-redshirt variety. For the past couple of years, Purdue has been making due with transfer patches and underclassmen alongside typically just one senior that has been developed within the program. If you aren’t recruiting 5 star O-linemen (and Purdue isn’t doing that), you need to develop guys to be ready as upperclassmen. The lack of upperclassmen O-linemen has been a combination of recruiting issues and a bad string of injuries, but in more recent years the recruiting issues seem to have been patched up so it is just a matter of those guys staying healthy and in the system.
Coaching Staff for 2022
Head Coach Jeff Brohm enters his 6th season at Purdue having completed his rebuild of Darrell Hazell’s shattered and beaten program. His 28-29 record at Purdue isn’t sexy to outsiders and there have been some coaching staff stumbles along the way particularly on the defensive side of the ball, but for anyone who remembers just how awful Purdue was under Hazell, it’s been a remarkable turnaround. Last year’s 9 win season was Purdue’s first since 2003. While they probably overachieved slightly in getting to 9 wins, Brohm seems to have figured out what it takes to run a program at the Big Ten level and his offensive play calling is creative and one of the most entertaining in the country.
OC/QB coach Brian Brohm is Jeff’s brother. I’m slightly surprised Brian hasn’t moved on to try coaching on his own at this point, but he’s been a reliable developer of QBs (it should be noted that Jeff also spends a bunch of time with the QBs) and was able to step in and call offensive plays when Jeff was out sick with COVID.
RB coach Chris Barclay has been the running backs coach under Brohm going back to the 2016 season at Western Kentucky. A 3 time All-ACC player at Wake Forest, Barclay was also the ACC player of the year in 2005. While running the ball hasn’t ever been the priority under Brohm’s offenses, Barclay has done a reasonable job in developing running backs that are capable of getting a few yards. I would like to see him improve on developing guys that are capable of breaking off big plays.
WR coach Garrick McGee is easily my least favorite of the new hires this offseason. McGee was formerly the head coach at UAB (where he was unsuccessful) and the OC at Northwestern, Arkansas, Louisville, and most recently Illinois. I absolutely would not want McGee to be the HC or OC (which thankfully he won’t be), but even as a WR coach I’m concerned that he’s spent the two most recent years as an analyst and QB coach at Florida. In fact, in the past 15 years McGee has been a WR coach for exactly one of those years! I would have thought Brohm’s offensive play calling would have been able to intrigue at least one up and coming WRs coach to backfill for Shepherd but instead they ended up with a guy who has been coaching QBs or failed offenses for the past decade. Brohm has worked with McGee before but I’m definitely skeptical of this hiring.
O-line/TE coach Dale Williams came to Purdue from Western Kentucky following Jeff Brohm. A favorite for fan criticism (along with retiring assistant O-line coach Callaway), Williams has helped Purdue turn out some solid TEs during his first five years: Brycen Hopkins was drafted and recently helped the Rams win the Super Bowl by catching four passes for 47 yards in the big game while Payne Durham has been named 2nd team All-B1G preseason for the upcoming year. The O-line has been more spotty in terms of performance but as mentioned under Callaway I think the lack of recruiting enough depth at the position the first two Brohm recruiting classes coupled with a rash of medical retirements prior to the 2020 and 2021 seasons makes the simpler explanation be that the O-line just hasn’t had the experience and strength necessary to succeed in the trenches of the B1G. Barring another rash of injuries (in which case what the hell is the strength and conditioning coach doing?), this season and the next should show whether my theory is correct or not. Williams will be primarily focused on the O-line this upcoming season.
Assistant O-line/TE coach Ryan Wallace has been promoted from analyst to full time assistant. He’s been on the staff as an analyst since Brohm arrived in West Lafayette but this is the first time he will fill one of the actual on field coaching roles. Wallace is expected to focus on TEs, but there will be some crossover between him and Dale Williams in responsibilities.
co-DC/secondary coach Ron English is in his 2nd year at Purdue. Part of the three headed co-DC committee last season, English did a great job helping develop the safeties and CBs last year. Previously the head coach at the Eastern Michigan Fighting Emus, English went just 11-46 at the MAC program. He has made stops as DC at Michigan, Louisville, and San Jose State but was most recently a safeties coach at Florida prior to taking the Purdue job. With the departure of Lambert, English takes over play calling duties this year. Although he’s had success as a DC before, it’s been awhile since he was the defensive play caller for a successful team. I have full confidence in English’s ability to develop the secondary (and he will primarily work with the safeties as there is a specific CBs coach), but think it’s an open question on whether he can still successfully call plays against modern offenses. Hopefully the B1G West’s lack of modern offenses will help him out.
co-DC/D-line coach Mark Hagen is in the 2nd year of his second stint at Purdue. A fan favorite for his coaching ability Hagen has seen 11 D-lineman drafted in the first three rounds from Purdue across his two stints. In addition to being a tremendous recruiter, Hagen is a Hoosier alumni and has also coached there in addition to stops at Texas A&M and Texas. Having him on the Purdue side of the in-state rivalry is a huge boost when it comes to in-state recruitment.
LB coach David Elson has been promoted from analyst to LB coach. Elson completes Purdue’s Western Kentucky ties as he served as their head coach from 2003-2009 when he put up a 39-44 record. Prior to last year as a quality control assistant in the Purdue program, Elson had bounced around as a DC or DB coach for the past decade at a variety of FCS, HS, NAIA, and G5 programs. I’m a little surprised he will be coaching LBs (since his background involves him coaching the secondary), but it would seem Brohm was happy with him in the program already and wanted to give him an on-field coaching role. The jury is out on this hire - but I also think Hagen should be able to help cover some holes in coaching LBs if needed.
CB coach Ashton Youboty rounds out the defensive coaching staff and is a former NFL cornerback that played for the Buffalo Bills. Youboty is the youngest defensive coach on the staff and as such will likely be one of the more important defensive recruiters (outside of maybe Hagen). Youboty has spent the past two seasons at Youngstown State. This is the exact type of hire I would have liked to see Brohm make at the WR coach position - a young, up and coming coach who played at a high level and knows what it takes to be successful. I’ll have to settle for only getting this type of hire for the cornerbacks coach.
Special teams coordinator Karl Maslowski joins the team after spending the past three seasons at a quality control assistant at Louisville. Maslowski has been a special team coordinator for 9 seasons - most recently at Northern Michigan for 6 seasons and before that Western Kentucky where two returners earned All-America accolades under him. Maslowski has seen his punt units rank top 30 nationally six seasons and his kickoff return units rank top 30 eight times in their respective divisions. Although a bit of an unknown quantity, most Purdue fans will probably be happy to see him taking over from Marty Biagi.
BoilerUp89’s Projected Depth Chart for Special Teams
Starter: Mitchell Fineran returns as the kicker for Purdue. Fineran transferred into Purdue from Samford last season and made 24/29 field goals and 40/42 on extra points. His reliability from the position gave Purdue fans a much needed confidence in the kicking game. He also occasionally handled some of the kickoff duties and during the Northwestern game managed to successfully get an onside kick when he slipped on the extremely poorly managed Wrigley Field. I suspect he is not the first choice for kickoffs going into the year. Fineran is in his final year of college eligibility.
Next up: A trio of walk-ons will compete for the backup spot. Ben Freehill is the most likely guy to win the backup job as he was one of the better kicking recruits in Illinois for his class and walked on to Oklahoma State prior to transferring to be closer to home. Freehill also handled the majority of kickoffs in the 2nd half of last season outside of the Northwestern game where all three kickers has issues with the turf. Freehill was able to get touchbacks about 1⁄3 of the time.
Chris Van Eekeren handled kickoff duties for the first half of the 2021 season and also got one opportunity in the aforementioned poor field conditions at Northwestern. The kickoff duty battle is primarily between him and Freehill for the upcoming season. Caleb Krockover rounds out the competition.
Jack Ansell and Brandon Cropsey will compete for punting duties this year. Both attempted punts last year, with Ansell taking a majority of the opportunities but neither distinguished themselves and were part of a three man punting committee that finished 14th in the B1G in punt yards per attempt. Hopefully another year of strength and conditioning as well as working on their punting technique (or the new special teams coordinator coaching them up) will help one of them grab the spot and be successful. Or maybe Jeff Brohm will abandon the punt game like he’s abandoned the run game last year.
Deep backup QB Jack Albers is expected to be the holder for the upcoming season. He did a fine job of it last season.
Nick Zecchino returns after being the long snapper in 2019 and 2021. He hasn’t been sending snaps over punters heads so I would expect him to continue in the role for 2022.
Starter: Charlie Jones is most likely to be the starter here after transferring from Iowa. While at Iowa, Jones was the B1G return specialist of the year last season and the only punt returner in the country to average more than 7 yards/return on at least 30 returns and one of just three kickoff returners to average more than 25 yards/return on at least 25 returns. Now some of those stats were surely due to the rest of the Iowa return teams, but Jones has some star ability in the return game.
Next up: TJ Sheffield has been the primary returner for Purdue and I suspect he will be next up in the role should Jones see an injury and that he will also be the 2nd guy back with Jones on kickoff returns.
Both Jones and Sheffield could feature prominently in the WR group (more on that tomorrow) so it’s possible that either of them are replaced on the returner depth chart by a younger WR, but I suspect Jones’s ability and Sheffield reliability make them the primary options for both kick and punt returns unless there are multiple injury issues in the WR group.
The coaching staff gets their fourth defensive play caller in four years, but this time I have more faith than either of the first two guys. It’s probably a slight downgrade from Lambert as far as play calling, but English & Hagen were co-coordinators last year so it’s not a radical departure in scheme. I’m fairly confident in the coaching ability of Hagen and English and Youboty intrigues me as well. I’m less confident with the LB coach choice, but that’s mainly because I would have liked someone with more LB experience than secondary experience to coach LBs. I don’t necessarily think Elson is a terrible assistant, just coaching the wrong group for him.
On the offensive side of the ball, Brohm will continue to control the show. The loss of Shepherd was something I thought would be navigated with relative ease but the choice to replace him confuses the hell out of me. Not only has McGee not had much recent experience with WRs, but he’s not nearly the recruiter that Shepherd was. It would have made more sense to me to replace Shepherd with someone who could at a minimum recruit. It’s getting close to time for the O-line coaching duo to prove their chops and I expect them to take a step forward, but next year is when I really expect to see the O-line competing at the highest level of the Brohm era.
Special teams coaching likely took in a step back in recruiting, but Biagi was the one coach I wanted to replace last season so I’m happy he decided to move on despite the loss of recruiting connections. The incoming special teams coach has some returning talent to work with, an upgrade in the return game, and only the punting situation has me concerned. The further improvement in depth within the program should also allow for better players to be contributing in the special teams game than in the past seasons under Brohm.