Things are look up for Auburn hoops courtesy of a major influx of talent under Bruce Pearl.
Rockets Lift Off in Lafayette
Much has been written on the dramatic changes of Rockets new HC Tim Beckman and his first head coaching position. For Purdue's new HC Danny Hope, while not his first heading coaching position (Eastern Kentucky was), he has a leg up by being assistant head coach for the Boilermakers last year.
The media guides of the two programs marks a contrast of perspectives: UT Football media guide cover reads: TOLEDO FOOTBALL – PROUD TRADITION, NEW ERA. While the Gold and Black Illustrated 2009 Football Yearbook is entitled in big, bold lettering: WORK IN PROGRESS.
The progress begins upfront with the offensive line. Only starting center Cory Benton, is gone from the OL. And with the play of C Jared Zwilling (6'4", 293# ) there shouldn't be much of a drop off. Per Coach Hope, "at the end of last year he (Jared) was the best playing offensive lineman."
The leader of this group in terms of game experience is senior right tackle Zach Jones (6'5', 312#), who has started 24 of the Boilermaker's last 25 games. Playing next to Jones is RG Kenny Plue (6'7", 322#). Hope called Plue one of the team's most improved players. "He's not the same guy he was last year," Hope said Plue lost 50 pounds since the end last season. Look for the running attack to favor the right side.
Speaking of RBs, as experienced as the OL is, the backfield is full of players with limited to no game experience. The only running back with documented talent is Jaycen Taylor (5'10", 180#) who averaged 5.2 yds per carry in 2007. He was out last year recovering from ACL surgery. Atop the RB depth chart with Taylor is SO Ralph Bolden (5'9", 194#). For short yardage and blocking assignments, look for Frank Halliburton (6'2", 251#).
The Boilermakers are without a QB who has ever started a college game. SR Joey Elliot (6'2", 211#) makes his starting debut against the Rockets. He has played in 21 games over two years completing 21 of 39 passes (53.8%) for 228 yards, 1 TD and 1 INT.
The inexperience continues with the receiving corps. Only Keith Smith (6'2") 49 receptions, 9.9 ypc and 2 Tds, has significant collegiate stats. Coach Hope considers Smith the best WR as he is "big, physical, good hands, lost weight. He will be a key target and he can break tackles." Other WRs include Aaron Valentin (6'1". 205#) and Royce Adams (6'0", 190#). Adams moved from cornerback adding to the Boilermakers lack of experience. This has afforded FR Gary Bush (6'0", 175#) and Antavian "Breeze" Edison (5'10, 170#) a change to see playing time at WR. Edison should be an addition to special teams if his recent should injury isn't a factor. Think of a young Andrew Hawkins but not quite as quick.
With a spread offense, look for Elliot to seek out his tight ends, arguably the strongest position among the receivers. This group is led by Kyle Adams (6'5", 251#) 13.6 ypc. Adams is a very good blocker and technician with excellent hands. Look for Jeff Lindsay (6'3, 238#) and Jeff Panfil (6'5", 226#) to see plenty of action. According to OC Gary Nord, "we're deeper at that spot (TE) than any other spot on offense. They've caught the ball very well, blocked very well and they're important to us in the running and passing game. We'll get them involved in protection. They have a big assignment in this offense and I think they'll live up to it. They are the first progression a majority of the time. If we can get the ball to them and keep the ball out of the air, it minimizes the chance of turnovers and we get the chains to move. We don't have to protect very long when we throw to our first progression." Look for the TE to be lined up anywhere on the field adding to the flexibility of the offense.
The defense, like the offense, starts up front. The front four (4-3) is led by SR Mike Neal (6'4", 302#). Neal, according to Coach Hope "is a dominate player and is as good as there is in the business." Neal is projected to be among the top Big Ten DTs and look for him to play in the NFL. Another 300 pound DT is Kawann Short (6'4", 310#) who can run well and was much improved from the spring dropping lots of weight (fat). This improvement in his physical shape has greatly aided his effort pursuing to the ball. Coach Hope sees him being a standout player. DE Ryan Kerrigan (6'4", 236#), was honorable mention all-Big Ten last year. DE Gerald Gooden (6'3, 235#) rounds out the front four.
The LBs, led by SR Jason Werner (6'4", 221#) are, overall, inexperienced and will need to develop a chemistry to be effective in Big 10 play. The secondary, like the LB corps, is quick but not blinding fast. They are, statically, the best of the defense finishing 24th in the nation and first in the Big Ten against the pass even though no DB stands taller than 6'2" with half at 6'0" or less. Part of the DBs statistical success last year may be attributed to the D ranking 93rd in the nation and last in the Big Ten against the rush.
Special team standouts include Carson Wiggs (8 of 11 GFA, long of 53 yds; 19 of 21 PATs) who also handles the kick-off duties. Chris Summers is an excellent punter. Key to the kicking/punting game is FR LS Jesse Schmitt. He was rated the No. 1 snapper in the 2010 class by Kohl's Kicking Camp and ranked No. 2 by Ray Guy/ProKicker.com. Aaron Valentin handles the kick-off returns with a season long return of 51 yards. Due to graduation, it appears that Valentin will hand punt return duties as well. On the flip side, Purdue's punt coverage team was last in the country statistically. Look for lots of speedy true freshman on this year's coverage team going for speed over experience.
The game line currently has Purdue an 11 point favorite. I fully expect the game to be much closer IF the Rockets OL can hold their own against the talented front four featuring quick DEs. The spread is designed, in part, to negate the front four. If Rocket receivers step up to compete with Stephen Williams, they may have a very good day. On defense, UT will be do well IF they contain the run and keeping Elliot and friends playing short ball. Another factor is that of experience which favors the Rockets. I look for tradition and a new era to trump Hope and his work in progress.
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