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March 1, 2011

Purdue still has hope, but lots of questions

Two seasons, two losing records for Purdue coach Danny Hope.

It's time to start showing progress for a program that is riding a three-year bowl drought in an era when seemingly every school goes to a bowl.

Let's give Hope a mulligan for 2010, as injuries to key players undermined the season. How bad was it? Three different quarterbacks started games.

The offense was hit hardest, as QB Robert Marve, WR Keith Smith and RB Ralph Bolden all were lost to season-ending knee injuries at varying points in 2010. They arguably were the three best players on offense. And a middling defense that was relatively healthy did little to pick up the slack.

Despite the issues, there were no excuses to lose to the likes of Toledo and Indiana -- both at home, no less. The bottom line is that 2010 was a train wreck for the Boilermakers, who dropped their last six games.

An already fickle and indifferent fan base is growing more disinterested by the minute. That makes this a key spring for Hope's long-term prospects in West Lafayette.

Here's a look at Purdue as it readies for spring practice.

PURDUE AT-A-GLANCE
QB Rob Henry has starting experience, but the position is a question mark for Purdue.
THE BASICS
Coach: Danny Hope
Last season: 4-8 overall, 2-6 in the Big Ten.
Spring dates: March 2-April 9.
RETURNING STARTERS
(minimum seven starts last season)
Offense (6): C Peters Drey, WR Antavian Edison, QB Rob Henry, T Dennis Kelly, T Nick Mondek, G Ken Plue.
Defense (9): CB Ricardo Allen, LB Dwayne Beckford, FS Albert Evans, T Bruce Gaston, E Gerald Gooden, LB Joe Holland, CB Josh Johnson, SS Logan Link, T Kawann Short.
Special teams (2): P Cody Webster; K Carson Wiggs.
Positions of strength

Led by 6-foot-8 T Dennis Kelly, the offensive line has the potential to be solid. There's lots of depth at defensive tackle, with Kawann Short and Bruce Gaston leading the way. Coaches also like the skill in the secondary, as sophomore CB Ricardo Allen is a legit star. Robert Marve, Rob Henry and Sean Robinson have starting experience at quarterback. But are any of them good? The jury is out.

Help is needed

It will be impossible to replace E Ryan Kerrigan, the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year; he led the conference in sacks (12.5), tackles for loss (26) and forced fumble (five). Someone must step up as a pass-rusher and big-play threat on defense. The staff needs to begin sorting out the running back spot. The position was an abomination last season, when the leading rusher was Henry with a meager 547 yards. Purdue received a big blow Monday when the NCAA denied WR Keith Smith a sixth season of eligibility, making receiver a position to watch this spring. Smith was a first-team All-Big Ten selection in 2009, when he had 91 receptions for 1,100 yards and six touchdowns. He suffered a season-ending knee injury in the second game last fall.

3 guys to watch

WR Antavian Edison: Edison began to emerge last fall, when he caught 32 passes as a sophomore. The Boilers need some playmakers on the edge to stretch defenses and make plays for the pedestrian quarterbacks.

LB Will Lucas: Purdue has been devoid of good linebacker play for years. It's hoped Lucas can be a difference-maker. Lucas flashed speed and athletic ability as a true freshman in 2010.

RB Akeem Shavers: A thin and weak running back corps should get a boost from Shavers, a 5-11, 200-pound mid-year JC transfer who will take part in spring drills. Coaches think Shavers can be a home-run hitter because of his speed.

The pressure is on

DE Gerald Gooden. It's now or never for Gooden, a senior, to become a threat off the edge. Gooden has been plagued by inconsistency, but he has the speed and athletic ability to be a pass-rushing force for a defense that needs one in the wake of Kerrigan's departure.

The buzz

There is enough talent returning for Purdue to reach its first bowl since 2007. A top priority is honing an attack that ranked last in the Big Ten in total offense (311.6 ypg), passing (150.8 ypg) and scoring (19.7 ppg). Where have you gone, Joe Tiller? Purdue also needs to work on securing the ball. Its 27 turnovers ranked 10th in the Big Ten. And special teams remain a mixed bag. RB Ralph Bolden, a 1,000-yard rusher in 2009 before missing last season, will take part in spring drills but have no contact; Marve will be limited. What's it all mean? Few key questions figure to be answered this spring.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.


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