Western Kentucky was able to do something over the last few years that most high octane offensive teams struggle with. They played good, and sometimes great, defense. Nick Holt and his defensive staff fit very well with Jeff Brohm’s aggressive mentality. The coaches have their work cut out for them this year as they won’t have the speed they had at WKU.
The Boilermakers will need to replace a good amount from their defensive line but they have moved some guys around to help. Gelen Robinson (The Big Dog’s son) will be moving to defensive tackle this year and Danny Ezechuckwu is moving from linebacker to defensive end. Robinson is one of the top players on the roster and the move inside could likely help the defense create more negative plays. He’s a disruptive type of player and could likely crash the line and blow up blockers or make plays himself. He will be the first test for a rebuilt interior line for Louisville. Robinson also pairs well with Eddy Wilson and Lorenzo Neal at nose tackle. Having a combo of speed and size could really help them push the pocket and fluster Lamar Jackson.
The most impressive player I saw for Purdue is middle linebacker Markus Bailey. As a freshman last year he led the team in tackles as well as interceptions. Bailey is a guy that Holt and co-coordinator Anthony Poindexter can build with but he can’t do it himself. Ja’Whaun Bentley is a jumbo backer that will play in the middle behind a solid tackle combo. Bailey is “the guy” on this defense in my opinion but I think teams will try to force Louisville to pass and Bentley is the key to stopping the run for them.
T.J. McCollum transferred in to Purdue from Western after an honorable mention all conference season. He will be the guy playing the spot that gave Louisville fits last year. The weakside linebacker spot has been a bugaboo for the Cards for the last handful of years but last year teams really liked to bring direct pressure from that spot. McCollum can really run and I think he could be a big factor in containing Jackson. Western played against Alabama last year and LSU the year before. McCollum is the type of leader that can really get these guys to believe they can win this game.
The Purdue secondary looked pretty good on the surface last season as they finished 38th in yards per game. However, that was mostly because teams didn’t have to throw the ball to beat them. Purdue only faced 26 passes per game but they allowed 59% of them to be completed and they gave up 22 touchdowns. They also didn’t do a very good job at forcing turnovers.
Purdue has a couple of new faces in the back end that they’re hoping can really improve things. Former UofL commit T.J. Jallow will start at free safety and should be able to match up in coverage as he used to be a corner. Josh Okonye is a grad transfer from Wake Forest that played in the nickel last year. In my opinion both of these guys are upgrades and they still have Da’Wan Hunte who was the top corner last year. I don’t know that Jeff Brohm could’ve asked for much more in his first year.
The changes that Holt and Poindexter have made with their existing personnel should really help them call the game that they want as opposed to playing it safe. The defensive line should be quicker and faster than they were a year ago. The question is how they handle a massive Louisville line. They’re strength is at the second level where I think McCollum really helps from an experience and athleticism standpoint. If they can get some pressure on Jackson, the back end has some decent talent that might be able to cause some issues. I’d imagine Nick Holt would take that.