Rejuvenated Gridders Look to Continue Improvement in 1998

PURDUESPORTSDOTCOM Joe Tiller, the Boilermakers hope to<br> build on their success from a year ago.
PURDUESPORTSDOTCOM
Joe Tiller, the Boilermakers hope to
build on their success from a year ago.
PURDUESPORTSDOTCOM

June 22, 1998

Purdue enjoyed one of those storybook seasons in 1997 that Hollywood dreams are made of. The Boilermakers, behind the leadership of new coach Joe Tiller's staff, turned around their fortunes which resulted in a 9-3 season, second-place Big Ten tie (6-2 mark), final ranking of 15th in the national polls and a victory in the Builders Square Alamo Bowl. It was the Old Gold and Black's first winning season and bowl appearance since 1984, and highest national finish since 1979. The 9-3 record was the nation's second-best turnaround (from a 3-8 record in 1996).

Purdue led the Big Ten in passing (285.2 yards per game) and total offense (459.2) in 1997. It ranked seventh in the NCAA in total offense, 13th in passing and 22nd in scoring (33.0). The opportunistic defense helped the team lead the conference and rank ninth in the country in turnover margin with a school-record plus-14 total. Boiler fans took notice in a big way, averaging 51,690 fans per home game, an increase of 14.1 percent over 1996 and the highest average since 1988.

Tiller, who has had his contract extended through the 2003 season after winning National and Big Ten Coach-of-the-Year honors, welcomes back 43 lettermen and 12 starters. A highly-regarded recruiting class will join them in the fall, although five junior college transfers already were on campus to take part in spring drills.

Eight returning defensive starters provide high hopes for the stop troops. The secondary lost only one player and the line lost both tackles. End Rosevelt Colvin (second team All-Big Ten), middle linebacker Willie Fells (ranked third in the Big Ten in tackles), outside linebacker Willie Burroughs (198 career tackles), outside linebacker Mike Rose (86 tackles, four pass interceptions, three defensive touchdowns), cornerback Michael Hawthorne (team's best cover man) and free safety Adrian Beasley (Alamo Bowl Defensive MVP) are the featured defenders.

The offense must be retooled as only four regulars return. All-America receiver Brian Alford, record-setting quarterback Billy Dicken, the top two running backs, one tight end and three interior linemen must be replaced. Center Jim Niedrach (honorable mention All-Big Ten), guard Chukky Okobi, and fleet receivers Isaac Jones, Donald Winston, Gabe Cox and Vinny Sutherland provide high hopes for another prolific offense.

Two of four kickers will be back. Placekicker Shane Ryan (Purdue's No. 2 scorer in 1997) and punter Danny Rogers are solid returnees.

"It's always critical that guys are intense and never become complacent and satisfied with what they've done in the past," Tiller said. "Our team is making good progress along those lines. We could be a better team this year but not do as well in the win-loss column because our opponents are lining the bushes, waiting for us this year. People will take Purdue on as a mission to get after us. Our players have worked hard to date and have done what the coaches have asked of them. We've made some good progress. It's critical to have a very good summer and productive month of August in the preseason. We're ahead of where we were last year at this time but we weren't very far along a year ago. Everything was new last year. This is the second go-around so everyone should be more comfortable with what they're doing, and it should prove to be more productive."

The Offense

"Drew Brees had a great spring at quarterback because he had all the reps," Tiller said. "The most positive thing is that his arm is still attached to his shoulder. He threw 78 balls in one scrimmage alone. He improved and hopefully will take another step this fall. He throws an accurate ball which is very catchable. He has the physical skills and is very bright; he just lacks experience. Drew has a stranglehold on the position now but he may be challenged in the fall. Eric Haddad had a good spring at running back. He ran and caught the ball well, and has really stepped up. J. Crabtree had the best spring of all our running backs. The receiving corps might be the strength of the offense. We probably don't have the type of player Brian Alford was but collectively we are more talented there than a year ago. They will continue to improve. Guys like Isaac Jones, Vinny Sutherland, Donald Winston, Gabe Cox, Randall Lane and Cliff Jackson are productive guys who are good enough to play winning football in the Big Ten. We have a lot of options and choices. Tight end needs to sort itself out but we should be more productive than last year. The offensive line is our biggest overhaul. There is lots of athleticism and speed in that group. The lack of experience is a huge concern but they have a chance to be very good. Plus, they'll be together for several years. Chukky Okobi has really developed as a guard and has the ability to be one of the better players in the Big Ten. Jim Niedrach is back at center and it's great to have experience at that position."

Wide Receivers

Plenty of depth and experience return, plus there will be two talented junior college transfers on hand this autumn. Veterans Isaac Jones, Donald Winston, Vinny Sutherland, Chris Daniels, Gabe Cox, Chris Clopton and Robert Tolbert have caught a combined 154 passes for 1,848 yards and 10 touchdowns throughout their careers. They all possess sure hands, good speed and savvy skills, and are ready to take on increased duties.

Jones, one of two seniors in the group, was the team's No. 2 pass receiver in 1997 with 41 catches for 443 yards and four TDs. Over the last three years, he has 71 receptions for 864 yards and five scores. Vinny Sutherland (34 for 357 yards and two TDs in 1997), a sophomore, and Winston (32 for 361 yards and one score), a junior, are cat-quick and exciting performers. They will be pushed by junior college transfers Cliff Jackson and Randall Lane.

Running Back

This spot is wide open although junior college transfer J. Crabtree came out of the spring as the starter. Senior Eric Haddad, who also has played tight end, is the top returnee. The 6-1, 235-pound bruiser has career totals of 24 rushing attempts for 100 yards. He started twice in 1997, and had season totals of 16 rushes for 62 yards and caught two passes for 19 yards. Redshirt freshman Dondre Johnson and converted wideout Chris Clopton will get a look, too.

Quarterbacks

Sophomore Drew Brees is a heady youngster with a strong throwing arm and strong decision-making abilities. As the No. 2 quarterback in 1997, he played in seven games (six of the final eight), completing 19 of 43 passes for 232 yards. Brees had solid outings against Toledo and Indiana, leading the team on several successful scoring drives. He was the Texas 5A (big school) Most Valuable Offensive Player in 1996, leading the team to a 16-0 record and the state championship. Brees was 28-0-1 as a two-year high school starter.

Brees was the only scholarship quarterback in spring drills but he will be joined in the fall by redshirt freshman Jim Mitchell, junior college transfer David Edgerton and true freshmen Mike Segard and Ralph Turner.

Offensive Line

Center Jim Niedrach (6-3, 273, junior) and guard Chukky Okobi (6-2, 315, sophomore) are the leaders of a young but talented line. Both were impressive first-year starters in 1997 and helped the Boilers become an explosive offensive unit. Niedrach was honorable mention All-Big Ten. Other returning lettermen include tackles Brandon Gorin (6-6, 270, sophomore) and Pete VanderWeele (6-5, 290, senior). After the spring, the starters appear to be Niedrach (center), Okobi (guard), Gorin (tackle), sophomore tackle Matt Light (6-4, 277) and junior guard Aaron Starnes (6-3, 286). Redshirt freshmen Tim Stratton and Chris Randolph are talented but unproven tight ends.

The Defense

"You'd like to think you will have an improved defense with eight returning starters," Tiller said. "Our players are a year older and more familiar with our system. We have every reason to believe we can take another step and improve our team defense. We're still not that more physical than a year ago, so we'll have to rally to the ball as a team. We must be like last year when we created turnovers. That will help us be successful. Rosevelt Colvin is a very good pass-rush guy. He's hard to block one-on-one, he's a third-year starter, has good foot speed and should continue to be a handful to keep off the quarterback. Chukie Nwokorie, provided he is healthy, is really coming into his own and maturing. He's settled down and playing very effectively. We'll probably have two of the better defensive ends in the league. We'll have new guys inside at the tackles. They are talented and can create some push. All the linebackers return. Willie Fells led the team in tackles last year and should have another good year. Mike Rose was very productive outside. He's being challenged by Jason Loerzel, who had a good spring. A couple of seniors (Lee Johnson and Willie Burroughs) and a promising young player in Tim Upshur are on the weak side. Lee had an exceptional spring and we hope he can turn it up in the fall because he has a chance to be a real playmaker. He may be the player you notice the most in 1998. We have some depth at linebacker. The secondary has enough talent and depth to play some nickel and dime coverage. All our veterans are much improved and Da'Shann Austin is a fine addition at cornerback."

Linebackers

This area should be a team strength with three returning starters and loads of experience. Junior middle linebacker Willie Fells, sophomore Mike Rose and senior outside linebacker Willie Burroughs are speedsters who also pack a wallop. Fells led the team and ranked third in the Big Ten with 131 tackles to win honorable mention all-league honors last season. He racked up double-figure tackle efforts seven times (four of the final five games). Rose was third on the squad with 86 tackles in 1997, to go along with his four pass interceptions and three defensive touchdowns. Burroughs moved to linebacker from the secondary last year and responded with 75 stops. The team's leader with 31 all-time starts, he boasts career totals of 198 tackles, including 14 for 83 yards in losses.

Senior Lee Johnson came on strong this past spring and at the end of 1997 after switching from running back the previous spring. He had 42 tackles and a team-high three fumble recoveries (including a 35-yard touchdown return at Indiana). Junior Doug Withers, senior Noble Jones, junior Ray Lee and sophomore David Berch also have seen considerable action.

After spring drills, the projected starters were Fells, Johnson and highly-regarded redshirt freshman Jason Loerzel.

Defensive Backs

Another very solid area is the defensive secondary where three regulars (all juniors) are back. Cornerback Michael Hawthorne is the best cover man and he brings size and speed to the field. He had 58 tackles, a team-high seven passes broken up and two pass interceptions for 45 yards in returns. Strong safety (converted from free safety) Adrian Beasley was the Most Valuable Defensive Player in the Alamo Bowl, and finished the campaign with 66 tackles and four pass thefts for 100 return yards. Cornerback Lamar Conard, a former walkon, had 40 stops and tied for the team lead with four interceptions (47 return yards).

Senior safety Billy Gustin and senior cornerback Henry Bell also started periodically last year. Other returning lettermen include Brady Doe, Todd Stelma and Tom Vaughan. Junior college transfer Da'Shann Austin also will compete for playing time. Converted quarterback Ben Smith had a very impressive spring and will battle for playing time.

Spring practice established Hawthorne and Conard as the No. 1 cornerbacks, with Gustin and Beasley at free and strong safety, respectively.

Defensive Line

The ends are among the best in the Big Ten and could develop into the nation's premier tandem. Seniors Rosevelt Colvin and Chukie Nwokorie have a rare blend of speed and strength to go with successful experience.

Colvin (6-3, 245), a third-year starter, was second team All-Big Ten and a team tri-captain in 1997. He ranked fourth in the league with 12.5 quarterback sacks (just shy of Purdue's single-season record of 13), and fourth in the conference with 22 tackles for 100 yards in losses. Colvin led the team's linemen with 71 stops, and made national news with a 62-yard blocked field goal return for a touchdown which sparked the Boilers' miraculous comeback victory against Michigan State. He ranks fifth-best in school history with 40 career tackles for 163 yards in losses.

Nwokorie (6-3, 260) is a raw talent who is still developing. He started eight times last year although a sprained ankle slowed him the second half of the season. He still ranked second on the squad with 14 tackles for 75 yards in losses. Sophomores Warren Moore (6-2, 260) was impressive in four starts last fall, and sophomore Rocco Foggio (6-4, 260) and senior Chris Zurba (6-3, 245) will make an impact, too.

The tackles will be new but the candidates are promising. Returnees include sophomores Brent Botts (6-3, 248) and junior David Nugent (6-5, 278). Junior college transfer Derrick Williams (6-4, 295) and redshirt freshman Matt Mitrione (6-3, 281) will figure in the rotation, too.

Kicking Game

Placekicker Shane Ryan and punter Danny Rogers are back in 1998. Ryan was Purdue's No. 2 scorer with 72 points. He made nine of 14 field goal attempts and 45 of 47 PAT kicks. Ryan made four of his final five field goal attempts (two in the Alamo Bowl), and successfully booted a 44-yarder at Illinois (Purdue's longest since 1989). Rogers split punting duties last year, specializing in the "Pooch Punts," which were directional punts deep inside opponents' territory. Six of his 23 attempts were downed inside the foe's 20-yard line. Rogers ranks fifth-best in school records with a 38.1-yard career average.

Chris Clopton ranked fifth in the Big Ten in kickoff return average (21.1 yards), and his total yardage of 590 yards was fifth-best in school history last year. Vinny Sutherland, a second team Freshman All-American by The Sporting News, ranked sixth in the league with a 9.8-yard punt return average. Lee Johnson is fourth-best in Purdue career kickoff return yardage (991), and Donald Winston ran back five punts for a 7.2-yard average in 1997.

Long snapping duties are in the capable hands of veteran Andy Standifer.

Schedule

As usual, Purdue plays another challenging schedule. A 12-game slate kicks off with the earliest start in school history, an Aug. 30 matchup with Southern California in the Pigskin Classic in Los Angeles, Calif. In all, the Boilers will play seven teams which had winning records in 1997, and five opponents who played in bowl games after last season. There will be six home games and three trophy rivalry contests. For the second straight year, the Old Gold and Black will not play Big Ten powerhouses Michigan or Ohio State.

"It's certainly a great opportunity and challenge for Purdue and our football team," Tiller said of the season opener. "To play a storied program like USC with their tradition. Five years ago a lot of people around Purdue probably didn't think this would ever happen. It will be good for us because USC is very talented and athletic. We'd rather play them in West Lafayette, but we're appreciative of this opportunity and it should benefit us as we progress through the season."