When Nick Holt was brought to Purdue as its co-defensive coordinator and play caller, he knew exactly what he hoped to see in Year 1.
A unit that played with extreme effort and passion, played fast and furious and was physical and tenacious.
If all that happened, if players bought in to those qualities and that attitude, Holt knew what could result: A defense that could be really stout against the run. Through the first three games, that's what he's seen.
The Boilermakers allowed an average of 129.7 yards rushing to Louisville, Ohio and Missouri, a remarkable improvement from last season when it allowed a whopping 238.4 yards per game.
Holt doesn't seem surprised by the results, and maybe that's because he knew he had the scheme to be able achieve these kind of numbers — at Western Kentucky last season, Holt's unit allowed only 109.8 yards rushing per game. But, he says, it's more than that.
Purdue's players deserve credit for how they've responded to not only Holt's scheme but how the staff has coached.
"Schemes are schemes. It’s how you play the schemes, quite honestly," he said after Wednesday's practice. "It comes back to in meetings, in film study and our drills, just the way we go about our business on how to attack the run game and being stout. It really all starts with that. As well as keeping the ball inside in front of you. I think it’s just the way our guys go about their preparation, the way our coaches coach it and then obviously there’s a little scheme involved, too. Don’t get me wrong. But it’s really how our kids play, and how we get our kids to play those schemes. I think that’s more important than anything.
"As I’ve always said, it’s not the calls, it’s how you play the calls. I think our kids are believing in that. They’ve seen some success and they’re buying in."
Naturally, the "buy in" always matters with a new coaching staff. But perhaps the reason it was imperative this season was because Purdue actually had experienced, talented players who, if put in the right positions and to their strengths, had a chance to excel.
On the defensive line, Gelen Robinson, Eddy Wilson, Lorenzo Neal and Austin Larkin all had previous starting experience. Holt and his staff saw Robinson more as an interior linemen, though, than a defensive end — where he'd tied for the team lead in sacks in 2016 — and so the 280-pounder was moved inside.
The move has been a huge success and really spurred the success against the run because it has given Purdue a considerable boost of strength, athleticism and explosiveness on the interior. Robinson plays mostly 3-technique, while Wilson and Neal are at nose, but Purdue also shifts its fronts and uses a variety of looks.
Sometimes, it'll have three linemen with their hands down and Leo Danny Ezechukwu standing up. Sometimes, it'll have two linemen down with two guys standing. Sometimes, it'll have three linemen down but packed tightly inside both offensive guards.
But that's scheme, the tweaks to the fronts and occasional movement. The reason it's worked, really, is because of how good each of those top four linemen have been at doing their job. Purdue is primarily a single-gap team, which means linemen are responsible for one gap. Regardless of a double team or getting a one-on-one matchup, linemen must not be moved from their gap.
So far, that group has not only been good at holding their ground, even absorbing double teams, but they've also flipped it and gotten good push.
"It starts with as simple as getting lined up, having a great stance and getting off on the ball. I have guys that have embraced what Coach Holt has brought," D-line coach Reggie Johnson said. "They’re extremely coachable, and they’re competitive as heck. They’ve done a good job of (No.) 1, getting aligned. They’ve done a great job of getting off on the ball. They’ve done a great job with striking and playing with their hands and being gap sound. They’re being selfless. They know that their names are not going to be called a whole bunch, but that’s OK. They’re excited for all the other guys to have the success. I mean, we are all benefitting from it. But they understand they’re not in this thing for the accolades. They’re in because they enjoy competing and they want to do everything to give the team an opportunity to win or put the team in a position to win.
"They’ve been fun to coach because they are trying to do the things we’re coaching them to do."
Here's why it matters so much that Robinson, Wilson, Neal, Larkin, etc., are doing their jobs: It frees up the linebackers to make plays, which is absolutely crucial to the success of stopping the run.
If the D-line keeps the opposing offensive linemen occupied, Purdue's linebackers can fly to the ball and hit their run fits with speed and ferocity.
And that was a consistent sight the first three games.
"I feel like our guys who have their hands down are really, really physical, disciplined guys. They eat up blocks and they stay in their gaps — and our inside linebackers are head hunters," Ezechukwu said. "Ja’Whaun Bentley and T.J. McCollum are absolute head hunters. You see it on film. I feel like with that combination, we have a good mix and we give ourselves a chance every game, and if we can keep that up, we should be able to get the results we want in the future."
Bentley, a senior, leads Purdue in tackles (24) and has 2.0 TFL. McCollum, the graduate transfer from Western Kentucky, missed the bulk of last week's game with a hamstring injury but still has 19 tackles, third on the team, and a TFL.
They've been the picture of speed and swarm, and McCollum thinks the unit can be even better.
"Now that they know their plays and know the game, it’s quicker now. We get lined up faster. We play faster," he said. "If (the D-line does) their job, it allows us to play faster. It frees us up to make more plays and to get the TFLs and all that. If the D-line controls the line of scrimmage, we win the game. I tell them that every Saturday before the game."
Being in position to make a play certainly is Step 1.
But Purdue's linebackers have done a good job of actually producing, too, and that's happened whether they've been running free or, at times, when they've gotten blocked.
Consistently, Holt drills his linebackers on how to shed blockers quickly, and he preaches it in the meeting rooms, too, Ezechukwu said. Or even when Holt just sees a player in passing, he'll make sure to offer a gentle reminder of "shed the block."
That will be a challenge this week, especially, when Purdue plays No. 8 Michigan, which ranks No. 15 in the country in run offense (255.5 yards per game) and has a sizable offensive line leading the way for Ty Isaac (336 yards) and Co.
It'll be the ultimate matchup of strength vs. strength.
"This is a run-stop defense," McCollum said. "We’ve got linemen taking up some guys, and we’ve got the linebackers playing fast. You can’t ask for a better game than this, to play Michigan, because they like to run downhill. They just like to run the ball, see who can beat who."
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