Purdue defense, without key starters for first half, ready for challenge

Stacy Clardie, GoldandBlack.com staff
Gold and Black

More: Looking for pieces to improve run game | Coordinator's Corner: Tony Levine | Opponent View: Minnesota ($)

Analysis ($): Vs.: Which loss is bigger, Bentley or Thieneman?

It hasn't even been a month.

In the week of practice after Purdue's second game of the season, walk-on defensive back Antonio Blackmon was asked to take snaps at safety. The decision largely came because Week 1 starter T.J. Jallow was questionable with an injury, and coaches were looking to add depth with a player they could trust.

Blackmon earned that because of his effort, his willingness to improve and his love for the game, Coach Jeff Brohm said then. Blackmon has stayed in the rotation for the same reasons.

And, Saturday, he may be rewarded for his persistence and versatility with a start.

Purdue will be without starting free safety Jacob Thieneman and starting middle linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley for the first half against Minnesota after both players were ejected in the second half following targeting penalties. By rule, they have to miss another half.

That means the Boilermakers need to fill the spots of Thieneman, the quarterback of the defense in a way, and Bentley, the team’s leading tackler.

Blackmon, for one, is ready.

"We expect everybody to know what they’re doing and everybody to play at the same level as the guy in front of you," Blackmon said. "It’s hard to lose those guys because you know that they’re playmakers and they’re really good players, but (it's) next man up and we trust that the next guy up is going to do their job. That’s pretty much what we’re focused on.”

Linebacker Markus Bailey said the first-half lineup changes hardly have been a topic of discussion because of that next-man-up philosophy.

“We have confidence in all of our guys,” Bailey said.

In theory, Bailey could shift inside to fill Bentley's spot — he has experience there — but he said Wednesday he expects to stay at outside linebacker Saturday in Purdue’s base defense. It’s more likely senior Garrett Hudson will move into the starting spot for Bentley because it means no shifting across the defense. If Bailey moved, someone would have to slide into his spot. If inside linebacker T.J. McCollum moved to the middle, freshman Derrick Barnes would have to replace him. Hudson has experience in games, including three starts in 2015.

Blackmon has played in games, too — unofficially about 125 defensive snaps last season — and this season he's gotten about 40 on defense, including at safety.

But this week will be a twist.

Most of Blackmon’s safety snaps have been alongside Thieneman. So Blackmon was the strong safety, not the free. There are differences between the two, mostly that the free safety is responsible in Purdue’s base coverage for the middle third of the field — to play center field, essentially — and must not let any play break free.

And there’s a lot of information to process, too.

Blackmon said he thought he had a good knowledge of Purdue’s defense when he was playing corner and nickel. But, since getting more snaps at safety, he realizes he didn’t know as much as he thought.

“It was, like, so fast and everything. You have to make sure your eyes are in the right spot. Your teammates have to truly trust you when you’re playing free safety because you are the last line of defense,” he said. “Any way I can get on the field, that’s my focus. Making sure I do what I can for the team and whatever the coaches call me to do, I try and do it the best I can, as fast as I can and just making plays on the football field.

“I played corner, nickel, safety, I’m on special teams, so I’m just playing everywhere and I’m just embracing it. I’m loving it. Because it’s giving me a bigger football focus. At corner, you’re pretty much just locking down on this one man. When I move to nickel, it’s inside, so you’ve got a two-way go, make sure you’re locked in. At safety, you have to know what everybody is doing. So it’s making me a smarter football player and also a faster football player.”

Ready to go

David Blough has three consecutive days of practices under his belt now, after injuring his throwing shoulder late against Michigan. That’s good news for the starting QB who is hopeful to keep that string going Saturday.

“Shoulder is feeling great,” Blough said after Tuesday’s practice. “Fighting through the injury. I want to be able to show my guys I can practice, be there for them. It’s been really good. Rehab has been great with our strength staff and athletic training staff.

“I’m going to be ready to go.”

Blough said the biggest hurdle with this most recent surgery injury, an AC sprain — he also injured the shoulder in camp but has never given specifics — has been fighting through pain, unlike the first injury, when he mostly battled fatigue and had to get arm strength back.

“The pain is going away,” Blough said. “It’s kind of been like a bruise, to an extent.”

In the first four games, Blough completed 70 percent of his passes for 629 yards and six touchdowns. He threw two interceptions.

Brohm said Monday he wouldn’t reveal before Saturday if Blough will start against Minnesota. If Blough doesn’t, it’ll likely be Elijah Sindelar, who started the first two games. Sindelar completed 48 percent of his passes through four games — that number is a bit slanted because of receiver drops — with 366 yards, five TDs and two INTs. (SC)

Still time

Isaac Zico figured he’d be an impact player for Purdue this season.

By now, really.

But it’s four games in, and the junior college transfer outside receiver has only three catches for 18 yards. (He knew the exact statistics.) He has made good on most of his opportunities, he just hasn’t had that many. Unofficially, Zico was targeted eight times the first four games when he averaged about 22 snaps per game.

“Work in progress,” Zico said Tuesday when asked to evaluate his season. “I try to perfect my craft every day.”

He admits he’s a bit frustrated he hasn’t broken out yet like he thought he would, but he said he’s still encouraged because there still are eight more games remaining and he’s been practicing well.

He said he’s focused on catching everything thrown his way in practices, whether it’s during skelley, team or individual periods, and he’s working to become a consistent blocker on the perimeter in the run game and on screens. Zico said position coach JaMarcus Shephard’s message has been for Zico to continue coming to practice with the right attitude and intent to improve, and with that, “We’re going to get you some touches.”

Purdue probably needs that to be the case.

It hasn’t gotten much production out of its outside receivers, and one of the reasons Zico was brought in by Brohm was to boost Purdue’s athleticism and speed on the outside. Zico has shown some of that ability in practice.

“I think he’s making progress, and he understands he just has to push forward every single week in order to get better and hopefully we can get him the ball more and he can gain some confidence and help us make plays,” Brohm said. “But I have seen progress and I have liked the way he’s worked. We’ve got to do a better job of getting him the ball.”

Zico certainly likes the sound of that.

Despite the lack of early success, Zico hasn’t lost confidence in his abilities.

“All I think about is we’ve still got some time left. Maybe this game, I might show something special. You never know what could happen, especially with Coach Brohm,” Zico said. “I know I’m a dangerous man with the ball in my hands.

“I know who I am. I know what I can do with the ball in my hands. It’s just the fact of catching it, tucking it and making a move, whatever you can do after you catch it. That’s on me. Once I get the ball, once they target me more, I feel like that guy is going to come out. That’s what I’m just waiting on. As soon as I catch it, it’s over. That’s all I’m waiting on.” (SC)

Honoring Tiller

Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck said his team would wear a "logo" that it designed to support Purdue and Joe Tiller, the program's all-time winningest coach who died last week.

"Any time you lose a coaching legend like Joe Tiller, especially from our conference, whether you know or don’t know him or have ties to him or don’t have ties to him, he did so much for game of football," Fleck said Tuesday on the Big Ten teleconference. "Being within our conference and going out to Purdue the week of his passing, we want to make sure that Purdue knows we’re behind them, that our thoughts and prayers are with the whole entire Tiller family and the Purdue family."

Purdue also has plans to honor Tiller in several ways, including having a moment of silence before the game, wearing a tribute sticker on its helmets and playing a video tribute at halftime.

The school already had planned to celebrate the 20-year anniversary of the 1997 team, and key members of that group — including quarterback Drew Brees — will be in Ross-Ade Stadium. (SC)

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