Purdue trying to find pieces to improve inconsistent running game

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Chris Barclay wants his running backs to eat a Thanksgiving dinner — as often as possible — rather than a Hot Pocket.


Let him explain:

“I always tell those guys, ‘Look, would you rather have Thanksgiving dinner or do you want a Hot Pocket? Because you’ll enjoy Thanksgiving dinner a lot more if you allow your mom to put the turkey in the oven — you’ve got to be patient — or we put in a Hot Pocket and be hungry again five minutes later," the running backs coach said. "It’s a matter of, ‘What do you want to get out of this play?’”

Got it?

Barclay wants his running backs to have patience, and if they do, then they’ll get the payoff. Maybe then, he thinks, Purdue can turn its running game into a more consistent force, rather than the up-and-down nature it’s had through the first four games. In the Boilermakers’ two wins, they’ve averaged 234 yards on the ground; in the two losses — granted against much better defensive units for Louisville and Michigan — Purdue has had only 81 total, and only 23 by running backs. Against Minnesota Saturday, Purdue wants to establish a running game early, then be consistent.

“It’s very important,” running back Richie Worship said. “We’re in the Big Ten and in the Big Ten, we run the ball. It opens up our playbook for other things.”

There’s a lot of moving pieces. One of them — Markell Jones — might be back this week, after missing the last three games following his knee injury in Game 1. Purdue’s leading rusher the last two seasons, Jones has been besieged by injuries the last year-and-a-half, but when healthy, he’s a dynamic and versatile running back. He might have to be, with Tario Fuller a “long shot,” per Jeff Brohm, to return vs. the Gophers; Fuller, Purdue’s leading rusher this season, missed the Michigan game with an injury.

But regardless of the running backs, Purdue’s front needs to create more holes, and that could be a challenge vs. Minnesota. The Gophers are allowing only 109.8 rushing yards per game, ranking 26th in the country, but the statistic could be misleading. They gave up 262 ground yards in a loss to Maryland, a step up in level of opponent from non conference, on Saturday.

“We’re still a work in progress,” offensive line coach Dale Williams said, “and they still have a lot of stuff they need to do. I’m the third (position) coach that some of these guys have had, so they need to understand what we’re trying to do here, get the proper footwork, understand what is involved in their assignment and how successful it needs to be for that given play. We’re trying to get them better each day.”

Part of Williams’ task is molding the big, potentially physical personnel in Purdue’s current offensive line into Brohm’s wide-open scheme. And that frequently calls for the linemen to pull into space — Purdue is pulling from every position, rather than only the guard spots, as it did at times last season — and it’s been a progression. Williams, though, thinks Purdue’s made significant strides from what he first saw during the spring, when the line didn’t appear equipped to do what the new staff wanted.

“We definitely want to be more athletic,” Williams said. “We’re definitely trying to recruit more athletic linemen, so that’s what we’re trying to do. We want to create athleticism and those kids have done a good job in the weight room, changing their body frames and getting their weight down. We look better than we did when we got here.”

The Boilermakers have done a lot to try to get there. In the weight room during the offseason, they worked more so on quick-twitch power than lifting “7,000 pounds,” as Kirk Barron said.

And Barron notes that the linemen have gotten more comfortable with blocking in space, where they’ve got options. Williams has stressed the importance of cutting — Barron hadn’t been comfortable with it previously — so that linemen can change up techniques. It gives defenders something more to think about: Will Purdue’s line drop to cut or stay up high?

“For the interior three, when we get in space, you kind of panic, because you’re used to having a guy 6 inches away from you at all times,” Barron said. “But with Coach Williams teaching us kind of how to attack a little bit different, cut them or something like that, it definitely has helped getting guys around out in space.”

But, aside from the details, Williams wants to see Purdue simply finish blocks, as it had vs. Missouri and Ohio.

“It’s not just block, one hit, and let them slip off, it’s more about playing to the whistle, lock into them, move your feet,” Williams said. “We’ve been working on that and trying to work on that since I got here.”


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