If veteran LB can't go, Purdue likely to turn to rookie; more notes

Kyle Charters/Stacy Clardie, GoldandBlack.com staff
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Analysis: Vs.: More critical to Purdue's success against Michigan, offense or defense? ($)

Senior T.J. McCollum, the most experienced Boilermaker in co-coordinator Nick Holt’s defensive system, plans to be ready to play for Purdue on Saturday.

But if he can’t — a bad hamstring is holding him out of practice this week, after he reinjured it in the first quarter vs. Missouri — then Purdue will turn to one of the least experienced. Freshman Derrick Barnes, the reserve weakside linebacker, is preparing to go if needed.

“I’ve been running with the 1s while he’s been getting healthy,” Barnes said of McCollum. “So I’m getting the same experience; if he goes into the game and gets hurt, which I hope doesn’t happen, I’ll be prepared definitely, more than last week.”

Barnes had to fill in vs. the Tigers, and had some success, given the circumstances. It was only two weeks prior that Purdue had, perhaps, planned a redshirt, before deciding that he and fellow freshmen linebackers Tobias Larry and Cornel Jones were needed on special teams. And now Barnes might be needed in a bigger role as a starting defender. And against No. 8 Michigan, Purdue’s Homecoming opponent Saturday.

“You’ve always got to be prepared because anything can happen,” he said. “… (Against Missouri), I was shocked because I thought (T.J.) was going to play the whole game, so I was just sitting there doing special teams and Coach was like, ‘Derrick, we might need you.’ He told me T.J. might not be in the game, so I just got mentally prepared before I had to go out there. I was ready to go.”

Indeed, Barnes was. On his fifth play as a defender, early in the second quarter, the 6-foot-1, 250-pounder fit his run, stopping Tiger running back Damarea Crockett after only a three-yard gain. It could have been — likely would have been — much more had Barnes not shuffled into the gap.

Barnes’ special teams work vs. Ohio and Missouri was helpful, he said, in that it allowed him to get a taste for the game’s physicality, without the pressure of playing defense. And he’s been solid, particularly on kickoff coverage; there, he had a tackle on the first play of the game in Columbia, after he had guaranteed teammates he’d be the one to make it.

“Being on the field on special teams gave me confidence,” he said. “So I know that if I have to go in the game, it gives me confidence to be on defense also.”

McCollum probably wishes he could have the same kind of confidence in the hamstring. But those can be difficult injuries, needing rest and rehab to heal. It’s why he’s sitting out practice this week.

“It’s a tough injury because it can get worse,” he said. “You don’t want it to get worse. It’s irritating. I hate it, but things happen in football.”

“The trainers have been doing very well with me. So Saturday, game time, I definitely think I’ll be able to go then.”

It helpful that McCollum has plenty of experience in Holt’s scheme, having played in it the last two seasons at Western Kentucky before his graduate transfer to Purdue. He’s looking at film, comparing Michigan’s pro-style offense to what he had seen in a previous game vs. Vanderbilt, and he’s taking as many mental reps watching practice as possible.

“I’d love to practice if I could,” he said. “But unfortunately, I couldn’t.”

Maybe that’ll leave Barnes to get playing time vs. the Wolverines, a big spot for the rookie, much earlier than many would have predicted.

“He’s a young guy, he’s developing,” McCollum said. “He’s learning the plays better, just needs to slow the game down. Once he slows the game down, everything will come good for him.” (KC)

Tackle twist?

Grant Hermanns plans to make his fourth career start at left tackle on Saturday. Even if he’s “banged up” with a “sore knee.”

Hermanns didn’t practice Tuesday but guaranteed then he’d be back out there Wednesday with his teammates, whether he had his left leg in a sleeve or not.

He was.

Perhaps that’s not surprising, considering Hermanns re-entered the game at Missouri after getting his left knee checked out by athletic trainers during the second half. He tested the knee on the sidelines, jumping up and down and working on pass sets — and appeared to grimace the entire time. And, yet, he still went back into a blowout.

He didn’t have to.

But how could he not?

This dude is tough.

“My entire senior year of high school, I played through being deathly sick and then having a hip contusion. The bone ripped off in my hip, a hip flexor, played through it for six games,” he said in matter-of-fact way Tuesday. “I’ve played through worse stuff. I’m not worried about a knee. It’s just a small injury. I’ll be back (Wednesday), preparing for Michigan.”

Hermanns knows the importance of getting practice reps this week especially with Michigan’s defense, one that’s going to try to confuse by bringing blitzers from all angles and disguising where they’re coming from. It’ll be imperative for Purdue’s offensive line to communicate. That’s part of this week’s work, watching film as a unit and getting on the same page with calls and assignments.

“I think it’s definitely more important to get out there because you need to be out there reacting to stuff, seeing stuff. If you’re not and then you get there in a game, you’re going to be totally surprised by slants or them bringing blitzers or looks you see,” Hermanns said. “Especially this defense, it’s good to get out here and get your reaction going with stuff you’re going to see.

“Stuff is going to happen really quick. So if you know exactly where you need to be when you need to be there, you know your job, you can react a whole lot faster.”

Returning to practice is no guarantee Hermanns will start, though.

That decision likely is up to the athletic trainers and coaching staff.

If Hermanns can’t go — or hold up — Purdue likely will turn to Eric Swingler, a former walk-on. Swingler didn’t start getting reps at left tackle until late in training camp — he said it’s more comfortable to play on the right side because he’s right-handed — but he’s also played all five positions up front at some point in practices during his career.

So he’s adjusted quickly.

And he has gotten snaps at left tackle the last two games late in routs. Most of his snaps, though, this season have been as a pseudo tight end — he even switches out his No. 60 for an eligible No. 90.

If called upon to play on the offensive line earlier in the game Saturday, Swingler is ready.

“I feel like I’ve had the confidence to do that for a while,” he said. “If you don’t, you probably shouldn’t be out here.” (SC)

Speeding up

In the first quarter vs. Missouri Saturday, Terry Wright caught a screen pass to the left of the formation, with a convoy of blockers out front.

In a blink, the former J.C. receiver was gone, bypassing his teammates and the Tigers — most of the defenders had taken bad pursuit angles, perhaps not properly anticipating Wright’s speed — on his way to a 55-yard touchdown.

It was called back — left tackle Grant Hermanns was whistled for a hold, which probably helped give Wright the initial crease — but that didn’t negate what everyone saw: Speed.

“He got in the end zone so fast,” quarterback David Blough said of the slot receiver, who finished with 43 yards on three touches. “He pulled away from everybody by, like, 15 yards.

“And we threw him a little slant on the next drive and I thought he was going to split the safeties, which would have been phenomenal. The thing that jumps off the screen to me when you watch him is his speed and acceleration. He’s a quick-twitch guy. He’s still got to work on his knowledge of the playbook stuff. He just got here this summer, so he’s still learning. A fun personality to be around, he brings energy on the field and he’s electric, so if we get it in his hands, he can make a big play.”

Now, Wright needs only to develop, getting a better understanding of Purdue’s offense and his role. He says he’s getting more comfortable.

Evidence shows that might be true. Wright played about the same number of snaps as the week before, but vs. Missouri they were earlier and more meaningful. Wright had the near touchdown on the second drive, then Blough found him for a 21-yard gain on a slant during the third drive, when he nearly cut between the safeties. Later in the drive, Wright had a six-yard bubble reception in the red zone, setting up the third TD. On the first drive, he had a 16-yard rush.

Wright thinks he’s gaining Jeff Brohm’s trust.

“I feel like Coach Brohm has witnessed my speed against Mizzou, so he’s trying to get me the ball more and more,” Wright said. “He wants to see what I can do in open space. But if not (that), I can used my hands to make a contested catch or anything that Coach Brohm, or my coaches, need me to.”

Purdue could use speed on the field, as it’s not a proven characteristic of many of its top skill players. Wright has shown he can run. In high school in Memphis, he won a state title in the 100-meter dash, running a 10.62 as a personal record, and his Coffeyville Community College PR was 10.4. The 5-foot-11, 180-pounder says he ran a hand-timed 4.29 in the 40 this summer and a laser 4.38 in high school.

“I’m the fastest one on the team, the whole team,” Wright said, smiling. “I can race anybody and leave them, so I know I’m the fastest.”

But Wright will need to continue to learn. He made at least one mistake vs. the Tigers, when he started to celebrate early on the called-back scoring play. Wright, who joked he would have jumped in the stands to hug his mom had she been in attendance, was called for an unsportsmanlike. But he says he won’t happen again, now that he knows the feeling of being in the end zone.

Chances are, he’ll be there again at some point.

“He brings some explosiveness and speed that is as good as any out there,” co-offensive coordinator Brian Brohm said. “He’s a weapon that once we get him going and knowing his assignment every single time and feeling comfortable with him out there, he’s a guy teams will be preparing for and be very aware of as we go along.” (KC)

Success with the sweep 

Four times at Missouri when Purdue found itself in third- or fourth-and-short situations, it turned to a play that had been flawless in execution so far this season.

And kept the streak going.

Unofficially, Purdue is 7-for-7 this season when it has used a jet sweep motion in those short yardage scenarios. The Boilermakers haven’t always handed off to the receiver coming in motion — that’s QB David Blough’s read and call — but whichever decision Blough has made, it’s worked.

“Sometimes the hardest time is to gain yardage is on third-and-short or when you’re on the goal line because there’s a lot of guys up in there,” Jeff Brohm said Tuesday on the Big Ten teleconference when asked about the success of that approach on short yardage. “When you just want to line up and play smash mouth football, that’s fine but you have to be better than the other team and you have to find a way to get those yards. I haven’t had a ton of success some places doing that. So the more we’ve spread them out and the more we’ve used some misdirection and give them a little confusion, the more openings it seems like we’ve had. We added that element even a little bit last year into this year, so far it’s been very good.

“Now, I’m sure teams will catch on to it and figure out a way to stop it, and we’ll have to adjust. We’re constantly trying to tweak it a little bit, but when you line up on third-and-short and you’re in a running formation, they know the ball is coming downhill, it’s hard to get yards. So we try to do the opposite, but still have the ability to pound it up in there a little bit with misdirection and the ability to possibly hand off that sweep.”

Against the Tigers, Purdue was 3-for-3. On third-and-one with two tight ends on the field, Blough lined up under center and put Greg Phillips in motion. Blough handed the ball to Phillips on the sweep, and the senior receiver picked up 21 yards. Later in the game on fourth-and-one, Isaac Zico came in motion but Blough opted to keep and picked up the first. Then, on a third-and-one, Jackson Anthrop got the handoff off motion and slipped ahead for two yards and the first down.

“They’re looking at the running back. They’re not expecting us to get the ball,” Phillips said. “I think it’s fooling the safeties because they’re coming down, and it’s just opening one-on-one with me and the strong safety. I think it works pretty well.”

Against Ohio, Purdue was 2-for-2, with Terry Wright coming for a fake, only to have Richie Worship get the handoff and convert a third-and-1. Later, on fourth-and-one, Phillips came on the sweep but Blough kept it and picked up the first down. Purdue had Anthrop in a similar motion and fake on his touchdown catch, too, when he slipped across the formation and Blough quickly got him the ball in the flat.

In the opener against Louisville, Purdue executed the option play twice. On a third-and-2, Anthrop came in motion, but Blough kept the ball and surged ahead on the QB sneak to pick up the first down. Later, on another third-and-2, Anthrop took the handoff, turned the corner and gained enough for the first.

“I’ve never been part of a play like that before, and I like it,” Blough said Tuesday. “The way they’ve taught it, it just puts us in a good situation, whether we’re handing it off or we’re doing the QB sneak on it. Just depends, really. We try to make (the defense) wrong whatever they do. So I like being up there and being able to have the decision of handing it off or running the ball or whatever it may be to get a first down. On third-and-short, we’re coming off the ball well on that one.” (SC)

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