WEST LAFAYETTE -- Darrell Hazell basks in his football coaching honeymoon. He has yet to lose a game at Purdue. He has yet to make a decision that backfires in front of a packed Ross-Ade Stadium.
That will change, of course. He has a six-year contract to get it right and there will be peaks and valleys, just as there are for every coach.
Hazell has to pick a starting quarterback -- either lightly used veteran Rob Henry, or one of three players who have never thrown a college pass (Austin Appleby, Bilal Marshall and Danny Etling). He has to develop an offensive line, find big-play receivers, create running back depth and get the defense to play at a solid Big Ten level. He needs a kicker who is consistently accurate and a punter who can consistently down the ball inside the opponents' 20-yard line.
The challenges are many and the rewards are great. Where are the Boilers six months into Hazell's coaching run? He talked about that, and more, while recently meeting with the News-Sentinel to discuss a variety of topics during a wide-ranging interview. This is the last of a four-part series.
ONE OF YOUR SPRING PRIORITIES WAS IMPROVING TEAM TOUGHNESS AND PHYSICAL PLAY. ASSESS HOW THAT WENT.
The players have a clear understanding of the brand of football we need to play. Are we there yet? No. But they understand we're going to play some downhill football. This is a tough league. The teams that do well in this league are tough teams. They are capable of performing in November when it's cold. That's why we need to create that tough mindset.
COACHES AREN'T ALLOWED TO WORK WITH PLAYERS OVER THE SUMMER. WHAT DO YOU NEED FROM THE ENTERING AUGUST CAMP?
This has to be our best summer ever. I say that from all standpoints. You've got to live for this season. Everything you do, the way you eat, the way you train, the way you sleep, the way you film study on your own because the coaches can't be around. We need to have a great summer and make those strides we need to make.
We've got to get stronger. We've got to continue to improve our mindset and toughness. And then we have to grow together as a team even more. We've started that. The last six months have been really good, but we've got to bond.
HOW KEY ARE DEFENSIVE LINEMEN RYAN RUSSELL AND BRUCE GASTON IN YOUR PLANS?
Those are two pretty significant guys. When we got Bruce back in the spring in that last week (he was sidelined while recovering from thumb surgery) he made a significant difference immediately. We need him to be able to play, both of those guys, 30 to 40 snaps out of the 60 to 65 snaps we'll take on defense each game. And be just lights out. To be able to make plays in the backfield, to take the double teams off of linebackers and create some energy out there for us.
DESPITE RETURNING VETERANS WILL LUCAS, JOE GILLIAM AND SEAN ROBINSON, THERE IS A PERCEPTION THAT LINEBACKER IS THE DEFENSE'S WEAK LINK? IS THAT TRUE AND WHAT DO YOU NEED TO SEE FROM THAT POSITION?
That is the perception from the outside. I'm still trying to get a great feel for that position. Coming out of the spring I don't have a great feel. I thought we were better than what I had heard coming in. I thought those guys worked hard at getting better. It will be interesting to see how it all unfolds when camp rolls around. There are guys there who are capable. I see talent there.
ASSESS THE QUARTERBACK BATTLE WITH VETERAN ROB HENRY, REDSHIRT FRESHMEN AUSTIN APPLEBY AND BILAL MARSHALL, AND TRUE FRESHMAN DANNY ETLING?
We plan on name a starter two weeks prior to the opening game, so the middle of August. We need to see three things from that starting quarterback. First, he has to get us in the right plays. He has to be a smart quarterback. Second, show some toughness. Be able to stand in there and take some shots. But the most important thing to me is to take care of the football. If a guy can do that, you have a chance to win a lot of games.
Yes, you've got to be able to make accurate throws in those tough situations like third and 5. You've got to stand in there and make those throws. If you can take care of the ball … if we have to punt, we'll punt. A punt is a good play. Whoever can do that is the guy who is going to win the job for us.
CAN YOU DETERMINE WHO YOUR ULTIMATE STARTING QUARTERBACK WILL BE IN PRESEASON CAMP OR WILL YOU NEED SOME GAME PERFORMANCES TO MAKE A FINAL DECISION? FOR INSTANCE, ETLING MIGHT NOT BE READY TO START IN AUGUST, BUT HE MIGHT BY OCTOBER.
It's whoever the best guy is. I don't care if he's a freshman or not. I want the best guy out there who gives us the best chance to win. I owe that to the program and the team. If Danny is the best guy, then he'll be the guy. If Rob is the best guy, he'll be the guy. Same with Austin and Bilal.
We study a lot of tape. There is a lot of practice and lot of reps during camp. They won't be equal reps for all four of those guys. There can't be. But there will be enough reps for everybody so we can make an honest evaluation for the good of the team.
HOWEVER GOOD THE QUARTERBACK IS, HOWEVER GOOD THE SKILL PLAYERS ARE, IF YOU DON'T HAVE A SOLID OFFENSIVE LINE, YOU'RE IN TROUBLE. ASSESS THE OFFENSIVE LINE PLAY.
In the spring, from Practice 1 to Practice 14, it was like night and day. Just watching those guys grow up. I think it's going to be a good group. We've got to get eight or nine of those guys to play this year. After about practice No. 6 or No. 7 in the spring you saw them start to work in concert. They started understanding the schemes and where the help comes from in pass protection. I think, when it's all said and done, that might be our strongest group.
They are very athletic for big guys. They're all hovering around 300 pounds, 305, some 295. They're athletic. They need to be tough and they're heading that way. Our offensive line coach (Jim Bridge) has done a good job of making them tough.
YOU HAVE ONE DEFENSIVE STARTER FROM FORT WAYNE IN FORMER BISHOP DWENGER STANDOUT LANDON FEICHTER, THE STRONG SAFETY. HE HURT HIS HAND EARLY IN THE SPRING AND DIDN'T PLAY MUCH, BUT SHOULD BE READY FOR THE SEASON. WHAT DO YOU SEE FROM HIM?
Before he got injured he was doing some special things. He's very smart and he's got a lot of range back there as a safety. When he went down (in the spring), we moved some things around. He could have a great year for us. He's got to hold up in the run game to be that extra hat in the box and strike some people. He's pretty special. I was very pleased in those first three to four days when he was practicing. He stood out as a difference maker.
YOU'VE GOT SOME TALENTED GUYS IN THE SECONDARD WITH RICARDO ALLEN, FEICHTER, TAYLOR RICHARDS, FRANKIE WILLIAMS, NORMANDO HARRIS, AND MORE. ASSESS THAT AREA OF THE DEFENSE.
We have some experience back there. The big thing they have to do is continue to learn from (defensive backs coach Jon Heacock) and continue to study tendencies of offenses. Offensive guys are creatures of habit. When things are not going as well as an offense likes it to go, they usually revert back to things that have worked in the past. So if you can study those and get those percentages, you get a chance to slow pedal some things, maybe break on a ball maybe even before the receiver comes out of the break. We definitely have the physical ability back there. We also have a little bit of depth. I thought Normando Harris came along a little bit as a bigger corner. Taylor Richards stepped in and played some good safety for us. I think we have a chance.
WITH VETERAN O.J. ROSS' STATUS UNCERTAIN (HE WAS SUSPENDED FOR THE SPRING FOR AN UNSPECIFIED REASON), THE MOST EXPERIENCE RECEIVER IS DOLAPO MACCARTHY. WHAT DO YOU NEED TO SEE FROM THIS POSITION?
Perhaps because it's the position I coached (as an assistant at Ohio State) that maybe I'm the hardest on that position, but the thing I need to see us do is play faster outside. Get lined up faster and come off the ball faster. Play fast with and without the ball.
A lot of times when you're putting in new schemes like we're doing, it slows people down. I understand that. We have to play much faster, put pressure on defenses. Don't let them slow-pedal us. Make them back out fast. Be in the right location when it's time to be in the right location.
DID YOU SEE THE QUARTERBACKS AND RECEIVERS GETTING IN SYNCH ON ROUTES AND OVERALL PASS PLAYS?
At times I saw it, but not enough. Did we get better? Yes. Are we where we're supposed to be? No. So let's go.
MACCARTHY IS 6-5 AND 220 POUNDS. HE CAUGHT 28 PASSES FOR 252 YARDS AND A TOUCHDOWN AS A FRESHMAN LAST SEASON. CAN HE BE A DOMINATING RECEIVER?
That's what we want him to be. He still has a little ways to go, but he's got so much size that he has to play at that size. He has to play at 6-5. We've talked about that. He had a little bit of a knee injury coming out of the spring which hampered him a little bit. We've exchanged some old cut-up tapes I had. He's taken those home and studied them. It's very important to Dolapo. If he can come along and be that (dominant) receiver that he can be, that we hope he can be, that gives us a lot of options.
AS FAR AS THE INCOMING FRESHMEN, HOW MUCH IMPACT DO THEY NEED TO HAVE RIGHT AWAY?
If you're talking about positions, the two positions that freshmen could help us right away are receiver and running back. In the running back position we're not very deep after Akeem Hunt (he rushed for 350 yards and two touchdowns last season in a part-time role). We ended up signing four guys (Keith Byars, Dalyn Dawkins, Keyante Green and David Yancey). Those guys are pretty good. We think Akeem is pretty good. I know he's pretty good. In this league, is he going to be able to take the pounding for 14 straight weeks? You have to have guys to spell him.
That's one position freshmen could help us early. So is the receiver position. We signed three guys (DeAngelo Yancey, Dan Monteroso, Myles Norwood) who are all 6-1 to 6-3 guys who can run. Those guys will challenge as well for some spots.
KEITH BYARS II IS THE SON OF FORMER OHIO STATE AND NFL RUNNING BACK KEITH BYARS. HOW GOOD CAN THE SON BE?
His dad was pretty good. He's not as big as his dad, but I don't know if anybody is as big as his dad. He's physical. That's the thing you like about him -- he comes down hill and he finishes runs. He's got some shiftiness in the hole. You'd like to see how quickly he can get in the mix.
AT RUNNING BACK, DO THE FRESHMEN HAVE TO SHOW PRETTY QUICKLY THEY CAN PLAY PHYSICAL SO YOU CAN TRUST THEM IN THE GAME?
Absolutely. It's about trust. Can they take care of the ball? That's No. 1. Will they step up and pass protect when you need them to pass protect. That's the other thing. Otherwise you're shuttling them in and out. They're in on first and second down, and then it gets to third down and you've got to pull them out of the game. You don't want to do that. It tips your hand too much. They have to know the protections and step up and stiff (block) someone.
ASSESS THE SPECIAL TEAMS
I think with the punt unit we made some good strides. You work on that every day. We're doing something way different than what's been done before. Our punting into the field was fine. I don't think our punting to down the ball inside the 10- to 15-yard line was good enough. We have to work on those skills.
We only worked three to four times on kickoffs. We did a little more on punt return. We're trying to keep it as simple as possible so guys can just play. That's a key component for us to allow us to perhaps gain an advantage on teams.
YOU WILL PLAY NOTRE DAME AT NIGHT AT ROSS-ADE STADIUM. ARE YOU A FAN OF NIGHT GAMES AND WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE MORE ON THE SCHEDULE?
The atmosphere is so much better for night games. It's harder on the teams. It's harder on the coaches. You sit around all day in a hotel. It's a little nerve wracking. You step into a night stadium, especially for this Notre Dame game, it's going to be rocking. It will be a live atmosphere. That's what your kids want. That's why you play the game. I like the night games. Not too many. Maybe three to four a year is plenty, but it's fun.
YOU'VE MADE A BIG EMPHASIS ON GENERATING MORE FAN INTEREST. THAT INCLUDED OPENING UP SPRING PRACTICE TO FANS. DO YOU HAVE A SENSE THAT IT'S WORKING?
I've spent weeks in the dorm. Weeks in fraternity houses. It will be weeks visiting some of the local businesses. I don't know if we'll know the result until we see the stadium, but it seems like we're being well received. I hope that's the case. I know one thing -- we're working at it to get it better. But until we see the stands and the atmosphere in the stadium, I don't know if you ever know. Ticket sales are up. That's good to see.
Notre Dame is probably not a good (fan interest) barometer because Notre Dame is Notre Dame. That stadium is going to be full. Ohio State will be the same way. But … it's the other games where we'd be able to tell -- you know what, we are getting better in attendance. We are getting a better atmosphere in the stadium.
We need it desperately. If you watch the Big Ten Network and you see Penn State with its 110,000 fans, and you see Ohio State and its 105,000, and Michigan and its 110,000-plus. Turn on our game and it's 75 percent full or 65 percent full. Why? Why is it like that? There's no reason for that, especially with our venue being considerably smaller than those I just mentioned. Ours is 62,500. Why can't we be hanging off the rafters?
Winning is key.