WEST LAFAYETTE -- Gabe Holmes gets it. He says he does, at least. Purdue's senior tight end has one last year to get it right, to play the way he's always wanted to play, the way coaches have expected him to play.
He is a big man -- 6-5, 243 pounds -- with break-away speed, which didn't get utilized much under former coach Danny Hope and former offensive coordinator Gary Nord.
No, Holmes won't beat quarterback Rob Henry or tailback Akeem Hunt in a race, but then, he doesn't have to. He just has to beat the linebackers likely to cover him.
Guess what? In new offensive coordinator John Shoop's new offense, Holmes will get the chance to beat them. Why? Because the Boilers are set to stretch the field, and as the New England Patriots have shown in recent years, you can do that with tight ends as well as wide receivers.
Holmes loves that.
“This offense is going to be a lot different,” he said. “With Coach Nord, we did a lot of horizontal throwing. There weren't too many long balls. This year we're running a lot of outs. We're going long a lot, even the tight ends. I like it.”
Holmes should. He has the speed, athleticism and pass-catching ability to thrive in it. There is a reason why, despite just 35 career catches for just 305 yards and three touchdowns, he is on the preseason John Mackey Award watch list, which annually goes to the nation's top tight end.
“I most definitely can get deep,” he says. “Then I can show my skill set even more.”
Holmes is coming off a career year, if you can call 25 catches for 138 yards and two TDs a career year. Shoop wants more from him. So does tight ends coach Gerard Parker. So does Holmes, himself.
“I just have to execute,” he said. “If I execute like I'm supposed to, the offense will be real good.”
Much was expected of Holmes from the moment he arrived in West Lafayette. He had been a standout basketball player in addition to being a three-star football prospect at Miramar, Fla.'s Saint Thomas Aquinas High School. His father, Walter, was a member of the 1984 U.S. Olympic track team as a long jumper. But between injuries and a lack of competitive drive, he made little impact.
That figures to change this season. Parker is not a half-throttle coach. He demands and pushes, and Holmes has been a consistent target.
“He's coached big-time guys,” Holmes said. “He knows what it takes to get (to the NFL). He's very vocal. He doesn't settle for anything but the best.”
Take blocking, for instance. Holmes has never been a guy who hammered defenders into irrelevance. While he's still a dominant blocker, he's made progress.
“It's getting there,” he said with a smile. “It's not there yet, but it's come a long way from my freshman year.”
Holmes is part of a potentially strong receiving group. If Hunt proves he can handle a heavy running back load, if the offensive line delivers and if a consistent quarterback is found (Henry is the favorite, although Austin Appleby and Danny Etling are in the mix), Purdue might have a hard-to-handle offense.
“We've got good receivers,” Holmes said. “We've got good running backs. We've got a good line. If everybody executes like he's supposed to, we can go as far as we want to go.”
A big key is reducing the mistakes and turnovers that were so prevalent during the Hope years. Coach Darrell Hazell has pushed ball security from the moment he arrived on campus.
“It's just the discipline aspect of it,” Holmes said. “If you're disciplined, then a lot of the turnovers will go away. We've been working on that. We're doing smart things in practice and workouts. We're paying attention to details. That will carry over into games.”
Hazell got the Purdue job in part because of his ability to turn around a traditionally lousy Kent State program in just two years. The hope is he can do it with the Boilers, who underachieved the last two years despite playing in two straight bowl games.
“We know if we do what we're supposed to do,” Holmes said, “if we take heed of what Coach Hazell is saying, if we pay attention to details and be as disciplined as he is and as he's making us, we can have a great year.
“Coach Hazell knows what it takes to win. We're listening to everything he says. He's not telling us anything wrong. What he's doing will lift us to success.”
Success won't come easy. Purdue has a rugged nonconference schedule that starts with the Aug. 31 season opener at Cincinnati and includes Notre Dame and Northern Illinois.
“That schedule most definitely pumps us up,” Holmes said. “We get those W's, and it's going to push us up there to national prominence. We need something to get us back up there and this schedule can do it.
“People would said, Purdue beat Notre Dame. Purdue beat NIU. Purdue beat Cincinnati. We're ready to go and put it out there. Coach Hazell sets the lead and we're going to follow.”