Purdue Boilermakers spring football: 5 questions in the air

Purdue quarterback David Blough (11) cuts in front of Michigan linebacker Mike McCray (9) during a Sept. 23 game in West Lafayette. (Photo by the Associated Press)

The countdown clock on Jeff Brohm’s encore to his tremendous first season as Purdue University football coach doesn’t start for real until the fall.

Spring is the time to tweak – or in the case of his defense, rebuild – without much outside pressure.

The Purdue Boilermakers (7-6 in 2017) had their second spring practice Wednesday as they gear up toward the April 7 spring game. The areas of concentration are not secret, but there are five worthwhile questions to be hinted at, if not answered, as this spring unfolds:

1. Who’s next at quarterback?

Former starter David Blough, who suffered an ankle injury, surprised many – perhaps even Brohm – by returning in full health in time for spring practice. Blough’s presence changes things up since the season-ending starter, Elijah Sindelar, is out following ACL surgery after his tremendous performance in the Foster Farms Bowl.

Redshirt freshman Nick Sipe was originally slated to be the No. 1 quarterback in the spring, but Blough might readjust things. Also in the mix is early arriving freshman Jack Plummer.

“At least the first couple weeks with David, we’ll make sure we keep him protected,” Brohm said after the first spring workout Monday. “I thought we did OK. There is plenty of improvement to be made at that position. That position has to play at a high level for us to win.”

The question of whether Blough can win back his job over Sindelar won’t be answered until fall, assuming Sindelar is back in action then. But if Blough performs well this spring, another QB battle could be on the horizon.

2. How quickly can a defensive rebuild take place?

Seven starters are gone from last season and a unit that improved tremendously over the course of Brohm’s first season in West Lafayette. Linebacker Markus Bailey and safeties Jacob Thieneman and Navon Mosley return after finishing second, third and fifth in tackles last season. Also back is defensive tackle Lorenzo Neal.

Beyond that are a lot of positions up for grabs. The Boilers will have a tough time replacing linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley, who led the team with 97 tackles last season. Defensive backs Josh Okonye, Da’Wan Hunte and Kamal Hardy are all gone.

3. Who will be the primary receiving targets?

Last season’s second- and third-leading receivers Gregory Phillips and Anthony Mahoungou are gone, and they left in spectacular manner with both topping 100 yards in the bowl game. Junior-to-be Jackson Anthrop returns after a team-high 47 receptions. Tight end Brycen Hopkins caught 25 passes last season and could be a bigger factor this spring. Cole Herdman is another threat at tight end, but is out this spring.

4. Who’s going to carry the football?

Markell Jones will get his fair share of time this spring with the expected absence of fellow running backs Richie Worship and Tario Fuller and the limited availability of D.J. Knox. Jones and Knox were 1-2 in rushing last season (566 and 561 yards). While Brohm promotes a pass-heavy offense, he utilizes those running backs to keep defenses honest.

5. Can Bishop Dwenger walk-on Antonio Blackmon earn a starting spot?

Blackmon turned down NAIA power University of Saint Francis in order to walk on at Purdue. He has excelled on special teams but has set a goal to crack the starting lineup this season. Blackmon’s big-play ability on special teams makes him a candidate to earn that starting role, which appears to be fairly wide open. He’ll have competition from Dedrick Mackey, Tim Cason, Mike Little and Simeon Smiley.

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