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Purdue Boilermakers football: Five (or six) key players for 2018 as fall camp opens

Purdue wide receiver Jackson Anthrop (33) gets past Nebraska 's Joshua Kal during the second half of an NCAA college football game in West Lafayette, Ind., Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

As the Purdue Boilermakers open their football training camp this week, they’ll be accompanied by an unfamiliar concept: Positive expectations.

After leading Purdue to a 7-6 record and a bowl win in his first season, coach Jeff Brohm faces the task of matching and, if all goes well, improving on the performance of a year ago.

It won’t be easy, as Big Ten foes won’t be caught sleeping when they face the Boilers this time around.

For the Boilermakers to excel, every key player will have to deliver his best season yet.

Here are the five (make that six, considering the quarterback position) players who will be essential to Brohm’s second-season sequel.

Markus Bailey, linebacker

Bailey is the biggest single playmaker returning on the defense and arguably the best player on the team. He had 89 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, seven sacks, an interception and a fumble recovery last season. He’s quick, fast, aggressive and experienced. The issue is whether there will be players around him who can complement his play. That’s especially true up front, where the line needs to combat offensive linemen to keep them off Bailey so he can stop running backs cold.

RELATED STORY: First four games pivotal to Purdue coach Jeff Brohm’s second season

Lorenzo Neal, defensive tackle

One of the few with experience up front, Neal delivered 5.5 tackles for loss and a pair of sacks last season. He must emerge as the leader of the front line, where so many Big Ten games end up being determined. The Boilermakers will depend on a number of young, inexperienced players in this unit, so the 6-foot-3, 315-pound Neal will need a big junior year.

David Blough and Elijah Sindelar, quarterbacks

Who wins this job? Brohm has been upfront about the fact it’s undetermined. He has said “maybe” a starter emerges during camp. He has said “maybe” he’ll use both quarterbacks to open the season. It seems to be a fluid situation. While there are those who say if a team has two quarterbacks it really has none, that’s not quite the case with Purdue. Both players have shown they can handle the load, with slightly different skill sets. One issue that arises in a competition like this is who emerges as the leader of the offense. Typically, the quarterback sets the on-field tone. It will be a fascinating duel.

Jacob Thienemann, safety

This do-everything safety was third on the team in tackles last season, came up with five tackles for loss, two sacks and two interceptions. Brohm says Thienemann has the skills to step down and play as an extra linebacker in certain packages. Again, the inexperience of the defense requires the few returning defensive players to have outstanding seasons to pull the others up.

Jackson Anthrop, wide receiver

It very well could turn out that freshman Rondale Moore, a four-star recruit, steps onto the field and becomes Blough’s or Sindelar’s go-to receiver, especially when it comes to chunk plays. But the value of Anthrop – the team’s leading returning receiver with 47 receptions, 423 yards and five touchdowns in 2017 – lies in steady production. If Anthrop is an effective ball-control receiver, it opens things up for the rest of the passing game as well as the potential running-back-by-committee approach on the ground.

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