Purdue coach Joe Tiller has been beloved by the Boilermaker faithful for most of the past decade. He led the quick turnaround of a once-struggling program, and his wise-cracking, self-deprecating humor was a hit with both fans and media.
But now, those same people are more than willing to take Tiller to task ó even with 18 of 22 starters back from last seasonís team that finished 8Ė6 overall and 5Ė3 in the Big Ten.
Purdue didnít beat a team that finished with a winning record last season. The defense was horrid for a second consecutive year, finishing 114th in the nation a year after ranking 100th.
The Boilermakers should be fun to watch. Wide receiver Dorien Bryant is only one of several playmakers on offense, which includes experienced quarterback Curtis Painter. The defense ó which lost All-Big Ten defensive end Anthony Spencer to graduation ó must show major improvement. If that happens, the Boilermakers just might be the surprise of the Big Ten.
This could be one of the most explosive offenses Purdue has ever had under Tiller ó which is saying something. That largely depends on Painter. The strong-armed Painter has shown signs of brilliance, but heís also been erratic ó he has the same number of interceptions as touchdown passes (25) in 19 career starts.
The wide receiving corps is one of the Big Tenís best. Bryant runs underneath routes as well as anyone in the country, and the outside duo of Lymon and Greg Orton is tall and athletic. Lymon is expected to fully recover from a chest wound he suffered in a stabbing outside a West Lafayette nightclub in March.
Thereís a fierce battle for the starting tailback spot between incumbent Kory Sheets and Jaycen Taylor. Whoever wins will run behind a veteran line led by Jordan Grimes, one of the top guards in the country. Athletic tight end Dustin Keller will challenge for All-Big Ten honors if heís fully recovered from shoulder surgery.
Even with Spencer, an All-Big Ten defensive end, the Boilermakers were pushed around far too often. Spencer is now in the NFL, leaving even more questions.
Linebacker Cliff Avril moved to end on a full-time basis midway through last season and played well, but the key player up front is Alex Magee, a two-year starter at tackle who also may play on the outside this season. The coaches think the 6-foot-5, 295-pound Magee will cause some matchup nightmares for the opposition.
Anthony Heygood was the No. 4 running back when he convinced the coaching staff to move him to defense last season. He had a superb spring and will be the starting weakside linebacker. Heygood combines with Stanford Keglar to form a speedy outside duo.
But problems loom on the inside. Dan Bick was the likely starter, but he missed spring practice because of a neck injury and also has a troublesome shoulder. Incoming junior college transfer Brian Ellis figures to get a long look.
A young secondary got better as the season went along but suffered a blow when Tiller suspended Williams in the spring after an alcohol-related incident. Williams missed most of last season after a knee injury in the opener, but appeared to be on his way back. His return is uncertain.
Jared Armstrong is a solid punter, and Bryant and Sheets give the Boilermakers a pair of dangerous kickoff returners. But the punt-return game was ordinary at best, and kicker Chris Summers finished his freshman year by missing 11 of his last 14 field-goal attempts. Summers shows a strong leg in practice, but it hasnít carried over into games.
Even with nine starters returning on both sides of the ball, thereís a general sense of uneasiness among the Purdue faithful. Michigan and Ohio State are back on the schedule after a two-year absence. The defense has been porous and lost its best player by far in Spencer. Painter has been decent, but hasnít yet come close to pleasing fans who remember the recent brilliance of Drew Brees and Kyle Orton at quarterback.
But there is hope. If Painter improves, the offense can be as good as any in the Big Ten. The defense, however, remains a huge question mark, and that will determine where this team ends up in the Big Ten.