Senior defensive tackle Brandon Villarreal is well aware that offense is the first thing people think of when the subject is Purdue football. West Lafayette, after all, was the training ground for NFL passers Len Dawson, Bob Griese and Drew Brees, and it's where coach Joe Tiller devised his "basketball on grass" attack. Few seem to remember that seven Boilermakers defenders were taken in the 2004 NFL draft. "Regardless of how good our offense is, we always have to prove we can play defense too," says Villarreal. "This year we're out to make a bigger statement."
With all 11 starters back, plus 16 other players who saw action on defense last fall, there's no better time. "This is the deepest we've been since I've been here," says defensive coordinator Brock Spack, in his ninth year at Purdue.
The 6'2", 289-pound Villarreal, who last season ranked third in the Big Ten in tackles for loss (17 1/2), is the mainstay on the defense's strongest unit--the front four. At 6'6", 270 pounds, junior end Ray Edwards (eight sacks, second in the Big Ten) has the size and speed to be a first-round pick and premier pass rusher in the NFL. The other end, high-energy senior Anthony Spencer (6'3", 263), is equally skilled at playing the pass (7 1/2 sacks) and the run. Next to Villarreal at tackle is run-stuffing 6'3", 303-pound senior Brent Grover.
If the linebackers and head crackers in the secondary, such as 6'2", 226-pound strong safety Bernard Pollard, do their jobs, this could be a Big Ten--title team. The soft schedule includes neither Michigan nor Ohio State, and senior quarterback Brandon Kirsch should have no trouble keeping the offense rolling in his first year as a starter. A playmaker whether running the ball or passing it, the 6'3", 208-pound Kirsch last year threw for 711 yards and seven touchdowns in six games as Kyle Orton's backup. "He's a little bit of a cowboy," Spack says of Kirsch. "He plays by the seat of his pants."
Though Spack and his staff had to scramble last fall to plug the holes left by those seven draftees, the results were mostly favorable. The Boilermakers ranked 15th nationally in scoring defense (17.2 points per game). Their one obvious weak spot: only 15 forced turnovers, which ranked 105th. "We were woefully thin last year and had to play so many young guys," says Spack. "They were too worried about assignments to think about stripping the football."
With more opportunistic play this season--"Our focus all spring was on forcing turnovers," Villarreal says--the Purdue defense could make a name for itself in 2005. --M.B.