How do you replace Superman?
"You pray and pray and pray that hopefully he comes back," Purdue defensive coordinator Gary Emanuel said.
Unfortunately for Emanuel and the Boilers, all the prayer in the world won't magically tack on an extra year to Ryan Kerrigan's eligibility. Or make him pass up millions as a likely first-round pick in April's NFL draft.
Kerrigan's college career is over, and Purdue now must figure out how to move on without the unanimous All-American and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. The Boilers are looking to replace a guy led the nation in tackles for loss (26, 2.17 per game), tied for third in sacks (12.5, 1.04 per game) and tied for second in forced fumbles (5).
"It's hard to replace one of the best players in the history of the school," Emanuel said. "You get the guys out there to do the best they can. You might manufacture it through some different ways."
Purdue will lean on Gerald Gooden more this fall as he returns to a starting role. The 6-3, 235-pound senior contributed 35 tackles, two forced fumbles and four tackles for loss in 2010, but he has struggled to stay healthy at times.
Emanuel also is looking to Robert Maci, who recorded 17 tackles and two sacks as a reserve last fall, as well as young players like redshirt freshman Rashad Frazier.
Although questions swirl at end, the defensive tackles look good.
Kawann Short quietly was one of the Big Ten's most productive defensive tackles in 2010, finishing fourth in the league in both sacks (6) and tackles for loss (12.5). Although Kerrigan earned the accolades, Purdue's entire defensive front took a step forward as the Boilers led the Big Ten in both sacks (33) and tackles for loss (91). Bruce Gaston, a true sophomore, adds to the mix at defensive tackle after recording 4.5 tackles for loss last fall.
"We feel we have some depth there," Emanuel said.
The line also could get a lift from a secondary that returns intact. A new-look group in 2010 showed promise as cornerback Ricardo Allen recorded two pick-sixes and Logan Link provided leadership from the safety spot.
Purdue needs a strong group effort to replace Kerrigan, a message Emanuel has stressed this spring.
"Any time you lose a great player, you want everybody else to step up and do more, do their job better," Emanuel said. "That was the challenge they were presented with, and they're really looking forward to stepping up and accepting it.
"Guys want you to forget about Ryan. That's hard to do, but that's the attitude they have and the attitude they should have."