If Purdue is going to cash in on its opportunity in the Leaders Division this year, then it's likely that it will have to tighten up its defense this season. The Boilermakers allowed 26.8 points per game in 2011, ranking ninth in the Big Ten. That prompted a change from head coach Danny Hope, who brought in Tim Tibesar from the Canadian Football League to remake the defense.
Tibesar has done so mostly behind closed doors this offseason, as Purdue has mainly kept observers out of practice. I caught up with Tibesar after a handful of fall practices to try and gauge how the transition is going so far.
How is the defense looking early on in camp?
Tim Tibesar: We've been pleased overall with the tempo of practice. We've still got a lot of work to do, we've got a lot of learning going on.
It's early, but has anybody jumped out who has surprised you?
TT: I think we got a good feel for our players in the spring time, about who can be potential players for us. And so far, that's sort of holding true with what we saw in the spring.
How good do you feel about the depth you have on the defensive line and in the secondary?
TT: I don't know any coach who feels like they ever have enough depth. I'm excited that we have enough guys up front and in the secondary who can be regular contributors for us so that we don't just have to rely on four starters. So that is pleasing to see, and now we've just got to stay healthy through the season and keep that depth.
How far along are they in learning your new system?
TT: After spring, I was very pleased with how the players progressed in learning a new system and a new vocabulary and concepts. And I haven't been disappointed through six practices this fall. It just goes to show how hard our guys studied in the summer time, watching film and getting into the playbooks on our own. I'm very pleased with where we are at.
So are guys playing without thinking already?
TT: No, we're not there yet. We've got some smoke coming out of ears, don't get me wrong. But we didn't have to start back over at practice zero, so to speak. There's been some carryover from spring, and guys have been able to progress. We're much further along than we were after the spring.
No one really got to see you during spring practice or so far this fall. Can you gives us an idea of what kind of philosophy you're installing on defense?
TT: The biggest philosophy we're going to have is that we're going to put our best players on the field for a given situation. We do have some depth, both up front and in the secondary, which allows us a little bit of flexibility there. From a philosophy standpoint, we want to be very good at pursuit, we want to be very good at block destruction, we want to be very good at tackling, and we want to be great at taking the ball away from our opponent. Regardless of what scheme we play, those are the things we're going to hang our hat on.
Ricardo Allen said at Big Ten media days that it's a very aggressive scheme. True?
TT: We want to be sound in everything we do, and yet at the same time I believe in an aggressive approach. Players want that. They don't want to be sitting back on their heels and reading and reacting all the time. So we've got to have a blend of read and react and a blend of aggressive style where we're dictating the pace and tempo to the offense.
How much has your time in the Canadian Football League influenced what you've brought to Purdue?
TT: I grew a lot in my three years up in the Canadian Football League, from a technique and schematic standpoint, because they have different challenges up there that you don't encounter in the United States. So I certainly grew as a football coach and really think it helped me overall. Those concepts we've definitely tried to utilize when they've fit down here, especially with some of the offenses that have similar formations and philosophies you see in the CFL. So hopefully some of that time has been able to help ur guys out.
There has been talk of you playing both 4-3 and 3-4 alignments.
TT: We're going to be in a four-man front, and we're going to be in a three-man front. It depends on who we're playing, what their personnel is. So it's like when I said we'll try to put our best personnel on the field to match up with our opponent.
How is Kawann Short looking this fall?
TT: I think he's looked good. He's got an opportunity to have a fantastic senior season. We're looking for him to be one of our leaders.
A guy who started to stand out last year was defensive end Ryan Russell. Where is he in his development?
TT: I think Ryan has made some great steps in the offseason as far as developing his body. He came along as a true freshman last year, and it took a while for him to get his sea legs underneath him in Big Ten play. Obviously, he's much further along one year later. We've got real high expectations for what Ryan can do for our football team and to get him to play on a high level on a consistent basis.
Linebacker is a place where you've got some depth and experience issues, it seems. How is that position shaping up?
TT: We're testing a bunch of guys and we're trying to figure out who are going to be the guys that will contribute for us and can play for us in Big Ten games. We do have a couple of guys in Dwayne Beckford and Will Lucas who played a lot last year, but we have to have more than two guys. So probably at those spots, we have as much competition as any position on our team right now.
Danny Hope recently said he thinks your two corners are about as good as anybody's in the country. How good do you feel about the secondary overall?
TT: We've got good experience at the corner spot, but we're very inexperienced at safety. We've got two very good starters at the corners and we've even got some very good backups who should be able to contribute for us. But we're very young at the safety spot, so it's a blend out there. How well those safeties come along will be a big key in how good of an overall secondary we're gong to be. The competition there right now is probably a lot like our linebacker position.
Earlier you mentioned Kawann as one of your leaders on defense. Who are some other guys who can fill that role?
TT: The players elected their captains, and Kawann and Ricardo Allen were chosen on the defensive side. I think we have some other guys like [defensive end] Robert Maci who can be a real good leader for us. I'm hoping Josh Johnson, our other starter at corner for us who's a senior this fall, can step into a leadership role. We need more than just two captains to be leaders for us on defense.