Three questions for 2016: Purdue Boilermakers

Purdue expected to take a step forward in 2015. It finished 2-10, one game worse than in 2014.

But the Boilermakers made progress in regularly staying competitive. Purdue pushed Michigan State, Wisconsin, Northwestern, Iowa and Indiana into the fourth quarter of losses -- and it beat Nebraska 55-45 to earn coach Darrell Hazell’s first Big Ten home win in three seasons.

Still, Purdue continued to bounce between quarterbacks and struggled to realize potential on defense.

Some urgency has arrived with the offseason. Purdue must answer many questions in the months ahead, including these:

1. Does Hazell have a steady hand on the wheel?

Despite the Boilermakers’ Week 9 victory over Nebraska, the third-year coach still owns just three wins over FBS competition and a 2-22 mark in the Big Ten play. In a move that hinted of desperation, Hazell fired coordinators John Shoop and Greg Hudson after the the season.

Purdue gained 4.8 yards per play in 2015, 115th nationally and 13th in the league, and it surrendered 6.14 per play to rank 103rd and 12th.

Clearly, whatever they’re doing in West Lafayette, it has not worked. Hazell’s answer? He promoted Terry Malone, the Boilermakers’ tight ends coach and former Michigan coordinator from 1997 to 2005, and hired former Nebraska linebackers coach Ross Els to run the defense.

We’ll see how it works. No doubt, though, Hazell, who received a November endorsement from Purdue AD Morgan Burke, enters 2016 seated on a warm chair.

2. What will David Blough do with his opportunity at quarterback?

Purdue doesn’t have much of a choice to make now that Danny Etling, the starter in 2013, left for LSU, and Austin Appleby, the starter for much of 2014 and primary backup this season, moved to Florida as a graduate transfer.

For the majority of Hazell’s time at Purdue, the Boilermakers have dealt with uncertainty at their most important position. Now, it’s all in the hands of Blough, a 6-foot-1 Texan who threw for 1,574 yards in eight starts as a redshirt freshman in 2015. He’s the only QB on the roster with experience, though redshirt freshman Elijah Sindelar is a promising prospect.

Blough’s QBR of 56.6 placed him ninth in the Big Ten and 96th nationally. He needs help, of course, and gets top rushers Markell Jones and D.J. Knox back in 2016, though the Boilermakers lose receiver Danny Anthrop.

Most important, perhaps, Blough can navigate this offseason with a feeling of security about his position. It’s an important distinction that figures to help him grow as a leader.

3. Can Purdue maximize its talent at linebacker?

It didn’t happen in 2015. This promising unit struggled after injuries to Ja'Whaun Bentley and Jimmy Herman. Purdue allowed 459 yards per game and 40 points or more to five of eight Big Ten opponents.

No league team allowed more rushing yards, so do the Boilermakers really want to ask the same players in the heart of their defense to take the next step in 2016? Yes. The front seven on defense provided legitimate reason for optimism -- and it still does, with talent the likes of Bentley and linebacker Danny Ezechukwu set to return. Additionally, play-making tackle Jake Replogle is back to lead an experienced front four. The table is set for Purdue’s linebackers, aided in depth by Andy James Garcia and Garrett Hudson, to break out next season.

But it looked that way in 2015, too, so keep expectations in check.