A beleaguered Purdue defense is undergoing a drastic overhaul this spring. One of the best reasons for optimism is a sight the Boilermakers coaches weren't sure they'd see this early: Ja'Whaun Bentley running around making plays.
Just six months removed from tearing the ACL in his left knee, the junior linebacker has returned to the field this spring at pretty close to full go. There's little doubt that, when healthy, he is Purdue's best defensive player.
"I don’t know that we really expected him out there this much," linebackers coach Marcus Freeman said. "But having him out there, with his leadership, that's been huge for our entire team."
The Boilers haven't been particularly strong at any position the past few years. One glance at their won-loss record would tell you that. But linebacker is a position of real promise, as everyone who played significant minutes there in 2015 is back, including starters Jimmy Herman and Danny Ezechukwu. It's Bentley, though, who could really take the group to the next level.
He was an ESPN.com true freshman All-American in 2014, when he started all 12 games and made 76 tackles. Mature beyond his years, Bentley was named a team captain as a sophomore.
"Physically, he was ready," Freeman said. "But mentally, he was capable and mature enough to understand the concept of our defense and also how to work like a man. He was 17 years old playing with 22-year-old men, and he fit right in."
Bentley got off to a strong start at middle linebacker last year, recording 49 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss through the first five games. Then he tore his ACL in practice. It was the same injury he suffered as a sophomore in high school.
After the high school injury, doctors used a ligament from a cadaver for the surgical repair. This time around, he had a graft taken from his own patellar tendon. Bentley said he noticed a big difference, as he has healed much faster this time around.
That didn't make the rehab -- or missing half a season -- any easier. He couldn't wait to get back on the practice field. He even stayed in West Lafayette over spring break to study film and continue working out.
"The grind has caused me to reach deep down," he said. "It takes you to a different place. Getting back out there on that field was my main focus."
Purdue has held Bentley out of some live drills this spring, but Freeman said his star player has been begging for more reps. It's an important time for everyone to learn the new defense.
After another difficult season -- the Boilermakers finished last in the Big Ten in rushing defense, while allowing 36.5 points per game in 2015 -- head coach Darrell Hazell brought in Ross Els as his new defensive coordinator. Els, who coached Nebraska's linebackers from 2012-14, is emphasizing matchups and formations based on what the offense is doing. Not surprisingly, that leans heavily on the linebackers, who will be asked to drop into pass coverage at times. The Boilers could go with just one or two linebackers on the field at times in passing situations.
"It really challenges our coverage ability," Bentley said. "Last year we were more of a run-first defense, and now it's more pass-first. I've been more of a playing-the-run kind of guy, but I have to show I can play the pass as well."
Freeman said Bentley won't make great strides in his pass-coverage ability until he's 100-percent healthy. But he's getting there faster than most people expected. That's great news for Purdue, as Bentley could be the kind of 100-tackle, high-impact defensive presence that the team has lacked for some time.
"I always set the bar high," he said. "My goal is always to finish in the top 10 in the country in tackles. That's something I'm definitely going to keep working toward."