The early morning tire-flipping and wheelbarrow races are winding down in West Lafayette. After a spirited winter program, Purdue is set to return to the practice field March 19 for its first workout under new head coach Darrell Hazell. There are plenty of question marks on the roster, none bigger than quarterback, where several players (Austin Appleby, Rob Henry, Bilal Marshall, Danny Etling) will compete this spring. Purdue also is looking to replace key starters at defensive tackle, cornerback, running back and wide receiver. Hazell recently completed his coaching staff -- for the second time -- with the hiring of offensive line coach Jim Bridge.
The new Boiler boss checked in with ESPN.com earlier this week.
What have been some of the big themes of your offseason, and what would you like to see when the guys get out there in practice?
Darrell Hazell: We have three goals I want to really concentrate on. One is I want to make sure we become a smart football team, understand the whys and the reasons we're doing things. That's critically important for us, so I want to convey that we need to study the game and understand where all of our help is coming from. The second thing is we've got to make sure they understand the importance of ball security. We'll preach that day in and day out. We've got to get across the point of playing phenomenal special teams. And the last thing, I'm looking for a team that's going to be very tough and battle no matter what the situation is, and win those close games.
How has the toughness element been so far? It seems like it was a big part of the winter program.
DH: I thought the first couple days, their eyes were wide open. But I think they're starting to settle in a little bit and understand what we're demanding out of them and why it is so tough on them right now. Because they're going to be in a lot of close football games, and you can't allow that to ever leave you.
I know you guys are wearing the "5%" T-shirts in workouts. What's the story behind those?
DH: That was the goal and the emphasis for the 6 a.m. workouts. Five percent better in the last rep, five percent better than the last day, five percent tougher. My coaches are willing to demand five more percent than what they were giving the previous rep. It's all about improvement, and that's probably the biggest point to try and get across. If we're getting five percent better on each rep, on each day, we're going to continually get better.
What are the big keys for the players to understand what you want to do schematically this spring?
DH: There's definitely a learning curve. You're talking about different languages, and you're talking about different schemes. It's going to take them a couple, three weeks to really understand exactly. A lot of times, they'll know where to line up, but what is your actual assignment when you line up there? Those things are sometimes taken for granted, but those things are very important.
Offensively, what are some of the things you and Coach [John] Shoop want to stress this spring, especially with the quarterback?
DH: We're trying to figure out who our guy is going to be. A couple criteria, one obviously is you've got to take care of the football. Two, are you confident enough to stand in there and make those hard throws in those tough situations, and three, can you get us into the right play? Don't have us run a bad football play. Can you get us into the right situations that helps the team get a couple yards?
What has been your impression of the quarterbacks so far?
DH: The first thing that comes to my mind is they're all eager. They're all eager to please, they're all eager to get better. Those are some good guys in that room. It's going to be interesting to see how it all unfolds, but I think we'll have at least, maybe two of those guys, will be able to help us try to win some games.
What's the goal with that group by the end of the spring? Would you like some clarity at that spot?
DH: Maybe two weeks out from the first game would be my goal to name the starting guy and to give the team to that guy. I'm in no rush. There's a lot of reps to be had, and there's a lot of things that need to be done between now and then. So it'll take a while.
What will be the thing that separates a guy? And are you open to playing more than one quarterback?
DH: I'd rather have one guy. You want one guy in there who feels like he's comfortable and doesn't have to look over his shoulder. He can do his thing and not have to worry about messing up. But you also need a second guy to be ready, just in case that [first] guy goes down.
As you look at the roster, how much have you studied what players have done in the past?
DH: I haven't watch a snap of footage of the previous year. I was obviously at the bowl game and watched the bowl game, but it's all about moving forward. It's a new scheme, a new staff, everything is new, a new attitude, a new mind-set, all those things are different. So we'll figure it out as we go along.
Are there certain position groups that might be strengths for you guys?
DH: The strongest group is our defensive backs. I think we're deep. I haven't seen anybody hit anybody, but they're skilled, they transition well, they react well. The other group that really, really excites me is our offense line. A lot of young guys on that group. We do have a couple veterans. But they're very athletic.
Have any of the defensive backs like Rico [Allen] or Landon [Feichter] stepped into leadership roles so far?
DH: Frankie Williams is a guy who can potentially be a leader for us back there. Feichter is a potential leader. But it'll be interesting to see who really emerges as the leaders for this football team.
Defensive line, you bring back a decent number of guys. What do you want to see out of that group this spring?
DH: I want to see them play physical up front. Move and run to the football, keep those offensive linemen off the 'backers, so the 'backers can make some plays, but don't be afraid to make some plays on your own.
At the offensive skill spots, are you looking for some players to emerge, or do you have a sense of who might help you at running back, receiver and tight end?
DH: We're big at tight end and we're big at wideout, just watching those guys. They're all 6-4, 6-5, 6-6 type guys, and they're athletic. Which ones are the football players, it's yet to be determined, but there's going to be some guys, more than your share, who will emerge to be pretty special. Running back-wise, we're a little thin, and that's why we went out and signed three or four kids this past year. Ball carrier-wise, we have to find a couple of good ball carriers, at least three of them.
You mentioned special teams earlier, and Purdue has had ups and downs there, some really strong areas but also some breakdowns. How do you establish consistency in the kicking game? It was a big part of what you did at Ohio State and Kent State.
DH: We went for an hour and a half this morning with the special teams staff. We need to make a huge splash. That's the way you can gain advantages on people. We're going to play with a lot of energy. There's a lot of young coaches on those units. But we're going to be so detailed on our assignments that we're going to be able to create some things.
What do you hope to learn about your team when you wrap up the spring?
DH: I want to see us grow together, become one and understand that for us to be inching toward those goals that hopefully we'll reach in the fall, we need to be very tight and a hardworking group and a group where no one cares about who's getting the credit.