Purdue building toward 'Big Ten strong'

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Purdue's Darrell Hazell is a first-year head coach in the Big Ten, but he and most of his assistants need no introduction to the league.

Hazell served as an Ohio State assistant from 2004-10. His staff includes defensive coordinator Greg Hudson, who held the same post at Minnesota under Glen Mason from 2000-04, and linebackers coach Marcus Freeman, an Ohio State linebacker from 2004-08.

Ask any to name the first objective for Purdue's program, and the word "physical" comes out of their mouths. The conference Purdue plays in is a big reason why.

"We've got to continually get Big Ten strong," Hazell told ESPN.com. "This conference is different. There's teams in this conference that are very strong and very physical, and we need to continue to work toward that."

Purdue players started the process during 6 a.m. winter workouts. They've continued it through 11 practices this spring.

The progress report?

"That's one of our main challenges," Hudson said. "We're not ready to label a guy Big Ten strong. That's a different strength now."

The previous coaching staff made no secret about their desire to bring more speed to Purdue. It showed up in how they recruited and where they invested their time on the trail.

The Boilers boast enough speed to compete in the Big Ten, especially in areas like the secondary. But they lacked size at certain spots and got pushed around by teams like Michigan, Wisconsin and Penn State in 2012.

Junior defensive end Ryan Russell is spending the offseason developing his upper-body strength. When Russell first arrived at Purdue, he played behind Ryan Kerrigan -- the 2010 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and "one of the strongest people I've ever met," Russell said. Kerrigan, a unanimous first-team All-American and a first-round draft pick, showed Russell what a Big Ten lineman should look like.

Russell's goal this summer is to do 30 repetitions of 225 pounds on the bench press.

"Being Big Ten strong is a big thing," Russell said. "We're a fast team, but we're not necessarily always the strongest team. You want to be able to have everything in line to win a championship, so being strong is definitely a priority right now."

It also will be a priority in the new staff's recruiting efforts. There's only so much they can do with the current roster, and they need more size and power at certain positions, particularly on defense.

"I need linebackers I can look up to," Hudson said. "You should know the difference between your front, your linebackers and your secondary just by looking at them. ... Not only is it Big Ten strong, but it's Big Ten big. There's a reason it's called the Big Ten. We have big players, big buildings, big stadiums, big budgets.

"We need to blossom in all areas."

No one mistakes Bruce Gaston Jr. for a linebacker or a defensive back. At 6-2 and 303 pounds, he's a space-eating defensive tackle with huge arms and plenty of power.

But even Gaston, who recently returned to live practice action after recovering from thumb surgery, has taken steps to improve his explosiveness.

"Big Ten strong is being able to compete on a Big Ten level without feeling noticing the strength difference [with an opponent]," Gatson said. "I think it's more of a mentality, too. Everyone has physical capabilities and different physical limits, but to me, it's a mind-set, too.

"You've got to be Big Ten strong to play this game."