Can Darrell Hazell bring Purdue back to contender status? Let's take a closer look at the 2013 Boilermakers …
Coach: Darrell Hazell (16-10 overall, two seasons; first season at Purdue)
2012 record: 6-7 (3-5 Big Ten)
Newcomer to watch: True freshman QB Danny Etling enrolled in January and was impressive during the spring. So impressive, in fact, that he emerged as one of the top two contenders for the No. 1 quarterback job, along with senior Rob Henry. Don't be surprised to see Etling starting early on.
Biggest games in 2013: The Boilermakers have a difficult nonconference schedule that includes trips to Cincinnati (Aug. 31) and visits from 2012 BCS bowl teams Notre Dame (Sept. 14) and Northern Illinois (Sept. 28). They open conference play at Wisconsin on Sept. 21 and also play Nebraska (Oct. 12), at Michigan State (Oct. 19) and Ohio State (Nov. 2) in their first four Big Ten games. They close the season on the road against rival Indiana.
Biggest question mark heading into 2013: The quarterback battle is obviously a big question looming over this team in preseason camp, and the Boilers might have to live with some mistakes there, especially if they start a true freshman. An even bigger question might be at linebacker. Though there is some experience at the position with Will Lucas, Sean Robinson and Joe Gilliam, Purdue has had subpar linebacker play the past couple of seasons, and that has held the defense back in some of its bigger games. Robinson did a nice job last season, but the fact that he converted from quarterback and earned a starting job tells you a lot about the depth at the position.
Forecast: Just about everybody loved the hire of Hazell, a former longtime Ohio State assistant who worked some magic at Kent State. Hazell has already won over players and fans with his upbeat yet no nonsense style, and he promises to bring far more discipline on and off the field than former coach Danny Hope, who was fired despite getting the team to a second straight bowl game last season.
But there's little doubt that Hazell faces a rebuilding job, even though the Boilers pushed both Notre Dame and Ohio State to the wire last season. There are question marks at quarterback and linebacker, and the team will need several young players to step forward at the skill positions. Hunt had a great offseason and could be a dynamic running back with a track star's speed, but he is small in stature and took only 42 carries last season. Can Purdue's offensive line mash people enough to play Hazell's preferred power-run style? The defense has some really strong building blocks in defensive tackle Gaston, defensive end Russell and cornerback Allen, but opposing Big Ten offenses have been able to exploit the Boilers' weaknesses the past two seasons.
The biggest hurdle for Purdue might be that schedule. The Boilers could be underdogs in six of their first seven games, and that might make getting back to a bowl difficult. Hazell doesn't want to settle for more 6-6 type seasons, anyway.
"One of the first things that I said to our team -- our very first team meeting on that Sunday night -- was Purdue was always a team that's perceived in the middle of the Big Ten," Hazell said at Big Ten media days. "And I told them it's going to take a lot of work, but we're going to climb ourselves out of the middle, and we're going to put this program in national prominence for a long point in time."
Hazell looks like the right coach to lift Purdue back up. It just might not happen this season.