Columnists

Previewing the Upcoming Boilermaker Football Season with Kenny

The arrival of June means one thing to sports fans. No, not the NBA Finals or another month of losing for the Cubs and Reds.

It’s time for the first college football season preview magazines to reach your local book store, pharmacy or favorite online retailer.

Athlon Sports has released its All-Big Ten Conference teams, as well as rankings of the transfer classes in the Big Ten and a preseason Top 25. Mildly surprising to me, Purdue is not ranked coming off one of its best seasons in the 21st century and returning 14 starters. More on that later.

Apparently not wanting to leave anyone out, Athlon released not just a first-team All-Big Ten list but a second, third and fourth team. For some reason, Athlon has a 12-player offense, a 12-player defense and four specialists. That’s 112 players on Athlon’s honor roll.

Reigning Big Ten champion Michigan leads the way with 17 selections, one more than Ohio State. Purdue and Minnesota share fifth place with nine players chosen. Indiana, coming off a winless conference season in 2021, has six players on the honor roll. That total matches Northwestern and Rutgers for fewest selections.

Purdue sixth-year senior quarterback Aidan O’Connell and probably his top receiving target in 2022, senior tight end Payne Durham, are on the second team offense. Redshirt junior defensive tackle Branson Deen also was chosen to the second team.

O’Connell threw for 3,712 yards and 28 touchdowns in 2021. If he approaches those numbers in his final season, O’Connell will rank among the top five quarterbacks in Purdue history.

Drew Brees (11,792) and Curtis Painter (11,163) are out of reach for O’Connell but Kyle Orton (9,337) and David Blough (9,734) aren’t out of the question. It would take a 4,000-yard season for O’Connell (5,729 career yards) to catch Blough for fourth place in Purdue’s record books. Painter owns the single-season passing yards record with 3,985.

Durham is likely to see his 2021 numbers of 45 receptions for 467 yards and six touchdowns increase with the departures of David Bell to the Cleveland Browns and Jackson Anthrop.

Deen had three sacks among his 26 tackles a year ago.

Cornerback Tiawan Mullen is the lone Hoosier on Athlon’s second team. A first-team All-American as a sophomore, Mullen suffered a foot injury as a junior that limited him to six games.

Purdue linebacker Jalen Graham, listed by Athlon as a safety, is part of the third team. The senior intercepted two passes, returning one for a touchdown, and recorded 64 tackles in 2021.

Indiana safety Devon Matthews joins Graham on the third team defense. The sixth-year senior earned third-team All-Big Ten honors in 2021.

Music City Bowl MVP Broc Thompson, junior center Gus Hartwig and offensive tackle Spencer Holstege represent Purdue on the fourth team offense. Defensive end Kydran Jenkins and cornerback Cory Trice complete the Boilermakers’ honor roll.

Playing on two knees that would need surgery in the offseason, Thompson caught seven passes for 217 yards and two touchdowns during the bowl victory against Tennessee. Jenkins had five sacks among his 35 tackles as a freshman. Trice missed most of the 2021 season with a knee injury.

Indiana is represented on Athlon’s fourth team by offensive lineman Matthew Bedford, linebacker Cam Jones, kicker Charles Campbell and punt return specialist D.J. Matthews. Jones made 63 tackles last season, and Campbell was 13 of 18 on field goals. Matthews missed much of the 2021 season after tearing an ACL against Western Kentucky.

One glaring omission on Athlon’s list was Purdue kicker Mitchell Fineran, who was 24 of 29 on field goals including the game-winner against Tennessee in overtime. The 24 field goals fell one shy of Ben Jones’ school record set in 2003.

Another is the reigning Rodgers-Dwight Big Ten Return Specialist of the Year Charlie Jones. Media reports have the former Iowa standout considering Purdue as a graduate transfer.

Staying on the subject of transfers, Athlon rates Indiana’s newcomers third among Big Ten schools. Purdue’s incoming transfers rank sixth but that could rise if Jones indeed comes to West Lafayette.

Missouri transfer quarterback Connor Bazelak and running backs Josh Henderson (North Carolina) and Shaun Shivers (Auburn) could boost what was an anemic Indiana offense in 2021.

“After a 2-10 record, it’s no surprise the Hoosiers hit the portal hard for instant help on both sides of the ball,” Athlon’s Steve Lassan writes. “Bazelak could win the starting quarterback job, with Shivers and Henderson likely to handle the bulk of the carries at running back. Six transfers were added to the defensive front and all should see major snaps in ’22.”

Former Hoosiers Sampson James and Reece Taylor, along with former Iowa wide receiver Tyrone Tracy, head Purdue’s transfer class. Former Auburn wide receiver Elijah Canion, offensive lineman Sloan Finau (Florida International) and cornerback Tee Denson (Kansas State) also hope to crack Purdue’s lineup.

“Tracy and Canion are important acquisitions to restock the receiving corps with David Bell and Jackson Anthrop off to the NFL,” Lassan writes. “James should add some pop to a ground game that managed only 2.8 yards per carry in ’21. Finau started 15 games at FIU. Denson and Taylor will be counted on to compete for snaps at cornerback with Dedrick Mackey off to the NFL.”

To the surprise of absolutely no one who has followed college football for any length of time, Alabama and Ohio State are 1-2 in Athlon’s projected Top 25. Athlon’s rankings are based upon where its writers believe teams will finish after the national championship game.

Michigan at No. 6 is the second Big Ten team in the rankings, followed by Michigan State (14th), Wisconsin (19th) and Penn State (25th). Iowa, Minnesota and Purdue earned honorable mention.

In yet another example of the name on the front of the jersey, Wisconsin is getting a large benefit of the doubt despite having the Big Ten’s fewest number of returning starters (8). But until someone (Purdue?) proves otherwise, the Badgers remain the perennial West Division favorite.

Even if Wisconsin extends its winning streak over Purdue to 16 games, the Boilermakers are still a good bet to finish in the top 25 if they avoid major injuries and find a way to win the season opener against Penn State in Ross-Ade Stadium.

A schedule that doesn’t feature Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State enhances the Boilermakers’ chances of recording the second 10-win season in school history.

– Kenny Thompson is the former sports editor for the Lafayette Journal & Courier and an award-winning journalist. He has covered Purdue athletics for many years.