2010 scoring defense: 28.8 PPG (seventh in the conference), total defense: 369 YPG (seventh), rushing defense: 3.61 YPC (third), passing efficiency allowed: 140.06 (eighth)
Average scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: 7.6
Best scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: Seventh (2007, 2008, 2010)
Worst scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: Ninth (2009)
Returning starters: DE Gerald Gooden, DT Bruce Gaston, DT Kawann Short, LB Dwayne Beckford, LB Joe Holland, CB Josh Johnson, CB Ricardo Allen, S Logan Link, S Albert Evans
Open positions: DE, LB
Last season, the Boilers had a new defensive coordinator in Gary Emanuel. He worked at Purdue as a defensive line coach between 1997 and 2004.
With his hiring, the Purdue scoring defense jumped from ninth in the conference in 2009 (29.1 PPG) to seventh this season (28.8 PPG). However, it had less to do with Emanuel's hiring and more to do with six of the front seven returning. For this reason, it was no surprise that they had a strong rush defense.
Of course, as they were replacing their entire secondary, the weak pass numbers shouldn't be too huge a surprise. That is, until one considers that Purdue had a dominant pass rush, leading the Big Ten in sacks and tying for 28th in the country.
Usually, a strong pass rush should help out a weak secondary.
That being as it were, Purdue plays a 4-3 defense. Emanuel likes an aggressive front four that works its way upfield. However, he is a creative blitzer and likes to get his defensive backs involved in the pass rushes.
Heading into 2011, Purdue returns all but two of its 2010 starters. Ideally, this would bode well for the Boilers except one of those missing starters is Ryan Kerrigan. Kerrigan is directly responsible for 35.8 percent of the Boilers' sacks over the last three years and 40.3 percent of their sacks in 2010.
That doesn't take into consideration the disruptions he caused by simply being on the field. When a team has a player like Kerrigan, the opponent has to game-plan against him. That means running away from him, double- and triple-teaming him and accounting for him at all times.
This, in turn, leaves favorable matchups for the other players to exploit.
That is the biggest question the Purdue defense will have as it heads into 2011. Can the Boilermakers create opportunities for themselves without Ryan Kerrigan on the field?
It will start with the defensive line, which returns every meaningful player not named Ryan Kerrigan.
The returning starters are junior Kawann Short and sophomore Bruce Gaston inside, with senior Gerald Gooden at one end position.
Among the players that will be competing for the other end position are juniors Robert Maci and Eric Mebane; sophomore converted linebacker Antwon Higgs; and redshirt freshmen Ryan Russell and E.J. Johnson.
After spring ball, Maci and Russell looked to be the most likely to win the job. Maci has seen a good amount of playing time over the last two seasons, while Russell came to Purdue as a 230-pound athlete. He has since put on 20 pounds and gotten an appropriately colored black and old gold haircut.
Short and Gaston are solid players and will help the Boilers maintain their stingy rush defense. Furthermore, Short, a two-year starter, was a disruptive force on the pass rush, tallying 4.5 sacks playing next to Kerrigan. He was named second-team All-Big Ten by the media, but it remains to be seen if he can shine when teams game-plan against him.
Also of note is sophomore Kevin Pamphile. Pamphile got regular snaps in the rotation before injuries derailed his season. He is healthy and will be able to contribute at tackle.
The bigger question is at the end. Again, when one considers the amount of attention Kerrigan typically got, one would expect the other end to have generated a substantial number of sacks and tackles for loss. However, Gooden had only one sack and 4.5 tackles for loss.
Further complicating this issue is the fact that Gooden was a junior and thus experienced. Perhaps his role was simply to contain while Kerrigan rushed, but given Kerrigan's abilities, one would assume players would have run into Gooden from time to time.
In all, this should be a good line. It may be unspectacular, but they will not be pushovers, and given their youth, there is a good amount of room for improvement.
Big Ten Position Group Ranking: Six
The Boilers have two returning starters in junior Dwayne Beckford and senior Joe Holland. Both had solid seasons in their first year as starters. However, both will be expected to up their play and take on leadership roles in 2011.
Holland is solid if limited, while Beckford could be an all-conference player before he graduates, and he will vie for All-Big Ten honors this season.
The third linebacker position is up for grabs. Amongst those contending for the job are Kaulana Judd, Mike Lee, Will Lucas, Chris Carlino and DeVarro Greaves.
Carlino and Greaves are in similar situations. Both are senior utility men that have one last chance to crack the starting lineup.
Judd is a minimally recruited JUCO transfer out of Fullerton, California.
The two players with the highest upside are Lee and Lucas. Lucas is a true sophomore that started two games last year, was the first linebacker off the bench and recorded the eighth-most tackles on the team (the most among reserve players).
Meanwhile, Lee is a redshirt freshman that has been receiving very high praise from the coaches and was arguably the defensive MVP of the spring game.
Overall, this is a decent group that will benefit from the experience of the linemen in front of them. Moreover, there is potential—particularly in Beckford—to be a game-changer.
Big Ten Position Group Ranking: Eight
This is an area that Purdue struggled with last year, and not surprisingly so. In 2010, the Boilers replaced their entire secondary. This season, the entire secondary will be coming back.
This season, it is highly unlikely the pass rush will be as overwhelming. Consequently, it will be imperative that the defensive backs take a substantial step forward.
That will begin with true sophomore cornerback Ricardo Allen. Allen grabbed the starting spot as a true freshman, which was both an indication of his talent and the woeful skill level of Purdue's returning players.
Nevertheless, Allen played about as well as one could hope a true freshman would play. He came in third on the team in tackles (a dubious statistic for a cornerback) and snagged three interceptions, two of which he ran back for touchdowns. For his efforts, the media named him second-team All-Big Ten.
This season, he will be expected to register a lot fewer tackles, as, if he does his job, quarterbacks will be looking away from his side of the field.
That other side of the field will likely be manned by junior Josh Johnson. He took over the starting spot following the second week and the lackluster play of now-senior Mike Eargle. Johnson is not as exciting and frankly not as talented as Allen. Nevertheless, he is a solid player that will make quarterbacks pay for throwing to his side of the field.
Johnson came sixth on the team in tackles. Again, a dubious distinction for a cornerback, but it does demonstrate both his and Allen's abilities in run support.
Speaking of run support, senior Logan Link will return as the strong safety. He is a former walk-on that led the team with 91 tackles last year.
Finally, senior Albert Evans will return as the free safety. He is strong in run support and is an active player, but his activity level sometimes leaves him out of position.
Filling out the depth chart will be the aforementioned Mike Eargle, as well as senior Charlton Williams at corner and junior Max Charlot at safety. All three of them have starting experience.
Moreover, according to Danny Hope, Charlot had a very good spring and will compete for a starting position.
Overall, this is a solid, deep position group that could have a very high ceiling, especially at cornerback.
Big Ten Position Group Ranking: Seven
Special Teams Specialists
Returning kicker Carson Wiggs was the talk of the Purdue spring game, as he nailed a 67-yard field goal that could have been good from 70.
Over the course of his career, he has been solid if unspectacular. In three years, he has made 72.5 percent of his field goal attempts. Last year was his best year, as he made 78.9 percent of his kicks. He also came in third in the conference in kickoff touchback percentage.
Needless to say, he's got the leg. Now, he will have to work on his consistency.
Wiggs also split the punting duties with now-sophomore Cody Webster. This was primarily due to Webster's inconsistent placement. However, he had plenty of practice last year, as Purdue led the conference in punts attempted and Webster individually had the sixth-most punts in the conference. He will likely take over all punting duties.
Meanwhile, the Boilers' top kick return man—Al-Terek McBurse—has transferred. Nevertheless, Purdue has multiple players with kick return experience. Most notable is receiver O.J. Ross, who averaged almost two YPR more than McBurse in nine fewer attempts.
Other options are walk-on receiver T.J. Barbarette and Antavian Edison, though Edison is unlikely, as he will be too valuable as a receiver.
At punt returner, last year's top options were cornerback Josh Johnson and receiver Waynelle Gravesand. Both will be back this season.
Overall, the specialists have some consistency issues to work out, but they will be an asset to the team.
Big Ten Position Group Ranking: Four