Purdue Football 2020: Position Previews – Defensive Line

Defensive Line

As Purdue moves into 2020 the defensive side of the ball is changing, but maybe not as much as you might think.  Purdue has brought in Bob Diaco, the former head coach of UConn and DC at Louisiana Tech, Notre Dame and Nebraska to name a few.  Throughout his career Diaco has predominantly run a 3-4 defense but reports are that Purdue will split time between a 3-4 and 4-3 (something I hope to do an article about in the future).  So some things and players will shift around this fall, including a new defensive line coach in Terrance Jamison. Purdue looks to improve up front on the defensive side of the ball with one of their more experienced position groups, the defensive line.  Let’s take a look.

George Karlaftis

Sophomore – 6’4” 270 lbs

George Karlaftis lines up at defensive end on his way to a tremendous true freshman season in 2019. (Dave Kovich)

After coming to Purdue as a touted recruit, George Karlaftis burst onto the scene and put the conference on notice in 2019.  Last season Karlaftis totaled a staggering 54 tackles, 30 solo, 17 TFL and 7.5 sacks, all as a true freshman.  In the offseason Karlaftis has been able to put on about 5 lbs give or take, which should go a long way in a physical conference like the Big Ten.  Karlaftis says his role hasn’t changed much from last year to this year so be on the lookout for him to put up improved numbers from last year, as Karlaftis looks to cement himself as one of the top defensive ends in not only the Big Ten but the entire nation.

Lorenzo Neal

5th Year – 6’3” 325 lbs.

The last time we saw Lorenzo Neal in the Old Gold & Black he was being helped off the field with a torn ACL against Indiana, since then Neal’s return to playing condition and the Purdue roster has been a winding road.  Neal is one of the best nose tackles not only in the conference but in the country and is a certified space eater.  At 325 lbs Neal has the mass and experience to take on double teams from guards and centers totaling 63 tackles, 43 solo, 11.5 TFL and 4 sacks in his three seasons so far.  While those numbers might not stick out to most that is because as I mentioned before the nose tackle almost every single play is double teamed.  The nose tackles purpose isn’t to be a stat stuffer but be able to take on the double team and prevent linemen from combo blocking up to the second level against linebackers, allowing linebackers to flow to the play and make tackles.  It will be interesting to see whether or not Neal is at the same level of play as he was in 2018 before injury this year.

Anthony Watts

5th Year – 6’4” 300 lbs

Anthony Watts celebrates a tackle against Northwestern in 2019. (Robert Shipley)

Anthony Watts is yet another defensive linemen with significant playing experience, appearing in 33 total games in his career.  During those three seasons Watts has totaled 78 tackles, 41 solo, 10.5 TFL and 3 sacks.  Because of Neal’s injury in 2019, Watts often timed played out of his natural position, defensive tackle, and ended up playing alot of nose tackle.  While Watts is at 300 lbs, he holds that weight much differently than guys like Neal and Johnson and the technique is pretty different between the two positions.  With the return of Neal and the rise of Lawrence Johnson, Watts will move back outside on the end this season, but he will have tons of competition as every other defensive end not named George Karlaftis will be competing for playing time.  

Branson Deen

Sophomore – 6’2” 275 lbs.

Branson Deen warms up prior to Purdue’s 2019 matchup against Northwestern. (Robert Shipley)

Because of Purdue’s lack of depth on the defensive line in 2019, Branson Deen was one of a handful of redshirt freshmen who saw decent playing time.  In 2019 Deen tallied 8 total tackles, 7 of which were solo in 9 appearances as a reserve.  While there isn’t much tape on Deen, playing in 9 games as a freshman is a great springboard to start off from and challenge for a starting spot opposite George Karlaftis.

Lawrence Johnson

Sophomore – 6’3” 300 lbs

Lawrence Johnson dives to make a tackle of a Wildcat ball carrier in 2019. (Robert Shipley)

Lawrence Johnson is another one of the redshirt freshmen last season who was thrust into playing time, but while Deen spent most of his time in a reserve role, Johnson was oftentimes starting and playing numerous snaps in place of Lorenzo Neal.  Johnson started in 9 games and appeared in 3 others in 2019, during which he tallied 21 tackles, 9 solo and .5 TFL.  I think we may see some of Johnson inside at the nose tackle position but I think he will have a good shot at playing some defensive tackle in 2020.  If you go back and look at the size of the defensive tackles Diaco had at Notre Dame they were all pushing 300 lbs, so there might be a case for Johnson to move outside if his athleticism allows it.  

Jack Sullivan

Sophomore – 6’5” 275 lbs

Jack Sullivan is in a very similar position to the aforementioned Branson Deen, in that he saw some reserve time in 2019 due to a lack of depth.  Sullivan appeared in all 12 games last season and accumulated 13 total tackles, 4 of which were solo.  Jack Sullivan will be in the mix to compete for the starting spot opposite of George Karlaftis in 2020.  

Jeff Marks

Sophomore – 6’3” 280 lbs.

In 2019 Jeff Marks was one of the few defensive linemen who saw his playing time reduced from 2018.  In 2018 Marks appeared in every single game, putting up 3 total tackles, 2 of which were solo.  I do not believe there were any reports of an injury for Marks last year, but he played in just two games and had 1 solo tackle.  Regardless of the reason for Marks’ playing time in 2019, heading into 2020 with 14 games of experience is nothing to shrug off.  Be on the watch for Marks to compete for that single spot opposite Karlaftis this year.

Sulaiman Kpaka

RS Freshman – 6’2” 270 lbs.

Sulaiman Kpaka (we believe it is pronounced pah-kah, but will work to figure out that pronunciation for everyone) came into Purdue last year as a true freshman from Grand Prairie, Texas before redshirting in 2019.  Kpaka has been a name thrown around in interviews for fall camp so far so he will be one to keep a tab on heading into the season. Kpaka came into Purdue with a big frame and equally as big athleticism.  He arrive at Purdue weighing 255 lbs, so he has been able to bulk up nearly 15 lbs in just a single season, the thing we will want to see is if that athleticism has been retained during the bulk up period  While Kpaka doesn’t have the playing experience that others do, I think he will have a good shot at winning that starting spot opposite Karlaftis this season.

Steven Faucheux

RS Freshman – 6’5” 300 lbs.

Steven Fauchuex made his way to Purdue last year as a highly touted high 3* prospect out of West Chester, Ohio.  Since coming to Purdue Faucheux has been able to put on significant weight and is now coming in at 300 lbs, which should allow him to play either inside or outside in the 3-4 and be a big 3 technique in 4-3 defenses.  Faucheux wasn’t able to see any playing time on in the field in 2019, so there isn’t alot of tape to go off of, but we do have some high school tape.  Back when he was lighter and in high school Faucheux was pretty quick for his size, so it will be interesting to see whether or not he retained that speed, something that is a huge advantage when playing on the inside.  Faucheux still has that speed, I would not be surprised to see him playing inside on some passing downs this year.  Regardless, Faucheux will have every opportunity this fall to compete for playing time on the defensive line and would not be surprised to see him getting some time this year.

Greg Huggins

Freshman – 6’4” 280 lbs.

Greg Hudgins makes his way to Purdue this year via St. John’s College Prep in Washington, D.C.  St. John’s is one of the top football programs in the nation each and every year and plays a national schedule against the top programs all over the country.  The importance of playing at a top high school program like St. John’s cannot be understated, because he is playing against the best of the best in the country in high school, it makes the jump to playing the best of the best in college that much easier.  Because of that, I think there is a good shot, we see Hudgins get some playing time this fall.  New defensive line coach Terrance Jamison said, “Greg’s a big guy, he’s physical, he brings alot to the table.  At the line of scrimmage, he resets the line of scrimmage.” To me, someone who has the ability to reset the line of scrimmage as a true freshman is pretty eye popping from a size and strength perspective.  Hudgins will likely play on the outside in both a 3-4 and 4-3 look moving forward for Purdue.

Bryce Austin

Freshman – 6’2” 310 lbs

Bryce Austin makes his way to Purdue this year from Southfield, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit.  Despite Austin bulking up to over 300 lbs. I think Austin has the athleticism and speed to still be able to play on the outside in a 3-4 and can play either 1 or 2i technique in a 4-3.  Overall I think Austin could be the future at the nose tackle for Purdue if he can keep on putting on a few additional pounds and maintain his athleticism.  With the free year of eligibility this year, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Austin get some snaps on defense this year,  but also wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t, afterall it is very rare for true freshman to play defensive line in the Big Ten.

KJ Stokes

Sophomore – 6’3” 285 lbs.

KJ Stokes is a bit of a mystery heading into the 2020 season.  He has yet to see any playing time for Purdue but came in a bit undersized at 6’3” 250 lbs, his freshman year but has been able to add a staggering 35 lbs during his time at Purdue.  From his high school tape it appears Stokes played a lot more OLB rather than DE and was very successful at it.  I really like the athleticism he showed and he had a great nose for the ball both on interceptions and recovering fumbles.  Stokes could be the case of taking a bit more time to get acclimated to playing on the defensive line rather than OLB in addition needed to put on the weight to play on the line at the Big Ten level.  Obviously things are different from high school to the college level, especially in the Big Ten, but I see all of the signs for a potential solid Big Ten level pass rusher in KJ Stokes, it’s just a matter of question if he has been able to meet that potential in 2020.

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