I don’t think there is a group of players on the defensive side of the ball that will dictate Purdue’s defensive success as a whole as much as the linebackers will in 2020. With Purdue’s partial shift to Diaco’s defense which is a combination of 3-4 and 4-3, the linebackers play an even more significant role. This group is without a doubt the thinnest group on the defense with the most amount of questions, but also the potential to develop into a really solid core of two deeps in the four linebacker positions. Let’s take a look.
Derrick Barnes – Starter
Senior – 6’1” 245 lbs.
This will be the second year in a row Derrick Barnes has seen his role on the defense changed. Many folks might think that is a bad thing, but I like to see it as that he has the talent and skill that the coaches want to be a focal point of the defense. As Barnes moves from Holt’s LEO Hybrid End position, where he had solid success, to the middle as the Mike Linebacker in Diaco’s the biggest question may be his ability to drop into coverage, something that isn’t as pronounced in a 3-4 defense compared to a 4-3. Getting used to run fits in some of the hard hitter games like Wisconsin and Especially Iowa to open the season will be things to watch. If Barnes can mail those two aspects of middle linebacker play, Purdue should be in solid shape at a minimum on defense.
Jaylan Alexander – Potential Starter
Junior – 6’1” 230 lbs.
No single player on defense might have any more weight or pressure on improving either side of the ball than Jayalan Alexander, something I know for a fact he has worked hard in the off season to meet. Alexander is almost assuredly going to get first crack at the Will linebacker position, the other inside linebacker spot opposite Derrick Barnes. Alexander has the game experience, having participated in 23 games already till this point and tallied 64 tackles, 45 solo with 6 TFL for 18 yards. About two thirds of the tackle production came in 2019 including all of the TFL states so Alexander has shown he is improving and getting better at stuffing the state line, something linebackers will certainly do in Diaco’s defense this year. There has been some inconsistent play and some really glimmers of greatness in Jaylan Alexander over the years. The question remains when will he become consistent and when will the glimmers of greatness turn into games of greatness.
DaMarcus Mitchell – Starter
Junior – 6’3” 270 lbs.
Let’s get this out of the way first, DaMarcus Mitchell is an absolute monster of a human being and a total freak athlete. Mitchell was originally recruited out of JuCo last year to come to Louisiana Tech by Bob DIaco, before he followed Diaco to Purdue, so he is a tailor recruited guy for Diaco’s defense. That is quite the luxury for Purdue to have after changing nearly half of the defensive staff in the off season. Mitchell will be playing what I would consider a niche position that has seen tremendous growth in the NFL over the years, Rush End OLB, or as it is called in Diaco’s defense, the Cat position. Essentially the Cat is the linebacker to the short sight of the field that stands up and typically rushes the passer, but can occasionally drop into coverage. This is the kind of position that folks like Ryan Kerrigan, DeMarcus Ware, Von Miller and Khalil Mack play. Two words. High production. Purdue will need big sack and tfl numbers out of the Cat position in Diaco’s defense if Purdue wants to be effective in getting off the field and someone as big and as fast as DaMarcus Mitchell, Purdue may have found their guy.
Jalen Graham – Potential Starter
Sophomore – 6’3” 215 lbs
Jalen Graham should be slated to start the other niche linebacker position in Diaco’s defense, the Dog position. The Dog is very similar to the OLB position Graham played in Holt’s defense in 2019. Essentially the Dog always plays the open side of the field and needs to have the ability to cover slot receivers and tight ends, but still be able to help in the run game. I think the main purpose of the Dog position is to reduce the amount of times the defense needs to pull a linebacker out and replace him with a true corner, aka the nickel. This allows Purdue to oftentimes maintain a bigger size in the front seven to help in the run game against spread offenses. Graham had a truly good freshman season last year and if it weren’t for other true freshman performances we would be looking at him as a rising star and leader on Purdue’s football team. There definitely were some instances that Graham’s inexperienced showed and he got caught for getting his assignment or biting too hard. If he can figure those two things out Purdue will be extremely successful at the Dog position in 2020.
Semisi Fakasiieiki – Potential Starter
5th Year – 6’2” 230 lbs.
Semisi Fakasiieiki (yes I know how to spell Fakasiieiki by heart now) seemingly burst onto the scene out of nowhere in 2019 with 38 total tackles, 27 solo, 3.5 TFL and 1 sack. An already paper thin linebacking group in 2019 saw, now former Boiler, Cornel Jones go down with injuries multiple times throughout the season and it seemed like Purdue was running out of bodies and needing to use true freshmen in one of the toughest positions in all of football. Purdue turned to senior defensive end Semisi Fakasiieiki to make what may have been a mid-season jump to linebacker to fill in. Let’s be honest for a second here, Seimisi was probably too big to be playing middle linebacker last year at 6’2” 250 lbs and trying to drop into coverage and it showed, but according to Purdue’s roster Semisi has been able to drop from 250 lbs to 230 lbs. This should really help the fifth year move around and flow to plays as well as drop into coverage. I think Semisi could be a dark horse candidate to start opposite Derrick Barnes this fall.
Dontay Hunter – Contributor
RS Freshman – 6’4” 260 lbs.
Dontay Hunter made his way to Purdue last year via Westerville, Ohio and came in with one of the strongest defensive end tapes I have seen. Hunter came in with an already well established physique but with a frame to grow more and he was able to do such. I think Hunter has shown how quick he can be off the ball and moves very well for his size. I believe Hunter will be competing for playing time at the Cat position, which is geared predominantly towards pass rushing and setting an edge. I think Hunter has a lot of the tools and the body to be able to become one of the top pass rushers in the Big Ten if he continues to develop. Hunter might be one of the redshirts I am most interested in seeing how he potentially performs on Saturday.
Tyler Coyle – Potential Starter
Senior – 6’2” 215 lbs.
Tyler Coyle, is very familiar with Bob Diaco’s defense because he is a grad transfer from UCONN where Bob Diaco was head coach and recruited him and Anthony Poindexter was his head coach. Coyle played predominantly safety at UCONN, and actually led the Huskies last season with 86 total tackles, 54 solo, 3.5 TFL and 1 Int. Coyle offers tons of experience and was a guy that Diaco and Poindexter wanted for their defense, a fantastic opportunity for a retooling of the defense. Coyle is actually anticipated to play the Dog position this year, which is the hybrid safety/linebacker position. Depending on where Jalen Graham’s development is into the new system Coyle might get the nod to start because of experience, or he may back up Graham. It will be yet another interesting spot to see jockey around for playing time come Saturday and throughout the season.
Khali Saunders – Potential Contributor
RS Freshman – 6’3” 230 lbs
Khali Saunders was another linebacker that almost came out of the woodwork in 2019 due to a need for bodies. Saunders had three appearances with a pair of open field solo tackles that certainly got the attention of some folks in the press box. Saunders is a long rangy linebacker that certainly fit the look of a Big Ten linebacker as a true freshman last year, so there is quite a bit of promise in him developing into a solid linebacker for Purdue. Depending on where his skills have developed over the off season I think there could be certain scenarios, specifically passing downs, that Purdue might use to defend the pass and make good open field tackles. Yet another, potential contributor that is budding with potential heading into 2020.
Jacob Wahlberg – Potential Contributor
RS Freshman – 6’4” 235 lbs
Jacob Wahlberg is another potential name to watch in the linebacking corps this season. Wahlberg was a last minute flip for Purdue from Western Michigan and if I am being honest this was quite the late get for Purdue. Wahlberg definitely has above average height for a linebacker at 6’4”, but he has decent weight to him from a numbers perspective, but Wahlberg is one of those athletes that the numbers don’t do him justice. Wahlberg looks the part in terms of how he carries himself on the field and attacks the hole. Plus, he wears a neck guard at the linebacker position so you know he is coming ready to hit someone. Wahlberg gained about 5 pounds according to the Purdue roster, which is a great start but if I am being honest him gaining another 5 or 10 lbs might go a long way. This could also be a case of losing more fat and gaining much more muscle than the 5 lbs leads on. I think Wahlberg is another potential contributor for Purdue this year and could be a part of the future of the inside linebacking room for Purdue beyond 2020.
In addition to the men mentioned above, Purdue has a bevy of bodies at the linebacking position for 2020, something Purdue probably made a point of after having such a thin group in 2019.
Reserves/Redshirts: Zac Tuinei, Ben Furtney, Hayden Ellinger, Will Chapman, Ben Kreul, Chase Triplett, Byron Hubbard, Kydran Jenkins, Kieren Douglas, Clyde Washington, Zach Randall, Caleb Lahey, Elijah Ball, Robert McWIlliams