Purdue Football 2021: Position Previews – Defensive Line

In the blink of an eye Bob Diaco came and went and with him went his 3-4 defense, which ultimately proved extremely ineffective in 2020.  In rolls an entirely new defensive staff helmed by LB coach and co-DC (play caller) Brad Lambert, DL coach and co-DC Mark Hagen. Safety coach and co-DC Ron English and CB coach James Adams.  With them will see the return of the 4-3, a defense Purdue’s current personnel is much better suited for and allows their best playmakers a chance to be aggressive.  Aggressive.  That’s a word you will hear a lot regarding Purdue’s defense in 2021.  Even though Brohm has brought in a very experienced staff, he himself will play a bigger role in the defense this year in an attempt to match his aggressive playing style.

To match that aggressive play style, Brohm brought back DL coach Mark Hagen after the previous DL coach Terrance Jamison left for Illinois.  Hagen is a familiar name for Boilermakers as he spent a decade at Purdue from 2000-2010 under Joe Tiller and Danny Hope having coached DL and LB primarily during that time.  In the decade since, Hagen has had two stints at Indiana, split by a period at Texas A&M and most recently was the DL coach at Texas last year before Tom Herman was fired in January. Hagen’s past success at Purdue in the 00’s saw him coach some of the all-time greats and members of the Den of Defensive Ends.  Guys like Ryan Kerrifan, Anthony Spencer, Mike Neal, Kawann Short and the list goes on and on. The hope is that Hagen will have the same kind of effect on guys like George Karlaftis and DaMarcus Mitchell this year and every report so far out of camp indicates as such. Let’s take a look at the fellas up front who will be wreaking havoc on opposing QBs this fall:

George Karlaftis – Starter

George Karlaftis lines up at defensive end against Minnesota in 2019

After a stand out true freshman season, George Karlaftis has his sophomore campaign cut short due to an ankle injury and about with COVID in 2020.  So far Karlaftis has tallied 58 tackles, 33 solo, 19 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks in just a little over 13 games, that’s some efficiency.  With the return to the 4-3 defense, Karlaftis will be able to be utilized to his fullest potential in getting to the quarterback, opposed to the read and stuff mentality of the old 3-4 defense.  That means pretty much every play in 2021 Big George will be screaming up field looking to obliterate some ball carriers.  So far during fall camp all reports have been that Karlaftis has been a nearly unblockable beast and impressing pro scouts.  The junior hometown hero will likely only have this one remaining season before going to the NFL and potentially the first 1st-round draft pick for the Boilers since Ryan Kerrigan in 2011. 

DaMarcus Mitchell – Starter

Let’s year in our previews we called DaMarcus Mitchell is an absolute monster of a human being and a total freak athlete and boy did he live up to that billing in 2020.  One of the few bright spots in a plagued defense in 2020, Mitchell posted 34 tackles, 22 solo, 6 tackles for loss and 1 sack over 6 games.  While most of the roles and positions of the defense changed, Mitchell’s position will remain relatively unchanged going into 2021 as he will remain a rush end that can drop into coverage on occasion.  It’s the old/new position called LEO.  Mitchell will be rushing opposite George Karlaftis this fall in what Purdue will hope to be one of the best pass rushing tandems in the conference and frankly has the potential to do so.  Mitchell missed some time this camp but recently returned to the field and should be ready to go in week 1 against Oregon State.  The former JuCo, should he remain disciplined and have a big season, could make the illustrious two year move from JuCo all the way to the NFL in 2022. 

Lawrence Johnson – Starter

Lawrence Johnson tackles the ball carrier against Northwestern in 2019

The rising junior out for Fort Wayne Snider comes into 2021 as the unquestioned starter at Nose Tackle.  Johnson has appeared in 20 games during his career at Purdue and recorded 25 tackles, 10 solo and a combined tackle for loss. While those numbers aren’t necessarily eye popping, they don’t need to be because that isn’t the primary role of a nose tackle, absorbing double teams and eating space is.  Nose tackles make their plays by allowing the linebackers to make theirs.  At 6’3” 210 lbs, Johnson appears to have put on some additional weight this offseason and should be primed to take the next step forward on the interior for the Boilers this fall. 

Branson Deen – Contributor

Branson Deen warms up prior to Purdue’s win over Northwestern in 2019

Deen like Johnson will be a junior this fall after appearing in 15 games during his career, with 4 starts in 2020. In those 15 appearances, Branson Deen has logged 20 tackles, 16 solo, 2 tackles for loss and a sack.  Deen will play defensive tackle this fall with the ability to bump out to defensive end in certain situations and circumstances.  Defensive tackle is going to have some of the toughest competition for playing this fall with a few of the following guys also competing.  Regardless, Deen should have first crack at the defensive tackle position on Saturday and could be poised to take a big step forward in 2021.

Jack Sullivan – Contributor

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 and then moved into a more consistent rotation in 2020.  Over the course of 18 appearances, two of which were starts, Sullivan has accumulated 25 tackles, 10 solo, 2 tackles for loss, 1 sack and a great 5 passes tipped.  I fully expect Sullivan to rotate in at defensive tackle but also could get some time at defensive end on occasions.  The rising junior will look to take a big step forward in 2021, and has a shot to earn the starting role this fall.  

Damarjhe Lewis – Contributor

Lewis makes his way to Purdue from Griffin, Georgia after spending his true freshman season at Indiana in 2020.  Lewis was originally part of the 2020 recruiting class and picked Indiana over Auburn, Florida State, Penn State, Tennessee among others. Now typically you don’t see many recruits transfer to their rivals but this one is a bit of a reunion because Mark Hagen recruited Lewis to IU when he was there in 2019 before leaving for Texas in 2020.  Lewis is another guy that will be competing for time at the defensive tackle position for the Boilers this fall and reports out of camp seem to be that he will be getting some reps or potentially even start come this Saturday.

Greg Huggins – Potential Contributor

Greg Hudgins was one of the top rated recruits for the Boilers’ 2020 recruiting class where he came in as an edge defender, but has since reportedly put on nearly 50 lbs since arriving and has thus moved inside to the three technique defensive tackle position. According to Purdue, Hudgins appeared in two games last year but didn’t record any stats.  This one is a bit of a guess on my part because of how many people are competing for time on the interior of the D-Line this fall, but Hudgins comes from a nationally renown high school that played a national schedule.  Combine that with a year in the weight room and the 50 lbs he has put on and Hudgins could be a surprise on the line this fall. 

PrinceJames Boyd Jr – Potential Contributor

Boyd makes his way to Purdue via Independence Community College aka “Dream U”, where he spent one season at the former Last Chance U college.  ICC played it’s season this spring due to the global pandemic and recorded 7 tackles, 3 solo and recovered 2 fumbles in just five games.  Watching his tape from JuCo and senior year of high school, Boyd is quick for his size and has good vision and seems really well suited to be a good pass rusher.  The jump from JuCo to Power 5 can b quite daunting, especially in the trenches, but I think there’s a chance we could see some of Boyd this fall in some pass rush situations on the inside and could make for a great combo in stuns since he played defensive end in high school and should have the speed to make it around as Karlaftis or Mitchell twist inside.   

Joe Anderson – Backup

Joe Anderson makes his way to Purdue after transferring from South Carolina where he spent two seasons as a reserve appearing in five games, recording 5 tackles. Out of high school ANderson was a Top 150 recruit and 4-star that chose the Gamecocks over reported offers from Alabama, Arkansas, Clemson and Georgia, so the raw talent is there, we just haven’t seen many opportunities on the field yet.  Anderson will be playing the strong side defensive end position for the Boilers and will be backing up George Karlaftis this fall.  I expect Anderson to get some reps and rotation in but a majority of the snaps this fall will go to Karlaftis and Anderson will be poised to start in 2022 assuming Karlaftis leaves for the NFL after this season.

Bryce Austin – Backup

Bryce Austin is coming off a redshirt his freshman season in 2020 and will in all likelihood be the backup nose tackle behind Lawrence Johnson this fall.   Austin will bring athleticism and speed on the inside and could be used heavily in pass rush situations, but I am still expecting him to get some full series at the position this fall.   Purdue doesn’t have many 300+ lbs guys to play the position, so his development this year will be something to watch closely.

Kydran Jenkins – Backup

Jenkins is coming off a freshman season which saw him retain his redshirt but appear in one game.  The 6’1” 270 lbs defensive end will likely serve as a backup at the LEO position this fall behind DaMarcus Mitchell.  Early in camp when Mitchell was dealing with injury Jenkins was running with the 1’s at LEO.  Jenkins is really quick for his size and if you go back and watch some his senior season tape, he would often outrun opposing teams skill position players, combine that with the added weight and I think LEO is a great spot in Lambert’s defense.  Mitchell has had some injury issues in the past, so Jenkins will need to be ready to go at a moment’s notice this fall.

Depth: Sulaiman Kpaka, Jeff Marks, Byron Hubbard, Dontay Hunter (injured)

Redshirts: Tristan Cox, Khordae Sydnor

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