When thinking of the Big Ten's, or the nation's, best defenses, people tend to overlook Purdue. That would be a mistake. This unit may lack stars, but you cannot argue with its production. The Boilermakers yielded fewer yards per game than any team in the Big Ten. Yes, even fewer than Ohio State (lest we get carried away, it should be noted that the Buckeyes gave up nine fewer points per game). Nine starters return and nine of this year's starters are seniors. Purdue boasts a very good and deep front four and quite possibly the best back seven in the Big Ten. Free safety Stuart Schweigert and linebackers Landon Johnson and Niko Koutouvides could receive national recognition when it is all said and done.
Key 2002 Stats: NCAA rank in ( )
Scoring defense: 22.2 (35)
Rushing yards allowed: 116.2 (23)
Yards per carry: 3.34
Passing yards allowed: 201.0 (40)
Yards per pass: 6.24
Total defense, yards allowed: 317.15 (20)
Yards per play: 4.73
Turnovers forced: 24—9 fumbles recovered, 15 INT
Sacks: 32 for 185 yards
Defensive Line Analysis:
All four starters return on a productive unit. Senior end Shaun Phillips and tackle Craig Terrill are four-year starters, having combined for 68 starts. The 260-pound Phillips had 50 tackles, six sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss last season. A disruptive force off the edge, Phillips had six pass break ups, two forced fumbles and even a blocked kick in 2002. Terrill had four sacks and seven TFL last season.
Joining Phillips at end is fellow fifth-year senior Kevin Nesfield (37-5.5-8). The top reserve end is another fifth-year senior, Vedran Dzolovic, who started four games last season, finishing with 23-2-4.5. Also in the rotation is sophomore Brent Hawkins, who had nine tackles and one sack last season.
The youngster among the starters, tackle Brent Grover, started nine games as a redshirt freshman and tallied 33-1.5-4.0 after converting to tackle from linebacker. Filling reserve roles at tackle are sophomores Brandon Villarreal (33-1.5-4.5) and Dontrey Flemings.
This is the best linebacking corps in the Big Ten and certainly one of the best in the country. Fourth-year starter Landon Johnson is a standout at weakside linebacker, tallying 90 tackles, one sack and 5.5 TFL last season. The fifth-year senior is deserving of Butkus and All-America consideration.
Middle linebacker Niko Koutouvides is another stalwart. The senior led the Boilermakers with 121 tackles and 11.5 TFL, to go with four sacks in his first full year as a starter. At 237 pounds, Koutouvides can play all over the field as indicated by his three interceptions and eight PBU last season. Like Johnson, he is one of the best at his position that the nation has to offer.
On the strongside, Purdue has to replace Joe Odom, who had 34 career starts. Stepping in, however, is senior Gilbert Gardner, who started four games last season and has 22 career starts throughout the linebacking unit. He will hold the strongside position this season after contributing 57 tackles, 2.5 for loss, in a largely reserve role last season.
This unit is as good as they come, but with three senior starters it does lack experience in reserve. The two-deep carries sophomores Jason Leimberger and Bobby Iwuchukwu outside and junior Jon Goldsberry inside.
The first thing that stands out regarding Purdue's secondary is its uncommon height. Senior corner Jacques Reeves stands 6-1, junior corner Antwaun Rogers is 6-2, strong safety Deaunte Ferrell is 5-11 and free safety Stuart Schweigert is 6-3. Then, of course, there is the unit's steady, and with the exception of Schweigert, quiet production. Few talk about Reeves and Rogers when discussing corner duos, but they are quite solid. Reeves had three picks and seven PBU last season and Rogers had two interceptions and a team-high 13 PBU. Rogers is a bit light for his 6-2 frame, but at 167 pounds toughness is certainly not an issue. He has started every game the past two seasons, contributing 109 tackles.
Schweigert is the one Purdue defensive player who seems to get his due respect. Entering his fourth season as the Boilermakers starting free safety, he has certainly earned it. Few, if any, safeties in the nation cover as much ground and make as many plays. In three seasons, he has accumulated 272 tackles and 13 interceptions.
For the first time in four years Ralph Turner will not be patrolling Purdue's secondary. Replacing Turner and his 38 career starts at strong safety will be senior Ferrell, who tallied 17 tackles, one INT and one sack in 2002. Another senior, Torrey Vogel (11 tackles) will back up Ferrell. Other reserves include sophomores corners Sean Petty and Brian Hickman and free safety Marc Huddleston.
Purdue has the makings of an excellent defense. The team has an active, very experienced line, an outstanding group of linebackers and a solid secondary led by one of the best defensive players around. Depth at linebacker and in the secondary may prove to be a concern and a standout needs to emerge up front for this to become a truly special unit. The pieces are there, however, and the question is not whether Purdue's defense will be good, it is how good will it be? There is not much limit.