FORT WAYNE – Seventy-four days, the man says, and there’s a child’s joy back of the words. A child 74 days out from Christmas morning. A child counting down the last 74 days until summer. A child who knows that in 74 days life will begin to sweeten, and the world will become a fairer and altogether sunnier place.
And then you blink, it’s not a child at all in front of you. It’s Darrell Hazell.
Purdue’s football coach is wearing a suit and a tie on a warm Tuesday evening at Fort Wayne Country Club, the required uniform for this meet-and-greet sponsored by the local John Purdue Club. But already he aches to be wearing sideline gear. Already he’s jumped ahead to high noon on Aug. 30, Western Michigan across the way in Ross-Ade Stadium, another football season ready to launch.
Our guys are really anxious and fired up, Hazell says.
You might not find that remarkable, considering football is, after all, a fired-up kind of deal.
You might find it more so if you remember what happened last fall, which was basically the football equivalent of Titanic vs. iceberg.
The Boilermakers went 1-11, beating only FCS opponent Indiana State, and were 0-8 in the Big Ten. A couple of the losses were close – Notre Dame wheezed past the Boilers 31-24, and Big Ten champion Michigan State ground out a 14-0 win – but most were not. The Boilermakers were outscored 456-179 and averaged just 282.9 yards, including a microscopic 67.1 yards per game on the ground.
That’s the bad news. The good news is, Hazell all but purposely lit that firestorm, deciding early on to play the kids and aim for the future.
I think it will pay huge dividends, Hazell said of that approach. You saw it already in the springtime; guys just looked so much more comfortable running around. There’s nothing like experience. There really isn’t.
If you have talented guys with experience, whether they’re young guys or old guys, it doesn’t matter. If they’re talented and they have experience, that’s a deadly combination.
How deadly, and how talented, remains to be seen, of course. But you can’t argue the experience part.
Purdue’s top five running backs return, including leading rusher Akeem Hunt. Nine of the top 10 receivers are back, including tight end Justin Sinz, who led the Boilers with 41 catches last fall. And the defense has to be better, because it can’t get worse. Purdue gave up 39 points and 460 yards per game last year, including 235.4 per game on the ground.
Then there’s the quarterback position, a traditional staple in West Lafayette, where Danny Etling threw for 1,690 yards and 10 touchdowns as a freshman and will battle Austin Appleby and David Blough, a freshman from Carrolton, Texas, for the starting job.
Not for long, however.
I’d say a week into fall camp, Hazell says when asked when he wants to name a starter. We waited about three weeks last year. I would have had it done probably that first week.
But it’s not an easy decision. There’s three good guys in that group, and they’re working extremely hard. It’s going to be fun to watch those guys play.
How much fun?
Seventy-four days until we find out.