The Purdue football team has a defensive tackle that could be dominant at his position, according to his position coach.
“He has all the intangibles that you want for a defensive lineman,” defensive line coach Rubin Carter said of sophomore Ra’Zahn Howard. “He’s very quick, very blessed, very explosive – he’s very strong and can get (a) great push in the middle to be able to push the pocket and knock blockers back into the quarterback’s lap.”
Howard played only three games in 2013, but made an impression despite his limited experience. In Purdue’s Oct. 19 game at Michigan State, he recorded two tackles and used a high level of athleticism to deflect two passes at the line of scrimmage.
The sophomore has improved his conditioning, Carter said, and is in “much better shape” this spring. After weighing 350 pounds in the fall, Howard has lost 40 pounds and now stands at 310; he benches about 450 pounds and squats 550.
“I’m just getting back into the groove,” Howard said. “(Continuing) to be a big person, moving as I’m dropping weight.”
Generally speaking, Purdue’s defensive line is a young group.
Sophomores Evan Panfil and Jake Replogle join Howard on a defensive line that lost a combined 99 tackles and four sacks from graduated seniors Bruce Gaston, Ryan Isaac and Greg Latta.
For a unit that gave up 14 sacks, good for last place in the Big Ten last season, younger players will be counted on immediately to step in and fill roles.
Panfil, who played in four games and registered five tackles in 2013, said the message from defensive coordinator Greg Hudson has been simple on the basics of the game – players must “run to the football.”
“That’s how you win. If you have sound fundamentals and technique, that’s what the great teams have,” Panfil said. “They’re just kind of hammering home the basics – just get aligned and (get) helmets to the football.”
In order to help push understanding of fundamental concepts onto younger players, the Boilermakers will need experience to step in.
Ryan Russell, a senior who tallied 35 tackles and two sacks as a junior, experienced change last season when he switched to the jack linebacker role as head coach Darrell Hazell moved the defense to a 3-4 scheme. His leadership will be crucial in the development of underclassmen.
“He’s got to direct these young guys and get them going in the right direction,” Carter said. “There’s no doubt about it. Defensive line is one of the most dominant positions in football ... Ryan has to bring that versatility to us and be able to help not just himself and make the plays we expect him to play, but also help the young guys.”