Squarely in the doldrums of late winter, Purdue students have almost reached both the midway point of their semesters and spring break, signifying the final stretch of the school year.
For Purdue football, this time of year means that the hard work of the season is just beginning. The Boilers are now done with their pre-spring break slate of practices, a productive week-and-a-half period in which new leaders have begun to emerge on both sides of the ball.
Sometimes, opportunities for less experienced players emerge due to injury.
When it comes to the linebacking corps, juniors Derrick Barnes and Cornel Jones as well as fifth-year senior Markus Bailey are all out with injuries.
“I’m enjoying it because these young guys are all out here. They’re very hungry; they’re getting a lot of reps,” Purdue defensive coordinator Nick Holt said about the injuries. “It’s a really good opportunity for these guys because they’re in the show, and they are only getting better.”
The three injured linebackers combined for 276 tackles last season, as all three players ranked among the top five players on the team in terms of tackles.
One younger Boilermaker who is only continuing to get better is freshman linebacker Jaylan Alexander.
“Now I have to take the things I did last season and work on them and get better this spring,” Alexander said. “(I need to) learn the playbook more and be more involved in the playbook and be a young leader.”
Alexander has certainly gotten the opportunity to be a leader so far this spring as he has earned the chance to get reps as a middle linebacker, which is a position usually known as the most integral to a strong defense.
Last season, Alexander did more than just get his feet wet with the team: He appeared in nine games, including the Music City Bowl. The young linebacker recorded 23 total tackles, 14 of which were solo takedowns.
In fact, Alexander had easily his biggest statistical game in the bowl game with eight tackles in the loss to Auburn.
Despite his strong personal performance, he is rightfully disappointed with the result and even with how he played in the 63-14 blowout.
“It’s motivation for me, I’m not really worried about it like that anymore, but I still keep it in the back of my mind for motivation,” Alexander said. “Playing (against) the SEC is different, and next year we have to come back harder, play faster, smarter.”
Improvement is clearly the most important theme of the spring season for Purdue football. However, a close second is staying healthy.
Redshirt senior tight end Brycen Hopkins is keeping health at the top of his priority list.
The fifth-year missed the first spring practice of the season but has since returned to take part in light action this week.
“I need to get healthy — 100 percent healthy — so I can go 100 percent on the field and not hold back,” Hopkins said.
The Boilers will need the tight end to get back to full health before the start of the season, as he will be counted on as one of the team’s offensive leaders this season.
“I’ve always kind of been a silent leader. I lead with my actions,” Hopkins said. “I don’t really talk a lot, but lately there’s so many younger guys and so few older guys, so I need to take a bigger leadership role. I have to get in these young guys’ heads and let them know that before they know it, it’s going to be time to play.”
Last season, Hopkins had by far his best offensive season as a Boilermaker, catching 34 passes for 539 yards and two touchdowns. Those numbers are going to be expected to rise on a team that only seems to continually improve under head coach Jeff Brohm.
For now, the team is taking a week-long break in coordination with the school’s spring break.
“I want them to enjoy themselves. They have to stay in shape, eat right and take care of the body. You don’t want to do anything stupid,” Brohm said about this next week’s break.
Purdue football returns to practice after break on March 18.