EDITOR'S NOTE: In Jeff Brohm's first season at Purdue, he took what was supposed to be a rebuilding year and turned it into a winning one. The Boilermakers posted their best season since 2011 with a bowl victory and a 7-6 record. As we count down to fall camp and Season 2, we’ll be previewing the Boilermakers position-by-position. This is the first installment in a multi-part series.
Purdue’s running backs were arguably the deepest and most talented of the Boilermakers’ position groups last year. This year, they’ll be the same thing — only a year older and (possibly) healthier.
The top of the depth chart features four veterans with different body types and running styles. Using a running back-by-committee approach, they combined for 151.5 yards per game which was 82nd in college football. While three of the top four underwent offseason surgery, they all should contribute this year.
Will Brohm lean on the same approach? Or will a lead back emerge?
Key returners: Markell Jones (senior), Tario Fuller (junior), D.J. Knox (senior), Richie Worship (Junior)
Notable newcomers: Evan Anderson (freshman), Alexander Horvath (redshirt freshman)
Losses: Brian Lankford-Johnson (transferred after sophomore season)
Greatest strength? Versatility
Not only are the Boilers deep at running back, they're diverse. The top four backs each give Purdue something a little bit different. Knox is the scrappy 5-foot-7 bulldog, who makes an ideal change-of-pace back and receiver out of the backfield. On the other end of the spectrum, Richie Worship is the 260-pound bruiser, who is especially useful in short-yardage situations and as a fullback.
Jones and Fuller are somewhere in between. They are the most complete backs. For that reason, they have the best chance to earn a true lead-back role in this offense ... which brings us to our next question.
Position battles: Can one back separate himself?
Of the four backs, Jones and Fuller seem like the best candidates to create separation. Jones is the only back of the group who has truly carried the load as a feature back, like he did in 2016 under then-coach Darrel Hazell. But during last year's season opener against Louisville, he suffered a knee injury on a kick return. His season was sidelined for four games before it even started.
With Jones out, Fuller became one of the biggest surprises of last season … at least until he got injured, too. His career prior to 2017 featured just 10 carries for 30 yards. He smashed those totals through three games and was the Boilermakers’ leading rusher with 43 carries for 261 yards and a pair of touchdowns. But he sat the rest of the season with an ankle injury.
Jones returned to the lineup to lead Purdue in carries (113) and yards (556). However, that was largely because he was the only running back standing after a rugged Big Ten season. He picked up 52 of those carries and 303 of those yards in the last two games alone.
As camp begins, will Jones carry over the late-season momentum he created? Or will Fuller finish what he started at the beginning of the season?
Biggest question: Can they stay healthy?
If last year showed anything, it’s that you can never have enough running backs. Yes, Purdue’s backfield began last season as the deepest position group. It ended as one of the most injury ridden. Jones (knee), Fuller (ankle surgery) and Worship (ACL surgery) missed a combined 16 games due to injury last year. Though he played in every game, Knox was also banged up early in the IU game and limited to just five carries.
The running back who emerges from this group might just be the last one standing.
Worth considering: Who else might carry the football?
When you look at all the depth and experience in the Boilers’ backfield, it would be easy to write this year off as a redshirt season for freshman Evan Anderson. Not so fast. By the nature of the position, running backs are extremely susceptible to injury.
Consider that last year Purdue finished the season with just one healthy back. And, in the spring game, redshirt freshman Alexander Horvath got plenty of action. Add in the new rule that allows redshirted athletes to play up to four games and it could be possible Anderson or Horvath will see the field late in the year.