Just make plays. That’s all Purdue running backs coach Chris Barclay wants from his men this spring.
And it’s a big spring for the backs–and the entire program. Now is the time for everyone to improve. And for the backs, it’s about augmenting a rushing attack that has ranked last in the Big Ten in rushing in each of the last two seasons, averaging 81.5 yards in 2020 and 83.3 in 2019. Those averages need to improve for the Boilermakers to move up the pecking order in the Big Ten West.
The good news: Purdue has two capable backs in senior Zander Horvath and junior King Doerue. The focus this spring?
“Playing with confidence, definitely taking advantage of our one-on-one matchups and being decisive in the run game,” said Barclay after practice on Monday. “We’ve got to improve our running game, and we’re a large part of that.
“So, we want to make sure we understand the schemes, and that’s on me as a coach to explain it in a way that the guys can understand. If that means walking them through on the field before practice, whatever it takes. They’ve got to understand the importance that they have in the running game. And then protection. If we’re gonna throw the football, we’ve got to be firm in protection. So, just really becoming complete football players is the focus in the spring.”
With Doerue out early last season with injury, Horvath emerged and showed he could carry the load.
“I actually thought (Horvath) did a really good job,” said Barclay. “I saw him make tremendous strides, especially his ability to make defenders miss. I think that was the biggest jump that I saw in his game. At a certain point in the season, I saw he was first in the Big Ten in forced missed tackles which there’s something to be said about that.”
His niftiness belies his muscular 6-3, 230-pound build, as on a few occasions in 2020 he caused jaws to drop by leaping over would-be tacklers.
“I was actually caught off guard the first game when he hurdled the defender on the sideline,” fessed sophomore back Da’Joun Hewitt.
And Horvath showed he was durable, making all but one carry among Purdue running backs the first three games of 2020. In fact, Horvath was the only back with a carry the first two games. The former walk-on ended up ranking No. 7 in the Big Ten in rushing, averaging 73.7 yards per game and posting three 100-yard rushing games. And 311 of his rush yards came after contract, while 27 of his rushes resulted in first downs.
What Horvath really excelled at was catching the ball, which served as a de facto running game. His 30 receptions ranked first among all Big Ten running backs in 2020. But he needs to get better in short yardage.
“The main thing with with Zander that I’d like to see from him this spring, it would be just becoming a more efficient player in the short-yardage and goal-line situations,” said Barclay. “Need to see him run harder with more conviction, more physicality in those areas.”
Doerue is looking to regain his role as the No. 1 back, a throne he held as a true freshman in 2019. He missed the first two games last year due to injury—and barely played in the third. Doerue finished with just 17 carries for 64 yards (3.8 ypc) and caught four passes for 20 yards and a TD. A goal for him this spring: Improve at the next level and in short yardage.
“Looking back on film, that was an area we needed to do better,” said Doerue. “We need to get better. Third-and-ones, third-and-twos. We have to hone in on it and make sure we complete those … “
After that, no other Boilermaker running backs carried the ball in 2020. Hewitt played sparingly on special teams but didn’t get a carry and ended up opting out late last season.
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True freshman Tirek Murphy didn’t play a snap and then left via the transfer portal, joined by fullback Alfred Armour.
“(Murphy) had a death in his family that really rocked his family structure,” said Barclay. “I think their family became very concerned about things at that stage and I think it became a situation where he just felt that he needed to be a little bit closer to home. I told him I support him and whatever he decides to do and his pursuits. But I can’t speak for him. I think that he really needed to kind of reset and recalibrate and maybe find something a little closer to home.”
A wild card: UNLV transfer Dylan Downing, a native of Carmel, Ind., who played as a true freshman in 2020 for the Rebels.
“He’s a physical back,” Barclay said of Downing. “But he’s got good hands, and he can shift his weight. He’s not the most elusive guy in the world, but he’s does a good job of attacking edges and knowing the defense’s weaknesses. He’s a pretty smart player.”
True freshman Ja’Quez Cross arrives this summer. Could he inject a big-play element that was missing last season? Purdue’s long run in 2020? It was a 35-yard jaunt by Horvath. The next longest rush was a 16-yarder by Doerue.
“He has a lot of receiver in his background,” said Barclay. “So, I’m excited about his skill set. He’s gonna be different than the rest of these kids that we have here now from a standpoint of, he’s an elusive guy. He’s a get-him-in-space-and-watch-him-go type of guy. But he’s also caught a lot of passes in high school, so he understands routes and how to set the routes up to have success.”
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