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  • Associated Press Safety Jacob Thieneman, shown during Monday’s practice, is one of only four returning starters for the Purdue defense. The Boilermakers open the season Aug. 30 at home against Northwestern.

  • Associated Press Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm watches practice Thursday. Brohm is hoping his inexperienced defense can get up to speed quickly.

  • Purdue defensive tackle Lorenzo Neal catches his breath during NCAA college football practice Thursday, Aug. 2, 2018, in West Lafayette, Ind. (John Terhune/Journal & Courier via AP)

Wednesday, August 08, 2018 1:00 am

Purdue defense getting new look

Coaches working to get unit up to speed with just 4 returnees

Elizabeth Wyman | The Journal Gazette

During a 2017 season galvanized by a physical and reliable defense, the Purdue offense had a safety net.

In 2018, the roles are reversed. After returning only four starters on defense, the unknown is the most nerve-wracking part for co-defensive coordinator Nick Holt, who's not afraid to change the defense that worked so well last season.

A year ago, Purdue played a 3-4 concept and used the “Leo” position – a defensive end/linebacker hybrid – but Holt wants to keep it simpler to start the season.

“We're simplifying right now. A little more 4-3 in principles as of right now, but in time we'll try multiple (defenses) as we get more experience,” Holt said. “Right now we just got to do a little less and get our young kids playing really fast.”

Linebacker Markus Bailey, defensive tackle Lorenzo Neal and safeties Jacob Thieneman and Navon Mosely are the lone returning starters.

“We're going to need their leadership. I think those are the guys that have to take the reins on the defense,” second-year head coach Jeff Brohm said.

Bailey was second in tackles last season with 89, including 67 solo. Neal, voted team captain along with Bailey and Thieneman, finished the season with 22 tackles.

“We got to make sure he's healthy as much as we can. We got to get him to the playing weight he wants to be at,” Brohm said of Neal. “We're going to have to use him even more so than we did last year.”

Brohm said Neal is their best player up front and wants to see him rushing the passer more this season.

“I'm going to try and be able to play significantly more snaps than I was able to last year,” Neal said. “I think that I'm just trying to take care of my body, and to be able to do that, it's a lot of training and a lot of keeping the movement.”

As a captain, Neal has taken on the role of mentoring the freshmen and helping them get adjusted to the expectations of college football.

“I think I slowed down this year and tried to build a better relationship with the young guys,” he said. “A lot of people are saying, 'Oh, you only won seven games,' but it takes a lot just to win one game. A lot of that is trying to tell (the freshmen) that, 'Hey, maybe you haven't been in that situation, but you need to understand it takes a lot more work than you think to win one game, one quarter, one play.'”

Brohm said while he's confident in the other positions on defense, they're still a little unknown at this point.

“They don't have the experience and that's where we go to get those guys ready,” Brohm said. “This next four weeks of putting them in tough situations and in team situations is going to be vital for us to be ready for game one.”

Freshman defensive lineman Jeff Marks has generated promise and excitement throughout the coaching staff after enrolling early.

“He's a strong young man. He's the one person on the team, if you guys get an opportunity to shake his hand, I would probably just pat him on the shoulder because it's a firm grip,” Brohm said.

Brohm said Marks will likely play inside and outside and says he possess some Gelan Robinson qualities.

Holt said he's confident in where his secondary is headed. Redshirt freshmen Dedrick Mackey and Kenneth Major will see significant time at cornerback.

“What they need is to just go and play a game,” Holt said. “We have some really promising young talent in the secondary. We just have a good nucleus of kids to coach. Very green, very raw, but we're athletic.”

ewyman@jg.net