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The Journal Gazette

  • Michelle Davies George Karlaftis (88) was a game-changing defensive end at West Lafayette High School at this time last year. He'll try to bring the same disruptiveness to Purdue's defensive line this season. (Michelle Davies) 

Friday, August 09, 2019 1:00 am

Defensive linemen for Boilers expect much sack dancing

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

WEST LAFAYETTE – Purdue freshman George Karlaftis is working on his sack celebration.

Right now, it's just an excited scream, which won't cut it in the eyes of the veterans on the Boilermakers' defensive line.

“We have a lot of dance moves you're going to see when the season comes,” junior defensive tackle Anthony Watts said, laughing. “We've been practicing (those moves) a lot, but (the scream) is not it. That is not the goal for him. We have to work on that.”

It's imperative Karlaftis learn the team's prescribed sack celebrations because the Boilermakers are expecting him – and the rest of the defensive line – to use them often this season. The Boilermakers ranked 79th in the country in sacks last season and Karlaftis and Co. are committed to being more disruptive up front in 2019.

Karlaftis, a West Lafayette product and top 60 national recruit, impressed coaches and teammates alike in spring practice and has gone right on turning heads in fall camp. He was in the backfield again and again at Thursday's practice and came up with at least three sacks, though they were of the two-hand touch variety. 

So was Karlaftis pleased with his eye-opening performance? 

“No,” he said. “I'm never satisfied.”

The Boilermakers are a little short-handed on the defensive line right now because nose tackle Lorenzo Neal, a potential first-round pick the 2020 NFL draft, is still working his way back from a torn ACL suffered in November. Neal had a setback in his recovery shortly before camp and hasn't been able to get reps in live 11-on-11 work.

Those reps have instead gone to young players such as redshirt freshmen Branson Deen and KJ Stokes and true freshman Steven Faucheux. The fiery Watts was impressed by his younger teammates and has high hopes for the line this season.

Former Snider star Lawrence Johnson probably would have gotten some work, but he missed practice for a family emergency in Fort Wayne.

“All that is is just adversity,” Watts said of playing without Neal. “I told the D-linemen after practice, I was like, 'Throughout the season, you never know what's going to happen, you never know who's going down.' ... With that being said, (Thursday's practice) was a test for young guys to step up. 

“You have to be ready any time your number is called. ... We've got a long ways to go. We've got big goals for ourselves and we're nowhere near close to where we want to be, but we're going to keep working and getting better every day.”

Watts had 42 tackles, including 31/2 for loss and one sack in 2018. It was a productive season for the 6-foot-4, 300-pound tackle, but he was devastated by the blowout Music City Bowl loss to Auburn and vowed to be better.

He cut out fast food from his diet and stuck to a nutritionist-prescribed diet plan. He gained motivation not only from the bowl loss but also from seeing pictures of a shirtless Aaron Donald, the Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle, on Instagram. Watts shouted about his new, leaner figure at practice and giddily pointed out that he'd maintained his weight despite losing the excess fat.

“The new era of defensive linemen is not just fat, not just big,” Watts said. “They're working on their body, they're looking cleaner. So I wanted to intake that, change my eating habits and be a good-looking D-lineman all around.”

Watts is one of a handful of Purdue defensive linemen who were inexperienced last season. Players such as Kai Higgins, Giovanni Reviere and Derrick Barnes, who moved from linebacker to defensive end in the offseason, will be counted on to help the Boilermakers pressure the quarterback regularly.

The sack dance choreography is ready for prime time.

Note: Purdue added a recruit to its 2020 class when Christian Gonzalez, four-star safety from Texas, chose the Boilermakers over offers from Alabama and Notre Dame. The 6-foot-1 Gonzalez is the No. 316 player in the country and the No. 28 safety. He is the 17th commitment in Purdue's class, which ranks 26th nationally.

dsinn@jg.net