Aidan O'Connell and Purdue aim to build on bounce-back 2021 season (2024)

Not since Drew Brees donned the Old Gold and Black in 2000 has Purdue produced a more exciting season than its 2021 campaign.

The Boilermakers finished 9-4, their most wins in 18 seasons. They upset No. 2 Iowa on the road and No. 3 Michigan State at home. They won five road games for the first time since their unbeaten 1943 squad. Purdue finished 5-1 over its final six games, including a 48-45 overtime win against Tennessee in the Music City Bowl.


Following a disjointed 2-4 2020 season because of the pandemic and a 4-8 finish in 2019, it was important for the Boilermakers to take a step forward under coach Jeff Brohm. They did that and more.

“It’s definitely going in the right direction,” said Brohm, who is 28-29 over five seasons at Purdue. “Anytime you have a chance to have those two top-five wins and then a big win in the bowl game, it’s great stuff. I do think our guys performed at a very high level, and it gives us momentum moving towards this year.”

Locked amid Big Ten West Division run-heavy offenses, the Boilermakers have become the pass-happy alternative. Purdue finished with 1,419 more passing yards and 21 more passing touchdowns than the No. 2 team in its division. It also ranked last among FBS programs at 2.79 yards per rush. Stylistically, it sometimes shakes up opponents. It also differentiates Purdue from competitors in recruiting.

“We do have to be different and we do need to make sure that we’re creative and we’re trying to be cutting edge,” Brohm said. “We’re trying to do things that these young guys want to come in and be a part of. So yes, (being different is) a big part of it. We’ve always tried to think that way on offense.

“Now we even want to try to carry that over to the whole team, defensively and even beyond. So that’s just the goal. And you’re never going to be perfect, but we got to strive to find ways to improve every year if we can.”

Purdue fans have responded positively to Brohm’s style of play. Last year, the Boilermakers averaged more than 56,000 fans per home game for the first time since 2008 and fans have renewed season tickets at a 93 percent clip.

“We try to play an exciting brand and make it fun for our players to play in and for our fans to watch,” Brohm said. “That’s kind of what we love about it. I think our fans do. They know when they come into the stadium, it’s going to be a competitive game against a great team.”



After alternating quarterbacks early in the season, Brohm settled on Aidan O’Connell, who became the perfect triggerman in the high-flying offense. O’Connell, a sixth-year former walk-on, was at his best against the top competition. In three starts against AP top-10 teams, O’Connell completed 75.3 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns and no interceptions. He averaged 432.3 yards in those games, up from 267.9 in his other games. His passer efficiency was 170.3 against top-10 teams, much higher than his 153.0 rating in other games.

“The last half of the year he put up tremendous numbers and played at a very high level and helped us win ball games,” Brohm said. “He’s an extremely hard worker. He puts in the time and the effort; he studies it. He’s continued to improve every year. He’s been battle tested; he’s had to earn a spot. He’s had to fight through adversity; nothing was handed to him. So, because of that, when he finally took over at midseason, he was ready.”

In a win at No. 2 Iowa, O’Connell threw for 375 yards and two scores. Three weeks later against No. 3 Michigan State, O’Connell passed for 536 yards and three touchdowns in a second top-five victory. The following week at Ohio State, he passed for 386 yards and four scores in a shootout loss. He finished the season by throwing for 534 yards and five touchdowns in an overtime win against Tennessee in the Music City Bowl.

“I think accuracy and poise are his two best traits,” Brohm said. “He can throw it where he wants to and he’s worked hard at continuing to perfect his motion and accuracy and placement of the ball — spins and revolutions on the ball as well when he throws it.

“He’s just got great poise in a pocket. Nothing rattles him.”

Best pass efficiency vs. AP Top 10 - FBS last season


Aidan O'Connell and Purdue aim to build on bounce-back 2021 season (1)C.J. Stroud



Aidan O'Connell and Purdue aim to build on bounce-back 2021 season (2)KJ Jefferson



Aidan O'Connell and Purdue aim to build on bounce-back 2021 season (3)Aidan O'Connell



Aidan O'Connell and Purdue aim to build on bounce-back 2021 season (4)Adrian Martinez



Aidan O'Connell and Purdue aim to build on bounce-back 2021 season (5)Stetson Bennett



Min. two starts vs. top-10 opponents
(Source: Pro Football Focus)

But to repeat or enhance on his 2021 performance, O’Connell will have to do it without consensus All-American receiver David Bell and No. 2 threat Milton Wright. Bell, a third-round draft pick, finished with 93 catches for 1,286 yards and six scores in 12 games and totaled 2,946 yards in 29 games with the Boilermakers since 2019. Wright caught 57 passes for 732 yards and seven touchdowns last year but is no longer with the program, Brohm confirmed.


Several receivers will have the chance to fill that void, headlined by senior Broc Thompson and junior T.J. Sheffield. Last year, Thompson caught 30 passes for 457 yards and four touchdowns but he had a pair of knee surgeries after the season. Brohm believes Thompson will be ready by August. Sheffield grabbed 36 balls for 325 yards and four scores.

Holdovers Marshawn Rice, a junior, and sophom*ores Abdur-Rahmaan Yaseen and Deion Burks combined to catch 12 passes last year. Tight end Payne Durham, a senior, is the team’s top returning pass catcher with 45 receptions for 467 yards and six scores. He’ll work in combination with junior Garrett Miller (19 catches, 165 yards).

Transfers Tyrone Tracy Jr., a fifth-year junior, and sixth-year senior Charlie Jones also will make an impact in the receiving corps. Both Tracy and Jones were impact players at Iowa for multiple years. Last fall, Jones led Iowa receivers with 469 snaps and compiled 21 catches and 323 receiving yards. In three-plus years at Iowa, Tracy started 16 games, caught 66 passes for 871 yards and five touchdowns. Last year, Tracy’s production waned to 15 catches and 106 yards. He will play both receiver and running back at Purdue.

“He can do a lot of things,” Brohm said of Tracy. “He’s a strong young man who has played a lot of football and wanted to get more touches and catches. We’re going to find ways that his hands touch the ball. I think we have receivers on our team and he’ll definitely get the ball there, but he has some unique traits that I think we can definitely utilize out of the backfield, running the ball and catching it.”

Joining Tracy in the backfield is a trio of senior King Doerue, sophom*ore Dylan Downing and Indiana transfer Sampson James, a senior. All three are big, physical backs weighing between 205 and 225 pounds.

Purdue runs the ball just enough to keep teams off balance, but the passing game provides the backbone of its offense. The Boilermakers ranked fifth nationally with 355.1 passing yards per game but were 127that 84 rushing yards per game.

“We’ve got a couple of different types of backs that give us different elements, and we’ve got to utilize those to make sure that we continue to display the ability to run the football,” Brohm said. “But we also realize what our strengths are.”


Up front, the Boilermakers return three primary starters including junior center Gus Hartwig, senior left tackle Eric Miller and junior guard Spencer Holstege. Cam Craig, a junior, started two games at right tackle, and will open there, while redshirt freshman Marcus Mbow is the likely favorite to start at right guard.

Others in competition along the offensive line include redshirt freshman Muhammad Moussa, sophom*ore Jared Bycznski, and junior transfers Sione Finau (Florida International) and Daniel Johnson (Kent State). Austin Burton, a senior, will back up O’Connell at quarterback.

Key stat to know: Of the 31 FBS quarterbacks who made multiple starts against AP Top-10 teams last season, O’Connell’s 170.3 pass efficiency rating in those games ranked third behind only Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud and Arkansas’ KJ Jefferson.

Returning production


Passing yards


O'Connell, 3,708

Rushing yards


Doerue, 530

Receiving yards


Durham, 467

OL starts


3 with 13



Douglas, 67

Tackles for loss


Deen, 10



Jenkins, 5



Allen, 4


In two years, Purdue’s defense improved from one of college football’s worst into one of the top third in most categories. In 2019, the Boilermakers allowed 436.3 yards per game and 6.02 yards per play, ranking 100th and 91st, respectively. Last year, they allowed 365.2 (446th) and 5.54 (65th) in both areas.

Veteran coach Ron English helped usher that turnaround with better fundamentals and consistency while bringing in more blitzing and one-on-one coverage. With an active, disruptive front, the Boilermakers held opponents to 22.4 points per game, the program’s best since 2017 and down 7.4 points per game from 2020.

“They heard the criticism and they were out to prove themselves,” Brohm said. “We did try to come in with a different style and a different mentality. We definitely wanted to play more aggressive. We definitely wanted to challenge things more. We wanted to be able to get in the backfield more, pressure the quarterback more, tighten up the coverage. Blitz more. So, I do think a combination of all those things helped us, and we have quite a few guys coming back on defense so I’m hopeful that we can improve upon that. That’s going to be critical for us if we want to win some ball games in this conference.”

Like on offense with Bell, the defense will need to replace a generational talent in defensive end George Karlaftis, a first-round NFL Draft selection. Karlaftis finished with 11.5 tackles for loss and five sacks, but his impact belied his statistics. Karlaftis often took up two blockers, especially in pass-rush situations, which enabled other defenders to make plays.

“We’re going to miss George for sure,” Brohm said. “He was as good as they come, in my opinion.”

The Boilermakers do have multiple defenders with experience capable of smoothing over Karlaftis’ absence, at least collectively. Seniors Jack Sullivan, Lawrence Johnson and Branson Deen all come back up front, while sophom*ore edge rusher Kydran Jenkins returns after tying Karlaftis for the team sacks lead. The defensive staff will look to Sullivan, who had 4.5 tackles for loss last year, to play a role similar to Karlaftis throughout the line of scrimmage.

Among the important rotational linemen include sophom*ore Joe Anderson, sophom*ore Khordae Sydnor, redshirt freshman Yanni Karlaftis, and Murray State graduate transfer Scotty Humpich. True freshman Nick Caraway also will have a chance to play right away.

At linebacker, seniors Kieren Douglas and Jalen Graham are the unit’s most experienced players. Douglas is the team’s leading returning tackler (57) while Brohm calls Graham “our best playmaker.” Douglas plays in the middle while Graham works the outside/nickel role. Semisi Fakasiieiki, a freshman, was injured last year but will competed at the weakside along with junior OC Brothers and junior Clyde Washington.

Aidan O'Connell and Purdue aim to build on bounce-back 2021 season (6)

Kydran Jenkins (left) and Kieren Douglas (middle) are two of Purdue’s most productive returning defenders in 2022. (Robert Goddin / USA TODAY Sports)

The secondary has both talent and experience. Purdue likely will start cornerbacks Cory Trice and Jamari Brown, both of whom are 6-foot-3 seniors. Indiana transfer Reese Taylor, a senior, and Kansas State transfer Tee Denson, a sophom*ore, also could battle for a starting role or in subpackages. Free safety Cam Allen intercepted four passes last year and he could line up next to senior Chris Jefferson or junior Sanoussi Kane.

Key stat to know: Purdue’s offensive output largely has remained the same under Brohm, but how many points the Boilers allow determines their season record. In Brohm’s three losing seasons, Purdue has allowed 30.2 points per game. In his two winning seasons, the Boilers have allowed only 21.5 points per game.

Special teams

Purdue hit the jackpot in the transfer portal with Jones, the Big Ten’s reigning return specialist of the year. At Iowa, Jones was the only player nationally to average more than 7 yards on at least 30 punt returns. He also is one of only three kickoff returners to average more than 25 yards on 25 returns. He returned a punt 41 yards and a kickoff 36 yards against Purdue last year.


“We’re fired up about Charlie,” Brohm said. “I think he can do a lot of things for us and his return skills have been on display for a couple years.”

At kicker, Mitchell Fineran returns for an extra season and connected on 24 of 29 field-goal attempts last year, which by percentage (82.8) ranked fourth among Big Ten kickers. Purdue has work to do at punter. Sophom*ore Jack Ansell returns after finishing 10thin Big Ten punting average (38.3) and will face a challenge from sophom*ore walk-on Brendan Cropsey.

Opposing scouting report

Brohm has developed enough of a résumé that Big Ten defensive assistants expect the passing attack to just reload every year, no matter who the Boilermakers lose on offense. That’s even the case this year without Bell or Wright.

“I wouldn’t bet against them,” one Big Ten defensive assistant said. “I really like their quarterback. When you have a head coach that is offense-oriented — a former quarterback — and you’ve got a quarterback like Aidan O’Connell, there’s not going to be many mistakes. They play a different brand of football. They’re willing to put the ball down the field and take their chances. If you can even take care of the quarterback there and put enough pieces around him, then, yeah, they can (succeed). I think so. I really think so.”

Brohm also has successfully married his attacking offensive philosophy with one that does the same on defense. Brohm is less interested in playing bend-but-don’t-break, said the assistant, but he puts a premium on forcing opponents to make mistakes and get the ball back to his offense.

“He gambles, and he’s gambled enough that now he can do it based on his longevity as a coach,” the assistant said. “He’s got a good contract, so why wouldn’t you just keep gambling and keep putting people in the seats because you play a brand of football that puts the ball down the field? Then you ask your defensive coordinator to occasionally blitz the sh*t out of the opposing team’s quarterback hoping to try to get the ball back sooner, so you can try to keep putting it down the field. That’s his philosophy.

“It actually isn’t a bad position to be in as a defensive coordinator. Because if your head coach is telling you to do it, and you do it and a big play happens, ‘You told me to do it. You knew what could happen here.’”


How the Boilermakers recruited from 2019-22

Aidan O'Connell and Purdue aim to build on bounce-back 2021 season (7)

Purdue has run the gamut of the recruiting world over the last four years beginning with the nation’s No. 25 class in 2019. It included a quartet of four-star prospects, including Karlaftis, Bell, Wright and former starting safety Marvin Grant (who transferred to Kansas). None of them are on the roster this year.

Purdue ranked No. 32 and recruited five four-stars in 2020 with Hartwig as the only current starter. Yaseen will see action while two players have transferred (Maliq Carr to Michigan State; Tirek Murphy to Rhode Island) and third-team quarterback Michael Alaimo. The Boilers plummeted to No. 75 in 2021 before rebounding to No. 38 this year.

But Brohm is committed to making the transfer portal as much of a priority as traditional recruiting.

“We will still try to go that route,” Brohm said recruiting high school prospects. “But you’re always going to have to make sure you have room for any type of movement in the transfer portal that may have a little more experience or may be able to come in and play a little faster than somebody you’re recruiting. So, it’s definitely a part of it now.”

The Boilermakers’ biggest splash in the 2023 class includes Baton Rouge, La., quarterback Rickie Collins, a consensus four-star prospect.

In the transfer portal

As one of the most active Big Ten programs in the portal, the Boilermakers project 15 transfers to either start or land on the two-deep. The top two kickers were former transfers, as were the long snapper and top two kick returners. Three on the depth chart have come from in-state rival Indiana, while two are from Big Ten West foe Iowa.

“I didn’t invent the transfer portal, but it’s here,” Brohm said. “We got to take advantage of it and utilize it. In a perfect world, we play with everybody on our team every year, and we never look at it. But I just think every year now you’ve got to evaluate your roster and see where you might need some improvement and see who’s out there. And if there’s somebody that you think can make your team better, you’d better look into it. So that’s all we’ve tried to do.”


It’s possible Purdue’s top three receivers are all portal additions in Tracy, Jones and Thompson, who joined the Boilermakers two years ago from Marshall. Nine different transfers over the last few years are on the defensive depth chart, highlighted by defensive backs Brown (Kentucky), Jefferson (Findlay), Taylor and Denson. Front-seven defenders Brothers (Auburn), Douglas (Army), Lewis (Indiana), Humpich (Murray State) and Anderson (South Carolina) all are slated to make big impacts.

Purdue did lose a few contributors in the portal, including starting safety Grant (Kansas) and former starting quarterback Jack Plummer (Cal).

Impact of coaching changes

Brohm has factored chemistry into his most recent coaching decisions, starting with English and co-defensive coordinator Mark Hagan in January 2021. This year, Purdue filled four openings when linebackers coach Brad Lambert became Wake Forest’s defensive coordinator and took cornerbacks coach James Adams with him. Receivers coach JaMarcus Shephard left for Washington, while assistant offensive line coach Neil Callaway became a consultant with the USFL’s Michigan Panthers.

Brohm put a priority on special teams in bringing in Karl Maslowski, who joins fellow first-year coach David Elson with the linebackers. Elson had a quality control position with the staff last year. Former Ohio State cornerback Ashton Youboty, who guided Youngstown State’s secondary for two seasons, replaces Adams. Longtime college assistant and former UAB head coach Garrick McGee will work with the receivers.

“Two years ago, I wanted to make sure that we brought in really good people that did things the right way, that got along with everybody on the staff in the building and our players and coached for the right reasons,” Brohm said. “I thought we definitely got that done. We’ve got to continue to do that. So, we wanted to add that, first, and then their football knowledge is great on top of it.”



Sept. 1 (Thurs.)


Sept. 10

Aidan O'Connell and Purdue aim to build on bounce-back 2021 season (9)Indiana State


Sept. 17


Sept. 24


Oct. 1

Aidan O'Connell and Purdue aim to build on bounce-back 2021 season (12)Minnesota


Oct. 8


Oct. 15


Oct. 22


Nov. 5


Nov. 12


Nov. 19


Nov. 26


Final assessment

Brohm’s previous five campaigns have produced excitement and multiple upsets over ranked opponents, but last year was the first time Purdue produced a winning regular-season record since 2007. O’Connell’s development ended a constant rotation at quarterback and the defensive improvement enabled the Boilermakers to make winning plays in critical moments.

The passing attack should remain potent regardless of who is throwing the ball or catching it. There are plenty of pieces back on defense to believe the consistency is there. But Bell and George Karlaftis were game-altering talents. How the Boilermakers replace them will determine whether they are a legitimate Big Ten West Division challenger or a lower-level bowl participant. Either way, Purdue should be traveling somewhere in late December.

Editor’s note:This ispart of a seriespreviewing Power 5 and top Group of 5 teams for the 2022 college football season.

(Top photo of Aidan O’Connell: Trevor Ruszkowski / USA Today Sports)

Aidan O'Connell and Purdue aim to build on bounce-back 2021 season (2024)
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