Purdue's Ryan Russell should be thriving. He just should. He's big, strong, athletic and experienced. The move from defensive end to linebacker should have suited him.
And yet …
Russell, like most of the Boilers' front defensive seven, is not producing at the necessary level. Plays that could be made are not.
Yes, that's a big problem entering Saturday's game at Penn State. The Nittany Lions (5-4) are 21.5-point favorites.
In nine games this year the 6-5, 270-pound Russell has 25 tackles, 4.0 for loss, with two sacks. That's below last year's pace, when he totaled 37 tackles, and it's not what coach Darrell Hazell wanted from a guy who has started 25 straight games.
“He got a little more productive last week (against Iowa),” Hazell said, “but we still need him to be a better player for us at the line of scrimmage. He was more productive than he had been for the first couple of weeks.
Russell's position change was part of Purdue's move from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense. The idea was to get bigger linebackers on the edges. Russell appeared to be a good fit, but in four games he's produced just 11 tackles and no sacks.
Still, Hazell said the junior has a future at the position.
“He probably needs a lot more reps, and a lot better feel, a natural feel.
“I'd like to see him just go at times. When he sees a gap, run through it and try to make a play. But that's a learning process.”
Russell's struggles mirror that of senior defensive linemen Bruce Gaston, Greg Latta and Ryan Isaac. To win at Penn State, that group has to take charge.
“We've got to get to that next gap,” Hazell said. “(Offensive linemen) are cutting us off on the zone schemes. We've got to move a little quicker. We've got to be able to create penetration. We're getting our hips turned sideways. We've got to make sure our hips are up the field and not going to the boundary.”
One Purdue key will be slowing down receiver Allen Robinson, who has 73 catches for 1,106 yards and six touchdowns. That will include pressuring true freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who has thrown for 2,187 yards and 13 TDs.
“(Robinson) is a good player,” Hazell said. “They've got a young quarterback, so they have to be careful in how they get the ball to him.
“He catches the ball well in traffic, so we're going to have to do a good job of disrupting routes and getting guys in the quarterback's face so he doesn't have such easy lanes to throw it to.”
Despite his youth, Hackenberg has been among the Big Ten passing leaders all season.
“He stands in there pretty well for a young guy,” Hazell said. “They do a lot of half-field reads with him, so he doesn't have to scan across the field. As a coaching staff, they've kind of protected him, which you have to do with a young guy. But he's getting better each week.”
Purdue freshman quarterback Danny Etling got sacked twice by Iowa last Saturday. That was a big improvement considering he'd been sacked 16 times in his previous three games, and reflected improvement in the young offensive line. Two starters -- right guard Jordan Roos and left guard Jason King -- are freshmen. Center Robert Kugler is a sophomore.
Possibly moving into the mix is freshman Cameron Cermin.
“You look at college football programs and (the offensive line) is the one play where you'd like to get them two or three years into the program before you throw those guys out there because it takes time to develop,” Hazell said.
“I like their prospects for years to come.”
Penn State (5-4 overall) needs a victory to clinch a non-losing season. Purdue (1-8) is looking to snap a seven-game losing streak.