This is familiar territory for Mark Hagen.
From 2000-10, Hagen was a Purdue assistant for some outstanding Boilermaker teams, coaching the defensive line, linebackers and special teams. Now, 11 years later, he’s back in Gold and Black to reprise his role.
“Obviously, very excited to be back,” said Hagen after practice on Wednesday. “The 11 years that I was here earlier from 2000-2010, 11 great years and a lot of awesome memories and just a lot of special people, a lot of those people are still here. So, it’s just been a great homecoming and certainly the investment in football has been great. The facelift, you can tell just the commitment, not just to football, but really the whole athletic landscape. awesome to be back and excited to roll our sleeves up and get to work.”
Hagen has been hard at work this spring getting to know his personnel in a base scheme that will feature a four-down lineman base scheme. The strength up front are the ends, with George Karlaftis and DaMarcus Mitchell serving as anchors.
“Those are two guys that are playmakers,” said Hagen. “We’ve got George playing into the field and DaMarcus is our hybrid into the boundary. It’s a system that I’m familiar with. When I went to Texas last year, we were transitioning from a 3-4 to 4-3, so kind of the same process.”
Everything begins and ends up front with Karlaftis. The West Lafayette High School star had his 2020 ruined by first an ankle injury and then COVID. As a result, Karlaftis played in just three of Purdue’s six games. No doubt, the junior is eager to make up for lost time with a big season. This defense needs an improved pass rush. And Karlaftis has to be the catalyst. And he also wants to be a leader.
“I think that’s an area in which I need to do better,” said Karlaftis. “That’s more of an off-the-field type of type of thing. But I’m trying to do better. I’m trying to be that leader in the group. I’m getting older. I’m trying to fill that position. I’m trying to do everything I can in order to help the young guys, in order to get everyone ready so there’s no drop off between the first and second group in order for us all to get after the quarterback and make plays in the backfield.”
Mitchell is settling in at “Leo,” a hybrid end/linebacker position that was part of the scheme of former coordinator Nick Holt. The 6-3, 270-pound Mitchell is a playmaker, and this is a position he can put his ample skills to use after he played the CAT spot last season. In 2019, Derrick Barnes excelled in the role that requires the ability to drop into coverage and line up as a pass rusher.
“I feel we have a lot of players on the defense they want to get after the quarterback and they want to play aggressive,” said Mitchell. “but we have to come together all as one in the unit and establish what we have to get done.”
Hagen also has liked what he’s seen from Jack Sullivan, who is backing up Karlaftis. Hagen has been pleased with South Carolina transfer Joe Anderson and redshirt freshman Kydran Jenkins.
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Inside, Purdue has the makings of a nice tackle tandem in super senior Anthony Watts and junior Lawrence Johnson. But both are out with injury and will be fine moving forward, according to Hagen.
“That’s given opportunity to other young guys inside,” said Hagen. “Branson Dean’s done a good job of kind of kind of being a stable force inside. But you got guys like Greg Hudgens at nose and Bryce Austin and Steve Faucheux and KJ Stokes is inside. Just don’t feel as good about that group right now. See flashes of times, but we’ve got a long ways to go.”
Overall, Hagen is encouraged.
“I think overall with our group, we’ve got some talent,” said Hagen. “But the Big Ten is a lineman’s league. Number one, we need to become more technical. We’ve got to be more technical at the line of scrimmage with our hands. If you’re gonna win week in and week out in this league, it’s all about toughness and physicality.
“So, keep preaching that every day to these guys and I think it’s starting to sink in. We’re just gonna keep rolling our sleeves up and going to work day in and day out.”