CHICAGO — Markus Bailey was dressed to the nines at the Big Ten media days.
He wore a stylish suit jacket spotted online by his mom and customized with his initials and other special touches. It’s an honor to be one of a team’s three player representatives here, and the Purdue linebacker from Hilliard was enjoying every minute of it.
Like most kids from central Ohio, Bailey grew up an Ohio State fan. The Buckeyes showed interest in Bailey when he was at Hilliard Davidson but did not offer him a scholarship.Join the conversation at Facebook.com/BuckeyeXtra and connect with us on Twitter @BuckeyeXtra
“At the time as a young, immature high schooler who wanted the validation and clout going to Ohio State, I was a little salty about it,” he said. “I wasn't devastated. I was thankful for the opportunity to play anywhere in the Big Ten.”
He cast his lot with Purdue, which given their futility under coach Darrell Hazell was a leap of faith. The Boilermakers under Jeff Brohm have become relevant again, and Bailey is a major piece of that.
“He likes to prove to people that he's a special talent, one of the top linebackers in the league,” Brohm said. “(He’s) really just a tremendous young man that's had a great career up to now, and I know he wants to finish it off strong with a great senior season.”
The highlight of his junior year was Purdue’s 49-20 upset of Ohio State in West Lafayette. Bailey capped the game with an interception return for a touchdown in the final minutes.
“It's going to be something that I remember for the rest of my life,” Bailey said. “Of course, that was best game I've ever played in.”
Purdue defensive lineman Lorenzo Neal knows how much those bragging rights mean to Bailey.
“He tried to play it cool, but the first thing you learn about Markus is that he's from Columbus, Ohio,” Neal said. “He tries to make that known immediately — the first time you meet him — and he'll bring it up 10 more times that day. So we all knew how important this was for him and for his family and friends back home.”
Bailey earned his degree in movement and sports sciences in December and considered entering the NFL draft. But Purdue’s 63-14 loss to Auburn in the Music City Bowl left such a bad taste in his mouth that it was a major impetus for him to return for another season.
Chris Ash was instrumental in Ohio State’s 2014 national championship as defensive coordinator. He left for the Rutgers head coaching job after the next season, and it has been a slog for him with the Scarlet Knights.
Rutgers lost its final 11 games last year after winning its opener and will likely have to show significant improvement in 2019 if Ash is to get a fifth season.
But Ash is undaunted and believes better days are ahead.
“Whenever you take over a business or organization and you're trying to build, very rarely does it go in a straight line,” he said. “There are ups and downs and plateaus. From Year One to Year Two, we improved. In Year Three, we took a step back. In Year Four, we expect to take a big step up.
“I think the foundation, the infrastructure and culture we want and need is there, and now it's time to go out and take a big jump.”
It won’t be easy in the rugged East Division. Rutgers has struggled to establish stability since Greg Schiano was its coach. This is the first time in 10 years that Rutgers will have the same offensive coordinator for consecutive seasons.
“It’s unheard of,” Ash said.
That coordinator, John McNulty, is the same coach who served in that capacity in 2008-09. He will be charged with speeding the development of sophomore quarterback Artur Sitkowski, who arrived with fanfare a year ago, only to throw 18 interceptions with only four touchdown passes.
“I still have a lot of faith in Art,” Ash said. “He was a true freshman trying to run an offense, and it didn't go well last year. Not all the weight of those struggles fall on his shoulders. The pieces around him have to perform better. If we're going to get better, our O-line, D-line and quarterback have to play better.”