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Purdue Defensive Player to Watch: Defensive End George Karlaftis

Karlaftis is lacking traditional stats in 2021, but his impact on the game is greater than that of any other defensive lineman in the Big Ten.

Karlaftis is an absolute menace on the field for Purdue, and he would love to get his hands on C.J. Stroud come Saturday
Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

The Purdue Boilermakers come to Columbus this weekend, and you know what that means: upset alert. Regardless of record, championship aspirations, or likelihood, Purdue lives to upset better teams. The Boilermakers infamously gave the 2002 Buckeyes a scare, before Craig Krenzel connected with Michael Jenkins for “Holy Buckeye”. In 20018, Purdue dog-walked Ohio State in late October, derailing OSU’s National Championship hopes. They also won this matchup in 2000, but both teams were ranked… Forget these guys (substitute whatever language you want).

The Boilermakers don’t just make a habit of upsetting the Buckeyes. In mid-October, they knocked off No. 2 Iowa, which was their ninth (!) win as a program over top-two ranked teams (as an unranked team themselves). This past weekend, they took down No. 3 Michigan State. They are, quite frankly, giant killers… sometimes. Let’s not act like this is a yearly thing. That being said, because of the upset track record alone, they will continue to lurk as a viable threat. Making them even more of a threat, is the fact that they are a legitimately solid football team this year. At 6-3, they have to be taken very seriously.

In recent years, Purdue had a formula… or a hope, at least. Spread it out, throw the ball a ton, and hope to survive on defense. The problem is, all that window dressing of offense didn’t actually lead to points, and the defense was usually getting their teeth kicked in. The team’s best season under Jeff Brohm was his first, when they went 7-6, and finished 92nd in scoring offense and 24th in scoring defense, respectively. Since then, they have hovered in the 60-80 range for both categories. 2021 has thrown us a bit of a curveball: Purdue currently sits 92nd in scoring offense, but 18th in scoring defense! The Black and Gold Curtain! Their defense is led by this week’s Defensive Player to Watch, George Karlaftis.

Karlaftis is, without a doubt, the first football player from Athens, Greece that I have ever written about. He is also one of the better college football players I have written about this season. Jeff Brohm has to be thanking his lucky stars that Karlaftis’ family settled in West Lafayette, as George is not the only family member on the team’s roster. While younger brother Yanni is finding his way as a freshman, George has become one of the preeminent players in the Big Ten, if not the entire country.

Karlaftis attended high school in West Lafayette, and despite being recruited by the likes of Alabama and Clemson, he chose to stay home and attend Purdue. From the time he first suited up for the Boilermakers in 2019, he has been an outstanding player. In his first career game against Nevada, Karlaftis was credited with 14 (!) pressures. He had 55 total pressures on the year, 54 tackles, 17 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks as a freshman, capping off one of the most dominant seasons a first-year player has ever had in the Big Ten – at any position. He was named a Freshman All-American, and also earned Second-team All-Big Ten honors.

Like most athletes (and generally speaking, any human being), 2020 impacted Karlaftis in a major way. He was limited to only two games as a sophomore, due to Covid and an ankle injury. Despite missing a majority of the shortened season, Karlaftis was still named Second-team All-Big Ten again and received preseason All-American recognition prior to the 2021 season. Fortunately, he has come back healthy and dominant as a junior.

Through nine games in 2021, Karlaftis has 28 tackles, 6 TFL, 2.5 sacks, and two forced fumbles. The stats don’t jump off the page, but he obliterates the eye test. His impact is much deeper than the box score. Teams often double (or triple) him throughout the game, and he still creates pressure. They are different players, but think of the treatment Chase Young received during his last year as a Buckeye. That is the kind of attention given to Karlaftis. In his case, the star power on Purdue is lacking, so there is an even greater emphasis placed on limiting this one player’s effectiveness.

If you think sacks are everything, go watch the game in which Purdue upset Iowa. Karlaftis was doubled, tripled, chipped, and cut, and he was still credited with 10 pressures. He absolutely dominated the game with one tackle, one TFL, and one sack. That was his stat line… and he controlled the outcome. For all of their offensive struggles, Iowa has a talented offensive line. Karlaftis had more pressures against them three weeks ago, than any player has had against the Hawkeyes during the PFF College era.

The Purdue junior is blessed with incredible size and strength, and he plays with a great motor. He is all gas, no brakes. Karlaftis stands 6’4”, 275 pounds and was a back-to-back H.S. state champion in the shotput. His strength is undeniable. It allows him to engage and defeat the biggest and best offensive lineman in the country with something as simple as a bull rush. But he is more than just a power rusher. He has a good initial burst, and solid enough short-area quickness. He’s not going to run a 4.4 forty, but his lack of top-end speed has not rendered him ineffective against the big boys in the Big Ten.

Prior to the Penn State game, I said Arnold Ebiketie of the Nittany Lions was going to be the best defensive lineman Ohio State had faced all year. Go ahead and run that statement back for George Karlaftis. Sports Illustrated has him in the discussion for first edge rusher to be taken in next year’s NFL Draft. While I’m not there yet, a big game against OSU could push me further in that direction. Karlaftis has J.J. Watt size and potential, making him a legitimate threat to the Buckeyes. The big guys up front better buckle their chinstraps tight and get ready for an intense battle on Saturday.