Milton Wright’s season started with drops.

By the 3rd game of the season, he’d had a handful, equaling his total number of receptions: 5 for 38 yards and a touchdown. He’d been targeted 9 additional times, but between the drops and the misfires, Purdue couldn’t connect with one of its top returning playmakers.

But that seems so long ago now. Wright, whom Jeff Brohm has repeatedly called one of the Boilermakers’ hardest-working wide receivers, has broken out in the second half of the season, never more so than Saturday, when the junior had a career-high 213 yards and 3 touchdowns on 8 receptions. QB Aidan O’Connell repeatedly found Wright in one-on-one coverage up the left sideline, hitting the 6-3, 195-pound target for scores of 53, 17 and 45 yards.

It’s been a search for the Boilermakers to find a consistent No. 2 to pair with All-America wide receiver David Bell. The answer turned out to be the first candidate, as Purdue always thought Wright, a former 4-star prospect from Louisville, could develop into a big-play, deep-ball threat.

Now, it’s happened.

Aside from a couple nonsensical attempts by opponents — particularly Iowa and Michigan State — to try to cover Bell man-on-man, most defenses Purdue has faced have instead decided to shade an extra man his direction. Northwestern did so, and was somewhat effective, holding Bell to only 101 yards on his 12 catches. But where Purdue had at times struggled to make opponents pay for such a strategy earlier this season, it smoked the Wildcats. Wright flew past a defender on a post pattern; he nuked a cornerback on a stop-and-go; and he made a great reception on a corner end-zone fade.

“He’s a guy who in practice goes extremely hard and works his butt off,” O’Connell said after Purdue’s 32-14 victory over Northwestern Saturday at Wrigley Field. “He’s obviously a very talented receiver. He’s very smart and knows what we’re trying to do and where he needs to be.”

While Wright got off to a slow start this season, Purdue looked for a complementary receiver as its second option, and several had moments. Tight end Payne Durham has been a big option in the middle of the field and in the red zone, although injuries have kept him at less than 100 percent for weeks. Slot man TJ Sheffield showed flashes of potential for a few games midseason. Utility man Jackson Anthrop, who has found a niche as a pass receiver and running back, has become an invaluable tool late in the year, because he’s a reliable player who can flourish in a variety of roles. But he’s often the beneficiary of defenses being attracted to higher-profile targets.

Purdue needed Wright, and probably thanks to the tireless work ethic — Brohm says the receiver never misses practice, even if he’s not quite feeling 100 percent physically — the veteran has worked out of the early-season funk. On the season, Wright now has 51 catches for 679 yards and a team-high 7 touchdowns.

He late-season emergence has helped the Boilermakers take another big step forward, helping the passing game behind the elite play of O’Connell be darn near impossible for opponents to stop.

“We like to preach execution and everyone understanding the standard,” Wright said after Saturday’s game. “I’ve felt like I needed to step up and execute to the standard.”