With Aidan O'Connell the man now at Purdue, what's that mean for the Boilermakers?
Purdue has questions at wide receiver.
And at running back.
Its offensive line, while seeming to have quality pieces, isn’t yet solidified.
But what the Boilermakers do have is a quarterback. Sixth-year senior Aidan O’Connell, who is taking advance of the COVID year for an extra season of eligibility, returns to the Boilermakers this fall as the unquestioned starter. It’s been a rare instance over the past dozen years that Purdue has had a QB1 in the offseason — only twice since 2009, the last being Elijah Sindelar before the 2019 season — but Jeff Brohm has that now.
And with all the other questions about Purdue’s offense, it’s a good thing, maybe one of the only things Brohm can feel comfortable about.
With the departures of David Bell and Jackson Anthrop, and serious concerns about the status of Milton Wright, who is working on getting his academics after missing the bowl game due to his grades, and the offseason knee surgeries to Broc Thompson, Purdue lacks known play-makers on the perimeter. And Brohm’s annual search for running back help in the transfer portal has been fruitless once again — seriously, why can the Boilermakers not convince a veteran running back to join an extremely thin backfield? — leaving only King Doerue as a proven back.
Center Gus Hartwig anchors an offensive line that could have upside, but is far from a finished product.
And so as Purdue has only a couple of spring practices remaining, with its game coming at noon on Saturday in Ross-Ade Stadium, the Boilermakers will spend the next few months knowing only one thing for certain: Their quarterback is probably better than your quarterback.
It’s a good place to start.
O’Connell was masterful last season, showing command of Brohm’s offense to help the Boilermakers rattle off 5 wins in their final 6 games, including a 48-45 OT thriller over Tennessee in the Music City Bowl in which passed for 534 yards and 5 touchdowns.
His late-season surge has led to lightning rod radio personality Dan Dakich throwing his weight behind a Heisman Trophy campaign, tweeting late March that followers should simply look at O’Connell’s numbers. Last season, the strong-armed right-hander 3,711 yards with 28 touchdown and 11 interceptions, while completing better than 71% of his attempts.
But what Brohm needs now is a quarterback who is not only good himself, but one who can elevate the level of play of those around him. O’Connell has already shown he might be able to do so, never more so than in the bowl game. With Bell and Wright out — Bell had decided on an early entry to the NFL and Wright was an academic casualty — O’Connell helped turn Thompson into a star, with the then-hobbled receiver hauling in 7 receptions for 215 yards and 2 touchdowns.
That’s a true test of a quarterback: Can he be not only solid statistically, but does he make others better? It can distinguish the good from the great at any level of football.
O’Connell will get the chance in 2022. Purdue will likely find him targets, already with a good pair of tight ends in Payne Durham and Garrett Miller, but others will likely emerge at receiver. Perhaps Wright, who had 57 receptions last season, finds his way back to the Boilermakers, although that seems like a long-shot right now. Iowa transfer Tyrone Tracy has taken his spring opportunity to show he has the versatility to play an Anthrop-like role as a utility back, able to line up in the slot or in the backfield. Perhaps Mershawn Rice gets healthy, and stays healthy, and can capitalize on the talent that made him one of Purdue’s most highly regarded recruits a few years ago.
But however it shakes out, Purdue is solid under center, and that’s a good place to end spring.