Please forgive Purdue’s Justin Siller if he’s never sure which part of his playbook to turn to. Don’t blame him if he forgets who his position coach is. Pardon the young man if he loses track of whether he should be giving handoffs or receiving them.
After all, he’s only been a quarterback for a week.
(The second time around, that is.)
Let’s back up for a moment, shall we?
Siller was a highly-recruited dual threat quarterback out of Detroit, Michigan before signing with Purdue. Trumpeted as the heir apparent and another in a line of stellar Boilermaker signal-callers, he was prepared to back up incumbent Curtis Painter in this, his redshirt freshman season, and eventually take over as the next great Purdue quarterback.
Then things changed unexpectedly during preseason camp in August when running back Jaycen Taylor tore his ACL. Taylor’s injury left the Boilermakers' backfield dangerously thin, and with Joey Elliott seeming to beat out Siller as the backup quarterback, Coach Joe Tiller decided that Justin’s game-changing speed could come in handy at a different position.
“I got a hint from the running backs coach that they were thinking about [moving me to running back] and that they were going to discuss it as a coaching staff,” Siller recounted. “They came and talked to me about it, and they got my opinion on it.”
While he still preferred quarterback, Siller said that he told the coaches “anything I could do to help the team was fine with me.” All of a sudden, Purdue had itself a new 6’4” running back.
Siller saw limited action in the first four games of the season, most notably a highlight and lowlight against Oregon in Week Two. His 20-yard run on a broken play helped set up an early touchdown as Purdue jumped out on top, but his ill-advised option pitch in the fourth quarter cost the Boilermakers a possession in a game they would ultimately lose in overtime.
As the season wore on, Purdue’s offense struggled, and Siller was helpless to do anything but watch. While he didn’t reach the field as a running back in three straight losses to Penn State, Ohio State, and Northwestern, the Boilermakers weren’t faring very well at his old position either.
Even though he continued to be given the starting quarterback assignment each week, Curtis Painter was benched in two different games for his inconsistent play. Joey Elliott, the backup who had beaten out Siller in camp, relieved Painter in Evanston on Oct. 18 but went down to a season-ending separated shoulder minutes later.
No healthy backup? Guess what, Justin Siller? You’re a quarterback again.
Despite his statements earlier in the season that there were “a lot of reasons why [Siller] should stay at running back,” Coach Joe Tiller didn’t hesitate in re-switching Siller and installing him as the No. 2 quarterback behind Painter. The Boilermakers put in a limited package of “about 20 plays” for the young quarterback (turned running back turned quarterback) in preparation for last Saturday’s game against Minnesota.
No one thought they’d need all 20...but then, Painter went down with a shoulder injury on the first Boilermaker offensive series of the afternoon. Without any warning, a “shocked” Siller, less than a week removed from his previous life as a running back, was pressed into duty behind center.
“It’s pretty tough...but it’s something we have to deal with in the game of football,” Siller said afterwards. “I have to go in when I’m called upon.”
Although Purdue dropped a 17-6 decision to the Gophers, Siller had some success moving the offense. However, it was mostly with his legs. The Boilers finished with only 109 passing yards, a record-low in the Tiller era.
Reviews of Siller’s quarterback debut were mixed. While linebacker Anthony Heygood told me that Justin “played well” and defensive tackle Mike Neal said his performance was “equal to any quarterback we’ve had in there,” coach Joe Tiller’s opinion was not so glowing.
When asked to sum up Siller’s play, Tiller’s long awkward pause said it all. “He has a long way to go,” the veteran coach finally muttered. He elaborated, “[Justin] knew the offense from a terminology point of view, but he didn’t know it from an execution point of view. ”
Looking at his first experience under center through Siller’s eyes, the glass is half full. He repeated words like “comfortable” and “confident” several times while meeting with the media afterwards, saying that, “I felt pretty prepared. And as the game went on, I got more comfortable.”
Siller also adamantly expressed his conviction that the Boilermaker offense would eventually get untracked: “We have to get it done for our team...it’s something that will come with time, I believe.”
It’s anybody’s guess where the Boilermakers go from here. If Painter is healthy for Saturday’s game against Michigan, he’ll get the starting assignment, which Siller thinks is the right decision. “Curtis gives us the best opportunity to succeed. With him being a senior, he’s very experienced, and he has the offense down. If he’s not healthy, I have to go step in and do my best to lead us to victory.”
The two quarterbacks are both listed as possible starters on the latest depth chart.
The Boilermakers’ coach wasn’t quite so positive when he spoke about the possibility of a Siller start against the Wolverines. “I think it would be very, very challenging,” Tiller admitted. “We’re not efficient enough and proficient enough offensively to expect a whole lot out of our offense with our No. 3 quarterback, who was a running back up until last week. “
Outside of who will get the nod this weekend, the other question looming over Justin Siller is where in the Purdue backfield he will ultimately settle in. He claims to not worry about that, saying that it’s all about “this season right now” and just “going with the flow.”
He also stated that while he’s “fully confident that, given the circumstances, I’ll be a quarterback [in the future]”, he hasn’t discussed his 2009 role in the program with Danny Hope, the man who will take over as Purdue head coach next year.
The crazy multi-position journey? “It’s been good,” Siller summarized. “When I got the opportunity to move to running back, I saw that as a helpful move. [The different perspective] helps me to know what we’re trying to get done in the running game. That just gives me another aspect of being a good quarterback...now when I get the passing game down, then I’ll be completely comfortable.”
Comfortable. There’s that word again. For Justin Siller, it doesn’t matter where he’s going to line up for Purdue this weekend: He plans to be comfortable, and that’s good news for Purdue fans who are looking for a reason to hope.
Photo courtesy of Scott Kobs, Purdue Exponent