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Purdue's Werner back in a big way

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Brandon King knows the question is irritating, but the Purdue cornerback can't help but ask it over and over.

Each time King sees teammate Jason Werner at practice, he checks in.

"I ask him if he's OK every day," King said. "He gets annoyed, like, 'Man, stop asking me that.' I just knock on wood for him, tell him, 'If you're hurting, go sit out.'"

King's concern for Werner comes from a good place. It's never easy to see a teammate fight through an injury, especially a teammate with so much potential as Werner.

Last year was supposed to be Werner's breakout season at Purdue. Back surgery forced him to redshirt in 2006, but he appeared in all 13 games as a reserve linebacker in 2007 and received the team's most improved award during spring ball in 2008. Then-Purdue coach Joe Tiller even called Werner the team's best linebacker, high praise considering Anthony Heygood was still on the roster.

But days before the 2008 opener against Northern Colorado, Werner's back problems flared up and never really went away. Werner underwent another back surgery in mid-September and sat out the rest of the season.

"It was extremely frustrating," Werner said, "especially because I wanted to help last year and I was ready to help. But through some unfortunate events, a little bit of bad luck, I couldn't get out there.

"But I look at the positive side. I did get healthy enough to come back and I feel just as strong as I was, if not more."

Werner tried to push through soreness in his back during training camp last year, but this time he's being smart about when to taper things down. So far, his back is holding up and he's been able to participate fully in practices and scrimmages.

The 6-foot-4, 221-pound senior has missed only one workout and could have participated if need be. Perhaps most importantly, Werner's time off hasn't diminished his speed, which defines his game.

"That was my main concern coming back, that I did it the right way and getting my speed back," Werner said. "I can tell the difference from now and the spring, just ten-fold from what it was."

Werner spends a lot of time off the field exercising his core muscles and strengthening his back so he doesn't have to adjust the way he plays. Though the health questions will always be there with Werner, Purdue knows the boost he can provide.

"I ask," King said, "because I know how valuable he is."