WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Purdue's Caleb TerBush was walking to class just about a week before last season's opener when his cell phone brought some jarring news.
Offensive coordinator Gary Nord called to tell him Rob Henry had blown out his ACL. With Robert Marve still dealing with his own knee problems, the inexperienced TerBush was suddenly thrust into the starting quarterback role.
It was the second straight year that the Boilermakers had to adjust on the fly at quarterback because of unexpected injuries. But if a silver lining emerged from those tough situations, it could be seen at a recent spring practice when Henry, TerBush and Marve smiled and joked around during some light throwing drills. After two seasons of scrambling for a quarterback, Purdue now has three healthy veterans who have each started at least seven games.
"It's made a huge impact on what we've been able to get done this spring," head coach Danny Hope said. "The very first day of spring practice, we were able to do [quarterback] signals, which we haven't been able to do in the past. That's something you take for granted. We've started off a lot faster on offense and from an execution standpoint."
Newfound quarterback stability provides a key reason why optimism is soaring for Hope's fourth year in charge of the program, but it's not the only one.
Purdue beat Western Michigan in the Little Caesars Bowl last December after finishing 6-6 in the regular season. While those accomplishments can't match the aspirations of Drew Brees' heyday, reaching the postseason still marked an important hurdle to clear. The program hadn't been to a bowl game since 2007, and fan dissatisfaction with Hope was starting to rise. The bowl win brought a new attitude to offseason workouts.
"Everybody seems more mature and more focused on what we want now," running back Akeem Shavers said. "That was the first time for most of us going to a bowl game, so we know now what that feels like and what we have to do to do better and get into a better bowl."
If you're looking for a stealth team in the Big Ten, check out these Boilers. They've got 18 starters back from a team that upset Ohio State and played Penn State to the wire on the road. Ohio State is ineligible to win the Leaders Division because of NCAA sanctions, Penn State and Illinois are going through coaching changes and Wisconsin lost quarterback Russell Wilson and most of its offensive staff. Plus, the Badgers and Nittany Lions have to come to Ross-Ade Stadium.
The players know that they're being slapped with the "sleeper" label in some quarters this spring, and they're not shying away from it.
"We've got a chance," Henry said. "We've got the weapons now. I feel like this is a season of great opportunity for us with the players we have coming back and the experience we'll have on the field. We've just got to stay healthy."
There's finally less worry about health at quarterback. Hope, who also signed four quarterback prospects in this year's recruiting class, had such a logjam at the position that he moved former starter Sean Robinson to linebacker this spring. Now all he has to do is figure out how to use what he has.
Henry is a swift runner and strong leader who was developing into a better passer before his injury. While he's being held out of some drills this spring as a precaution, he says his knee is fully healed and he's ready to go. Marve, the former Miami transfer, was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA this winter after two years of dealing with knee troubles. He said he almost forgot what it was like to move around as freely as he has this spring.
Then there's TerBush, who started all 13 games last year after sitting out 2010 with academic problems. He turned in a respectable season as a rookie starter, completing 61.7 percent of his passes with 13 touchdowns and six interceptions. Hope had a plan to play both Henry and Marve some at the same time last summer before the injuries. He's not yet tipping his hand how things will shake out this year.
The three quarterbacks, each of whom has a reason to be grateful for a second chance, aren't sweating the competition too much.
"It's fun because we've all been around each other throughout the whole process," Henry said. "It's a toss up. If somebody has a hot hand and gets into a rhythm, he's going to keep playing. As the past few seasons have shown us, you never know what's going to happen to the quarterbacks."
At least now the Boilermakers won't be caught trying to develop a new starter right before the season again. The coaching staff could focus on other things this spring, like installing a more aggressive defensive scheme under new coordinator Tim Tibesar, replacing starters on the offensive line and finding solutions at linebacker. None of those problems are as big as not having a quarterback, which is one reason Purdue has its sights set higher than another trip to the Little Caesars Bowl.
"I'm excited about the progress we've made, and I feel like we have some momentum as a football team," Hope said. "We're ready for the next step."