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Checking in with Purdue's Jason Werner

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Jason Werner came to Purdue as one of Indiana's most decorated high school players, winning the state's Mr. Football award as a senior in 2004. With strong safety Torri Williams injured, Werner expected to contribute immediately for the Boilermakers.

But the next three years brought a position switch, a five-and-half-hour back surgery in December 2006 and a rough rehab to return to the field. It wasn't the path Werner had envisioned, but he's finally ready to showcase his skills at weak-side linebacker. After collecting 28 tackles as a reserve last fall, Werner claimed a starting spot this spring, and coach Joe Tiller called him the team's top linebacker.

Werner checked in Thursday and shared his thoughts on the surgery, his junior season and sending Tiller out on a strong note.

Adam Rittenberg: How did you evaluate your play in spring practice?

Jason Werner: My whole thing about spring was to see how I'd hold up in a starting role. Ever since I've been here, I've only really been a (backup), and I've never held the one spot for the whole time. I wanted to see how I did with my conditioning, how my body held up, just the whole experience in that spot. I felt it went really well, just being able to jell with the (starters). I felt more like a veteran player instead of somebody coming in and learning. I was really happy with the end of spring. I felt like I was playing without thinking, just reacting and having fun. Apparently, (defensive coordinator Brock Spack) had planned to leave me out there longer, see how I held up. I know I feel ready.

AR: What has been the biggest change going from safety to outside linebacker?

JW: Anybody can read where a play's going, but then you've got a 300-pound lineman coming at you. So really learning how to use my speed and play physical in the box was big. I felt I was really good at chasing people down on the outside, but playing between the tackles, you need to learn the technique and how to use your strength.

AR: You had a lot of accolades coming out of high school. What were your expectations when you got to Purdue?

JW: I knew there was a void. They had a safety role that needed to be filled with Torri Williams going down before I came in. So I had high hopes. I had some good things going on in fall camp right off the bat, so I felt good.

AR: Did your back bother you at all in high school?

JW: I had a stress fracture my sophomore year of high school, didn't play at all, just from lifting and not really knowing what I was doing. But nothing like I had here in college.

AR: Did the doctors ever say surgery would be a possibility, or was that totally out of your mind?

JW: The stress fracture was just a small crack in the bone, which they say is common with a lot of athletes. But I never even thought of surgery until it came up here in college.

AR: How scary was that for you? ACLs and MCLs are troubling, but with back surgery, you never know how you're going to recover.

JW: It is tough. You play the sport your whole life and then all of a sudden, within a couple weeks, you have an injury that might end it. It got to the point where I just hoped I could live a healthy life. I'd hate to feel like that forever. The best thing I could possibly do was try to be positive.

AR: Did you feel the pain all the time or just when you were playing?

JW: The spring of my freshman year, I felt like I had a pulled muscle in my leg, upper hamstring. I didn't know what it was, but it was actually leg pain from the disc, I had disc compression. Then it just got worse and worse for a couple weeks, and I had to go to the doctor. They said you've got three bulging discs in your back. Then it escalated every week after that until November, before I really knew I couldn't do anything.

AR: What kind of shape were you in after the surgery?

JW: I had to be in a back brace for three months and they were saying nothing faster than a walk for about three months. No jogging, speed walking maybe toward that last month, but no physical activity, no lifting anything. So for three months I wasn't really doing much at all.

AR: At what point did the possibility of playing football again come into your mind?

JW: When they did my routine stuff the first month or two after surgery, they said I was coming along real well for what I had done. I was just real determined to stay on my rehab and they said I was healing pretty quickly. After that first month of activity, they said it looked like I didn't really have anything wrong with me. They didn't see why I couldn't play as long as my strength and flexibility came back.

AR: Did you feel any pain last season or this spring?

JW: Completely fine. If I don't do my rehab as much as I should, I might get some tightness. Other than that, it's really never been a problem.

AR: How do you and Anthony Heygood complement each other?

JW: We're two similar type players in the fact we can run. We're a little bit more athletic, but still runners. Anthony is a big, strong guy. He's proven he can play in between the tackles, and he can run as well. I just like knowing that there's an athletic guy on the other side. I feel like I've got to match him. He brings a lot of enthusiasm and intensity out there, so it's really fun playing with him.

AR: How much are you motivated by playing in coach Tiller's last season?

JW: It's crazy to think. A lot of us coming in here thought we weren't going to be on that last team. We thought he was going to be here a couple years after us. Knowing all the things he's done and knowing he's heading out this year, it's an honor to say, 'I was there the last year coach Tiller coached the team.' We definitely want to send him out right. We've come a little short of expectations the last couple years, so there's a lot we want to get done this year.