Purdue offense has new look after injuries

The injury bug has taken no mercy with Purdue's offense this season.

How bad have the Boilers been bitten?

"I've been here a year and a half," said offensive coordinator Gary Nord, hired at Purdue on Dec. 1, 2008. "For this week's game, we don't have a quarterback that was here when I got here. We don't have a receiver that's going to play who was here when I got here. And we don't have a tailback who was here when I got here."

A quick check of Purdue's depth chart for Saturday's game at Northwestern reveals that Nord is mistaken.

Senior running back Dan Dierking, listed as the starter, is expected to play Saturday night. He had just finished his sophomore season at Purdue when Nord came to West Lafayette.

But other than Dierking, Nord is spot on. The offense Nord will send on the field in Evanston will be filled with players not part of the program less than two years ago.

  • Quarterback Rob Henry, who makes his first career start, is a redshirt freshman. He'll be backed up by true freshman Sean Robinson, who has yet to take a snap in a game.

  • Backup running back Al-Terek McBurse is a true sophomore, while third-stringer Keith Carlos is a junior college transfer.

  • The starting wide receivers consist of a junior college transfer (Cortez Smith), a true sophomore (Antavian Edison) and a redshirt freshman (Gary Bush). Purdue's No. 4 receiver is true freshman O.J. Ross.

It's the type of lineup Nord expected to use in 2012, not midway through the 2010 season.

"Everybody," he said, "is inexperienced."

Purdue has little choice after knee injuries have claimed its starting quarterback (Robert Marve, out for season with torn ACL), its No. 1 wide receiver (Keith Smith, out for season with ACL/MCL tears) and its top running back (Ralph Bolden, out indefinitely with ACL tear). More bad news arrived earlier this week as coach Danny Hope said No. 2 wideout Justin Siller will miss three to six weeks with a sprained foot.

At least Purdue caught a break with the schedule, as the bye week came at an ideal time to shuffle things before opening Big Ten play.

The Boilers went back to the basics during the open week, working on alignment, stance and "all those things you take for granted that kids get better at with experience," Nord said. This week, they transitioned to game-planning.

Henry relieved Marve in Purdue's loss to Toledo and played the final three and a half quarters. The redshirt freshman has all the qualities Purdue wants in its starting quarterback -- except experience.

"His strength is his athletic ability and his intelligence," Nord said. "He understands everything. His demeanor also is very good, and he's a very confident kid. He just hasn't been a quarterback very long."

The 6-2, 198-pound Henry is Purdue's second-fastest player behind Carlos. He owns the best vertical leap and shuttle run time on the team.

"He'll be one of the best athletes on the field no matter who we play every Saturday," Nord said.

Henry is such a good athlete that the coaches considered moving him to free safety this spring. The staff felt so good about Marve and backup quarterback Caleb TerBush, who took all of the snaps with the first-team offense in spring ball, and didn't want Henry's talent to be wasted on the sideline.

Nord said Henry also has worked at both wide receiver and running back in practice. Fortunately, Purdue's staff didn't make the move, a decision that looks better now that Marve is out and TerBush is academically ineligible.

"We don’t have to call a new offense because of Rob Henry," Hope said. "Whatever we have in the playbook that we’ve been utilizing or have in our arsenal so far this season, it’s still alive. Obviously, some quarterbacks like some throws better than others and we'll hand-pick some that he likes the best, but I don’t think we're limited at all from a playbook standpoint."

The bye week also allowed Purdue to get healthier at the running back spot.

Carlos logged seven carries against Toledo and should have an increased role Saturday. The Boilers also hope to get McBurse back in the fold, though Nord said Wednesday that the sophomore hasn't done much in practice. Edison and Ross, who moved to running back in emergency roles earlier this season, are back at wide receiver.

Hope has made speed his top priority in recruiting, and because of the injuries, youth will be served Saturday night and he'll get a glimpse at Purdue's future on offense.

"We still have some firepower," Hope said. "We’re still a relatively fast offense with Rob Henry as one of our fastest players. Keith Carlos, one of our faster players, [is] available now. O.J. Ross, one of our faster players, [is] available now. We still have some redeeming qualities.

"Thank goodness the open week came when it did, because it gave us some time to get ourselves squared away."