Purdue quarterbacks face 3rd straight battle to start opener

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP) — Jack Plummer finished second in each of Purdue’s last two summer quarterback competitions.

Aidan O’Connell is trying to earn his second straight opening day start. And this time, former UCLA backup Austin Burton intends to put his name in the mix, too.

For a program seeking stability at football’s most critical position, picking a winner may be the most important decision the Boilermakers make all year.

“You’re looking for someone who can do it right all the time,” co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Brian Brohm said after Purdue’s second practice. “It’s consistent play and a guy teammates know every time they step in the huddle will make the play be successful, someone they believe in.”

Over the past two seasons, it’s been a revolving door with Plummer and O’Connell getting their share of snaps.

After losing the battle to Elijah Sindelar in 2019, Plummer replaced the injured starter in Week 2, then started the next six games before suffering a season-ending broken right ankle.

That’s when O’Connell took over, closing out a victory over Nebraska and leading the Boilermakers past Northwestern before losing the season’s final two games.

As Plummer fought his way back, O’Connell solidified his hold on the job and was named the starter for last season’s shortened six-game schedule. He won the first two games before suffering a season-ending foot injury in a Week 3 loss to the Wildcats and giving way to Plummer, who lost the final three games only to presumably open camp in the No. 1 spot.

The battles have taught Plummer some hard lessons.

“You’ve got to bring it every play, every day, and if you don’t you might not be playing,” he said. “You’ve got to be sharp, got to be consistent, got to be focused and that’s the way it should be.”

Plummer has all the natural gifts. The strong-armed 6-foot-5, 220-pounder from Arizona came to Purdue as one of the top quarterbacks in the 2018 recruiting class.

With two older quarterbacks — Sindelar and David Blough — ahead of him on the depth chart, Plummer figured he’d eventually get a chance to become the next big star at the Cradle of Quarterbacks.

Instead, he didn’t throw a pass as a freshman and spent went 2-7 as the starter over the past two seasons, going 232 of 365 for 2,541 yards, 19 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

O’Connell was a two-sport high school star who joined the Boilermakers as a walk-on in 2017. The 6-3, 200-pound Illinois native has proven he’s mobile enough to make plays on the run. He’s 3-2 as the starter, having completed 191 of 300 throws for 2,017 yards, 15 TD passes and six interceptions.

“The game reps were priceless,” he said. “The bullets are flying, the fire is hot. When you make a mistake in practice you don’t really pay a price because you don’t get hit but when you make a mistake in a game, you are literally physically punished.”

Many believe the competition may again come down to Plummer and O’Connell.

But Burton could make it a three-man race.

At 6-2, 210 pounds, he appears to be a combination of Plummer and O’Connell. He moves well, has a strong enough arm and may be more accurate than the others. He’s the son of former Northwestern quarterback Steve Burton and the grandson of former NFL player and College Football Hall of Famer Ron Burton.

Burton enrolled early at UCLA before transferring to Purdue in 2020 after making only one career start with the Bruins.

Burton might have had a stronger chance last year if spring football hadn’t been canceled and the Big Ten hadn’t modified the season after initially announcing it had been canceled. Now, though, a complete offseason and a full camp schedule could give Burton an opportunity to prove himself.

“I think I’m playing with more confidence because I have a better understanding of the system,” he said. “I think whatever you do in you in life, if you have a better understanding, the better you do. I think my strengths are I run pretty well as well as my decision making.”

And after failing to become bowl eligible each of the past two seasons, the first two misses during Jeff Brohm’s head coaching career, the Boilermakers want to make sure they get this one right.

“I’m looking for the best decision-maker, the most accurate thrower and toughness,” Brian Brohm said. “The guys know I grade that every single day at practice and I’m pretty up front about my grades, so they know it’s a close competition.”

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