Tiller discusses final season, position battles


Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Joe Tiller enters his final season at Purdue much like he did his first, with an under-the-radar team that could surprise people this fall. "The more things change, the more they stay the same," he said.

After having some fun during team pictures on the Ross-Ade Stadium field -- on the final do-what-you-want shot, Tiller turned his cap to the side, C.C. Sabathia style, and flexed for the camera -- the Boilermakers coach met with the media.

Here are some of the items he touched on:

  • Tiller announced that defensive end Nickcaro Golding, safety Josh McKinley and defensive tackle Preston Numa will be suspended for the season opener against Northern Colorado for "conduct detrimental to the team." Senior safety Torri Williams, a candidate to start, has been fully reinstated. Williams was suspended this spring after an arrest for shoplifting.

McKinley started one game last fall but looks to be in a reserve role this year. Both Golding and Numa redshirted last year.

  • Linebacker depth is Purdue's biggest concern in training camp. Fifth-year senior Anthony Heygood and promising junior Jason Werner look good at the two outside spots, and Tiller is hopeful Kevin Green can step up in the middle. But after those three, the cupboard is pretty bare.

Purdue conducts its first full-pads practice later today, and the coaches will closely examine who else they have at linebacker, and who could move over to the position.

"It's a daily discussion," Tiller said. "Today's an important day for us. We've been out there dancing our underwear for a couple day and playing pass-and-tap with shells on. Now we're going to start playing football, so we'll see if somebody will demonstrate an ability to help us. Until that happens, we're reluctant to move anyone."

Green recorded only seven tackles in eight games last fall, and Tiller wants to see more from the man at the core of the Boilermakers defense.

"He could really help us," Tiller said. "Kevin's the type of guy that's had his moments but from a consistency point of view hasn't been there yet."

  • Purdue made several moves with its starting offensive linemen, who are all healthy after a painful spring. The Boilers swapped tackles Sean Sester and Zach Jones, moved Jared Zwilling to guard and established Cory Benton as the No. 1 center. Sester, one of the team's top pro prospects, moves to right tackle after protecting Curtis Painter's blind side a year ago. Tiller said he didn't know what to expect from Jones a year ago and wanted a more experienced player at left tackle.

But after evaluating Jones in his first season as a starter, Tiller made the switch.

"Jones is the more athletic guy than Sester and really is better suited to play the left side than Sean is," Tiller said of the former walk-on. "And Sean is better suited to play the right side. We think we have them at their natural positions now."

Tiller likened Zwilling to Jones, saying guard is an easier position to transition into than center. Benton played mainly at guard but is expected to perform well at center.

"He smells it," Tiller said of Benton. "He knows he's got a chance to be the lead tank and be the starter at center all year."

  • Tiller provided a little background on Purdue's big home showdown with Oregon on Sept. 13. Six or seven years ago, Tiller started discussing the game with then-Oregon athletic director Bill Moos, who Tiller had coached at Washington State in the early 1970s.

Moos brought up the idea of playing Purdue, but Tiller didn't have much interest.

"Finally Bill said, 'Well, let's schedule a game that's so far out there that both of us will be retired, so it really won't matter,'" Tiller recalled. "And of course, Bill's retired and I'm not, so that worked for one guy and not the other."

The "real reason" Tiller agreed was that Oregon had dropped September road games against Big Ten teams, falling to Michigan State in 1999 and to Wisconsin in 2000.

"I thought, 'You know, here's a West Coast team that has to travel a long way and probably doesn't play well on the road early, so let's sign 'em up,'" Tiller said. "That was a long time ago and obviously isn't true about them any longer."

  • Senior Greg Orton will be Painter's No. 1 target this fall and the Boilermakers have several other options in fifth-year seniors Desmond Tardy, Brandon Whittington and Joe Whitest and junior-college transfers Aaron Valentin and Arsenio Curry. But look out for sophomore Keith Smith, who could play his way into a starting role ahead of Tardy.

Smith began his career at quarterback, switched to safety as a freshman and started a game there before transitioning to wide receiver. His size [6-2, 226] and physical play have made him stood out so far in practice.

"He doesn't mind going down there and taking on a strong safety and trying to put the guy on his back," Tiller said. "He's over 230 [pounds] at 6-2, so he's always going to be anywhere from 10-20 pounds heavier and stronger than the guy he's going against."

  • Tiller was asked to name the one recruit who made the most dramatic impact on the team, and surprisingly, he didn't choose Drew Brees or even an offensive player. The coach went with safety Stuart Schweigert, who broke Purdue's interceptions record with 17 picks.

Purdue's defense had been gashed for big runs the year before Schweigert arrived but allowed just one or two runs of more than 20 yards when he was a true freshman in 2000.

"The guy that was making that play under 20 yards was Stu Schweigert," Tiller said. "He changed the productivity of our defense right from the get-go. Drew is the most decorated player and really a guy that could carry a program on his shoulders, but he didn't do that as a freshman. Schweigert did."

  • Speaking of Brees, Tiller mentioned how disappointed he was when Brees fell to the second round in the 2001 NFL draft. Brees was a Heisman Trophy finalist along with Florida State's Chris Weinke, who won the award, and Oklahoma's Josh Heupel.

"Those guys aren't playing the game any more and he is," Tiller said. "He was the best college quarterback out there that year and he's probably gone on and proved that he was."