- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
The message Purdue's coaches had for Keith Smith before the season is the type every player wants to hear.
Purdue had lost its top two wide receivers from 2008, Greg Orton and Desmond Tardy, who ranked second and third in the Big Ten in receptions, combining for 136 catches, 1,596 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns. The Boilers also lost running back Kory Sheets, a very good pass receiver, as well as wideouts Brandon Whittington and Joe Whitest.
When it came to proven players at the wide receiver position, the discussion started and ended with Smith.
"They didn’t really give the specifics with it," Smith recalled. "They just told me they were going to work me. They were going to use me as a workhorse."
Purdue has had a workhorse receiver ever since Joe Tiller brought the spread offense to West Lafayette in 1997. In fact, Boilermakers wideout has recorded at least 63 receptions in each of the last 12 seasons. First, it was Brian Alford. Then Isaac Jones. Then Chris Daniels. Then Vinny Sutherland. Then Taylor Stubblefield and John Standeford. Then Dorien Bryant. Then Orton and Tardy.
Now it's Smith's turn, and he has made the most of it. He leads the Big Ten in both receptions (59) and receiving yards (771) for a confident Purdue team that has won back-to-back games after a string of heartbreaking losses.
Smith and the Boilers aim for three straight Saturday against Wisconsin (ESPN2, noon ET).
"I’m not surprised to see him having the type of year that he’s having," Purdue first-year head coach Danny Hope said. "He saw the opportunity and really seized that. He’s an exceptional worker, and he’s very talented. He knew he was going to be the go-to guy at the beginning of the season and cashed in."
Smith was thrilled to be labeled a workhorse wideout before the season, but he also knew what it meant. He had dislocated his shoulder in a Week 2 matchup last year against Oregon and couldn't do much conditioning during practice, so he ballooned to more than 240 pounds.
With the shoulder fully healed, Smith shed about 20 pounds during the offseason and now checks in at a solid 226.
"It’s been great," Smith said. "I've been able to beat a lot of teams deep and get behind their coverages. I feel like I have a quicker step now, so it’s helped me tremendously on the field, to be able to widen my array of routes."
Hope made speed and quickness major priorities for the Boilers, who had players slim down at every position. Smith's weight loss has translated into obvious gains on Saturdays.
"It made him a faster player," Hope said. "It made him a better player in space. It allows him to stay in the game and get most of the reps. He gets stronger as the game goes on. That’s not always true at the receiver position, especially a big receiver.
"He’s scaled down significantly size wise and it’s really impacted the quality of his play."