WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- A series of bowl banners hang from the rafters at the Mollenkopf Center, serving as reminders of the steady success Purdue enjoyed for most of Joe Tiller's tenure.
Tiller took the Boilers bowling in seven of his first eight seasons as coach. After going 5-6 in 2007, Purdue went back to bowls the next two seasons. Although the run only included one Rose Bowl (2001) and three January games (2001 Rose, 2000 Outback, 2004 Capital One), Purdue could pretty much count on going somewhere warm for the holidays.
The bowl banners inside Mollenkopf form a nearly perfect arc above the field, but there's a gap next to the 2007 Motor City Bowl. There's a missing piece, and after three winters at home, Purdue intends to find it.
"We've got to get back, got to get back," quarterback Rob Henry repeated after a recent practice. "We've got to get back on track. I hate losing more than I love winning, and it's time to turn it around and get back to a bowl."
Henry has taken the challenge to heart this spring. After being thrust into a starting job last fall because of attrition at quarterback, Henry looks like he belongs now.
The 6-foot-2, 198-pound sophomore has recovered from a nasty laceration on his throwing hand that made it tough to even grip the ball at times last season. He toughed it out as a run-first quarterback, but the injury limited him. Henry,who still has his right index finger taped in practice, only felt 100 percent a month ago but can throw pain free.
Though Purdue's No. 1 quarterback remains in limbo, Henry wants to lead the team back to the postseason.
"I think he's the most improved player on our football team," third-year coach Danny Hope said. "He's a great athlete, a tremendous competitor, a very, very special and player. He has all the intangibles and redeeming qualities to lead this football team to a winning season and compete every Saturday with a chance to win."
Hope acknowledges Henry is "ahead of the rest" at this point but notes that things could change before the opener Sept. 3 against Middle Tennessee. Robert Marve, recovering from his second consecutive torn ACL, will be back in the mix this summer after limited participation in spring ball. Caleb TerBush, named the team's most improved offensive player last spring before being ruled academically ineligible for the season, also will be back.
The competition will spill into fall camp, and Marve's return will create an interesting dynamic. But after a season when injuries to Marve and others crippled Purdue, the team is moving forward with who's available, and Henry is distinguishing himself in spring practice.
"If you maximize your potential as a quarterback," Henry said, "you can't ask any more."
Henry seems to be getting closer to that point, but Purdue needs other players and position groups to do the same. Few teams could have survived the number of major injuries to key players as Purdue endured in 2010, but the Boilers know there will be no excuses this fall.
They must fill the void left by Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Ryan Kerrigan, who earned unanimous All-America honors last fall. Kerrigan's departure leaves Purdue thin at defensive end, but nine starters return on defense, including promising young players like cornerback Ricardo Allen, defensive tackle Kawann Short and linebacker Will Lucas.
Hope has made speed a chief priority in his first few recruiting classes, and he expects a payoff this season.
"Looking back at our team a couple years ago, we only had five or six guys who could run 4.5s or better," Hope said. "I think we've tripled or maybe quadrupled that number. It already is a big difference. You can't tackle if you can't get there. We tackle so much better now because can accelerate to the football. We have some guys who can make plays in space on both sides of the football because of athleticism.
"We're a much faster football team than we were my first year here. Much faster."
It has been tough to get a full read on Purdue during Hope's tenure. The team overcame a rough start in 2009 to finish 4-4 in Big Ten play but ultimately made too many mistakes to go bowling. The high expectations last season vanished after the wave of injuries.
One way or the other, the picture should clear up this fall. And the Boilers hope it shows them in a bowl game.
"Every spring we have the alumni come back and you see guys telling stories about going to bowls," senior offensive tackle Dennis Kelly said. "It's one of those things that looking five, 10 years down the road, you want to do that and say, 'My senior year, we went to such and such bowl and had a great season.'"