Walk-on QB Aidan O'Connell has earned relevant position for Purdue
A lot's gone into Aidan O'Connell ascending to the No. 3 position on Purdue's depth chart at quarterback, just two seasons after joining the program as an invited walk-on.
In addition to starter Elijah Sindelar and solidified No. 2 Jack Plummer, the Boilermakers have two other quarterbacks on scholarship, but sophomore Nick Sipe missed the spring due to injury and freshman Paul Piferi was only then joining the program.
"I've been lucky, I guess, to have a couple breaks to go my way," O'Connell said. "Some of the other QBs have had some injuries, gotten a little dinged up and that put me in this spot. It's a good thing and a bad thing, because I'm grateful for the reps and what I've been able to do, but Nick Sipe is one of my closest friends, and for he or any of the other guys to be banged up, it's hard to see."
But O'Connell hasn't merely worked his way to within a rolled ankle of the two-deep by default alone.
Opinion around the program regarding O'Connell's ability is very positive, in context of him being a walk-on or otherwise.
"I'm very happy with Aidan’s development," said Brian Brohm, who coaches Purdue's quarterbacks. "He's a guy who works extremely hard to get better. And he has come a long way since he stepped foot on campus.
"He has transformed his body, gotten stronger. His mechanics, throwing the football, he does a tremendous job working on it. He is a real accurate thrower. He just needs to keep getting in the playbook and that his decision-making is on point every single time. He has a bright future."
Purdue saw something in him long ago.
It was December of 2017 when Jeff Brohm took the Purdue job and inherited quarterback commitments Nick Sipe and Griffin Alstott from the prior staff. It being so late in the process, Brohm's first real quarterback commitment would have to wait until the following class, and it would turn out to be Plummer.
But in a way, the first quarterback he recruited was O'Connell, because Purdue did seem to pursue the QB from Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Ill., particularly aggressively without a scholarship to give.
And it wasn't alone.
Minnesota and Indiana joined Purdue in talking to O'Connell, as did a number of smaller schools, including D2 power Grand Valley State.
No one offered a scholarship.
"I was a little surprised," O'Connell says now. "I know there's kids all over the country who think they're good enough, but I thought I was different and I thought I was good enough. I was undersized and pretty slow, so I understand why schools didn't come knocking on my door, but I just trusted the man upstairs and knew He was going to have a plan for me and I'd end up where I belonged."
So, he was bound for Division III Wheaton College for a while.
In late February, weeks after college football programs signed their scholarship recruits, he changed his mind.
"I felt like I was good enough to challenge myself at this level," O'Connell said.
While a lot has to happen for any No. 3 quarterback to get on the field, and while no one at Purdue is rooting for any of it to happen, obviously, that O'Connell is even in that position at a program that intends to become known for its quarterbacks again says something about him.
"I just try to do what I can do every day," O'Connell said. "It sounds cliché, but control what you can control. The game of football, there's a lot of variables you can't control and a lot of things out of your reach. ... I'm just trying to get better every day. There's always little things you can improve."
The 6-foot-3, 210-pound sophomore may not be Purdue's most athletic or nimble quarterback, but the arm he used to throw for 2,700-plus yards and more than 25 touchdowns as a senior at Stevenson has been apparent.
Whether it will ever get him on the field at Purdue to a meaningful extent — or any extent — remains to be seen, however. Truth be told, in the best-case scenario for Purdue, the odds would be stacked against him.
"I came here to play," O'Connell said. "I didn't just come here to be on the team. I came to compete and hopefully play one day, but I also know that my life doesn't revolve only around football, and there's things in my life that are more important than football, so I try not to put too much weight on it, but at the same time work as hard as I can and have that balance.
"My dream is to play. If I don't, I'm going to be OK."
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