Sutherland sheepishly admits, "I ran my mouth a little bit when I first got here, but I came to play."
Tiller obliged him. Seeing spot duty at receiver and returning kicks, Sutherland gained 634 all-purpose yards as a freshman. He twisted both ankles as a sophomore, which limited his playing time and led to a weight gain that affected his stamina. With Sutherland, it seems, it's always something. This season Tiller suspended him for the opener, against Central Michigan, for failing to pick up his school books for the fall semester on time. That shot across his bow has focused Sutherland, who has 65 catches this season, including 11 for touchdowns, and is averaging 160.4 all-purpose yards per game.
Over the last month, says Tiller, a lot of NFL scouts have evinced interest in Sutherland. While he won't go so far as to say that Sutherland will be drafted, Tiller is confident that Sutherland will end up in some NFL camp next summer. Will Tiller miss him? He pauses just a little too long before saying, "Sure, I'll miss some things about Vinny. I'll miss his speed."
Sutherland is the closest thing Purdue has to a marquee receiver. It amuses Tiller not in the least that his offense, tailored to make stars of its wide receivers, has failed to attract top high school wideouts. No fewer than four blue-chippers broke the Boilermakers' hearts last winter. Carlos Perez of Hoboken, N.J., narrowed his choices to Purdue and Florida before opting for year-round sunshine. Mark Jones of Wallingford, Pa., whose brother, Ike, had starred at receiver for Purdue, chose Tennessee, as did Fort Lauderdale standout Tony Brown. Johnny Morant of Parsippany, N.J. jilted Purdue for Syracuse "to be closer to his mother," says Tiller. "We're finishing second all the time. We need to finish first on some of these rascals."
Tiller's disappointment was tempered during two-a-days by the performance of a receiver he did land. Standeford, the rail-thin freshman, got open with ease and caught everything. He left the coaches no choice but to play him. Where he ran into trouble was digesting Tiller's tome of a playbook. At Monrovia High, Standeford wasn't asked to memorize scores of sets and formations or to read defenses on the run and adjust his route accordingly. "It was more like, 'O.K., John, get open,' " says Monrovia High coach Chad Neal.
The Purdue coaches streamlined the material the 6'4", 180-pound Standeford needed to know, and he started catching on. His 62 receptions and 667 receiving yards are the most of any true freshman receiver in the conference, overshadowing many of the studfish who said, Thanks, Boilermakers, but no thanks. Standeford's six touchdown grabs include a five-yarder from Brees in the fourth quarter of a thrilling 31-27 win over Ohio State on Oct. 28. Not bad for a guy whose biggest play before this season was a 70-yard punt return against the Greencastle ( Ind.) Tiger Cubs.
The real hero of that victory over the Buckeyes, however, was former walk-on Morales, one season removed from the scout team and two seasons removed from Division I-AA. By earning a scholarship and a starting job with the Boilermakers, Morales is living a dream that virtually everyone he turned to for advice discouraged him from pursuing. As a freshman at Butler in his hometown of Indianapolis in 1997, he led the Bulldogs in all receiving categories, which made him sure he could play in the Big Ten. When he raised the possibility of transferring to Purdue, his mother, Chris, frowned on the idea. "She's not big on change," says Morales. "One of my coaches at Butler told me I'd never play up there."
"You don't want to do this," Tiller told Morales. But Morales, whose father, Tom, a Mexican immigrant, is the CEO of a fire-protection company, persuaded the coach that he did want to transfer. After a year on the scout squad, he earned a scholarship in last summer's training camp.
When Ohio State took a 27-24 lead with 2:16 left, "I lost hope, but just for a minute," says Stratton. On third-and-seven at his own 36, Brees called Yellow 74 XZ-pole, a pass play that requires Morales to line up on the right side and run a post. Morales had caught 25 passes as a Boilermaker, none of them on this play, on which he was Brees's fourth option. But Morales plays as though he's afraid that if he jakes it on a single snap, he'll wake up to find himself sitting at his old stall in the Butler dressing room. Because he plays that way, he found himself behind the Buckeyes secondary, which is where Brees, having gone through his first three reads, spotted him. Morales's 64-yard, game-winning touchdown reception stands as the most dramatic play in Purdue's finest season in more than three decades.
Let's not forget Stratton, who caught 12 passes against Ohio State. "Ask him how many yards he got," cracks Sutherland. (Answer: a relatively modest 100.) Yards after the catch isn't one of Stratton's strong suits. The big guy smiles. He doles out his share of verbal abuse—"You know Vinny's family is at the game when you see a bunch of short people wearing jerseys with number 14 on 'em and saying stuff like 'Down in front!' "—and he can take it.