By CLIFF BRUNT
AP Sports Writer
INDIANAPOLIS -- Purdue's senior class has a very senior member this year.
Coach Joe Tiller is retiring after his 12th season, and the departing Boilermakers consider the 65-year-old one of their own. They plan to send him out the right way.
"I think his last year is going to be an emotional thing for our seniors and for him," senior quarterback Curtis Painter said. "He's like one of us."
Painter said the players appreciate Tiller's no-nonsense style, sense of humor and dedication to the program. Tiller has an 83-54 record at Purdue and has led the Boilermakers to 10 bowl games in 11 years.
"He's been a guy that's really been honest with me since I got here," Painter said. "When you've got that kind of coach, you really play for him. He trusts you and he's given his honest opinion, so you want to give your honest effort."
A happy ending would be a better finish than last year, when the Boilermakers went 8-5 after starting the season 5-0 and cracking the Top 25. If Tiller's "senior" year is to be memorable, Painter, the subject of Purdue's first Heisman Trophy campaign since Kyle Orton in 2004, holds the keys.
Painter already has set Purdue records for passing yards in a season and a single game, and is nearing several others. Last season, he passed for 3,846 yards, 29 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He passed for a school-record 546 yards in the 51-48 Motor City Bowl win over Central Michigan and now is a contender for every major award for quarterbacks.
"Those types of end-of-the-year awards will come," he said. "I'm not too worried about that. I'm worried about Purdue football and this first game and getting rolling with the season."
Painter will have to find new go-to players.
Dorien Bryant left Purdue second all-time in receptions and first in all-purpose yards. Tight end Dustin Keller, last year's team MVP, now plays for the New York Jets.
Painter said it will be strange to be on the field without Bryant and Keller.
"It's going to be tough," he said. "They're going to be missed, but we've got a great group of guys behind them, guys who can make plays and be effective."
The top returning receiver is Greg Orton, an outside receiver who caught 67 passes for 752 yards last season. He knows he'll draw more attention from defenses this season, but he likes the challenge.
"I really don't look at it as a lot of pressure," Orton said. "I've been working hard for it. It's something that I definitely want, and I'm ready for it. I'm ready for it to happen."
Desmond Tardy, the slot receiver who played behind Bryant, should have an increased role. Kyle Adams should step in at tight end.
Painter might rely more on his backs than before. Seniors Kory Sheets and Jaycen Taylor again will platoon.
Sheets ran for 859 yards and caught 30 passes for 216 yards last season. His 37 career touchdowns are second in school history behind Mike Alstott's 42. Taylor ran for 560 yards last season, despite missing four games with a broken arm.
"They're explosive athletes, explosive guys with the ball that really, any play has the capability of busting a big one," Painter said. "Just to have that dual threat is outstanding."
Purdue lost right guard Jordan Grimes and center Robbie Powell to eligibility, but right tackle Zach Jones, left guard Zach Reckman and left tackle Sean Sester are back. Purdue quarterbacks were sacked just 25 times in 13 games last season.
Six players return on defense. Captains Ryan Baker and Jeremiah Guynn anchor the defensive line. Running back-turned-linebacker Anthony Heygood is the top returning tackler.
Purdue will need to replace safety Terrell Vinson, a second-team all-Big Ten pick by the media last season.
The defense will need to improve if the Boilermakers are to be better than average.
"We're going to be as good as we play together," Heygood said. "We don't really have any marquee players on our defense, we just have to work well as a unit."
Unlike most years, the Purdue defense will be tested early.
The Boilermakers host Oregon on Sept. 13, host Mid-American Conference favorite Central Michigan on Sept. 20 and play at Notre Dame on Sept. 27.
Heygood likes the upgrade.
"It's good to have a strong non-conference schedule because it checks how good your team is," he said. "We know our Big Ten schedule is going to be tough every year, and to have a couple of real tough games before the Big Ten -- it's good to measure how good our team can be with how well we play against good competition."
Purdue's confidence jumped after the Motor City Bowl win.
"We won a game in the end, we won a game in the two-minute offense," Painter said. "We hadn't won a lot of close games in the past, so to get that going into the offseason was a big thing. People are excited, and I think that's a direct result of the game."
Some facts about the 2008 Purdue Boilermakers:
SCHOOL COLORS: Old gold and black.
LOCATED: West Lafayette, Ind.
COACH: Joe Tiller, 83-54 in 12th season.
2007 RECORD: 8-5 (3-5 Big Ten, T-7th).
LAST BOWL: 2007 Motor City Bowl, beat Central Michigan 51-48.
STADIUM: Ross-Ade Stadium (62,500).
RETURNING STARTERS: 6 offense, 6 defense, 1 specialist.
KEY PLAYERS: LB Anthony Heygood, DB Brandon King, WR Greg Orton, QB Curtis Painter, OT Sean Sester, RB Kory Sheets, WR Desmond Tardy, RB Jaycen Taylor.
KEY DEPARTURES: DE Cliff Avril, WR Dorien Bryant, LB Josh Ferguson, LB Stanford Keglar, TE Dustin Keller, WR Selwyn Lymon, DB Terrell Vinson.
KEY STAT: Painter needs 3,030 yards passing to break Drew Brees' career record at Purdue. Last year, Painter, who is fourth on the list behind Brees, Mark Herrmann and Kyle Orton finished with 3,846.