By CLIFF BRUNT
AP Sports Writer
INDIANAPOLIS -- Perhaps Kory Sheets' growth can be gauged best by what Purdue coach Joe Tiller hasn't said about him.
Tiller hasn't gone down his usual list of complaints about the talented but previously inconsistent running back. Over the years, Tiller has criticized Sheets for underachieving, lacking mental toughness and being careless with the ball. Now, he's praising Sheets for being a strong senior leader and reliable workhorse.
Sheets' role has increased since Jaycen Taylor went down for the season with a knee injury, and Sheets has made the most of it. He set career highs with 29 carries for 180 yards in a 32-26 double-overtime loss to Oregon last Saturday.
"I think what's different about Kory is that he's maturing," Tiller said during Tuesday's teleconference. "And, I think with the advent of Jaycen Taylor being injured, I think that he is playing with a greater sense of urgency today than he ever has since he's been at Purdue. And I think you combine that since of urgency with maturity and you get the type of performance we saw Saturday."
Sheets' maturity showed when he deflected praise for his performance after Saturday's game.
"Coming in, everyone questioned our running game and we put up 200 yards," he said. "Everyone worked hard this week and we ran all over them. The offensive line can be credited for that."
Sheets got Purdue off to a good start against Oregon with an 80-yard touchdown run on the second play from scrimmage.
"It doesn't get much better than what he did on that first drive to really get up early, and that was all on him," Purdue quarterback Curtis Painter said. "It was just a heck of an effort."
Sheets has rushed for 261 yards and four touchdowns his first two games this season, putting him in the top 10 nationally in average per game in both categories. He is one touchdown from tying Mike Alstott's school record for total career touchdowns (42) heading into Saturday's home game against Central Michigan.
And, despite never being the clear-cut No. 1 back, he ranks fourth nationally in touchdowns among active NCAA players, trailing only Boise State's Ian Johnson, Rice's Jarett Dillard and Texas A&M's Jovorskie Lane.
Sheets has gotten mixed results at Purdue. He took over for the injured Taylor last season and had three straight 100-yard games before following them with subpar performances against Ohio State and Michigan.
Sheets was late to a practice the week of the Michigan game, costing him the start, but Tiller's breaking point didn't come until the game started.
On his fourth carry, Sheets fumbled after a 13-yard gain and Michigan recovered at the Purdue 37. Michigan running back Mike Hart scored after the turnover to give the Wolverines a 17-7 lead, and the rout was on in Michigan's 48-21 win. Sheets never returned to the game.
Sheets even has gotten mixed reviews when he has put up good numbers. He lost two fumbles in last season's regular-season game against Central Michigan, drawing criticism from Tiller despite a career-high 144 yards.
Sheets hasn't fumbled this season. He had 16 carries for 81 yards and two touchdowns in the season opener against Northern Colorado. Tiller has made a conscious commitment to Sheets, saying before the Oregon game he wanted to get him at least 20 touches.
With his new place as a centerpiece in the offense secured, Sheets has become more vocal.
"He's always in there kind of chirping around, but he always does a good job of getting things going," Painter said. "He's one of those 'let's go get 'em' guys that picks everybody up."
Sheets has showed he can lead by example, too.
"His game against Oregon was one of the best games I've seen Kory play," center Cory Benton said. "He really stepped up to the plate with guys going after him. And there were some verbal things coming at him, but he answered it well by keeping his head."
Sheets' effort against the Ducks gave the offense a boost.
"It was definitely a confidence builder for us and him," Benton said. "He put a lot of trust in his offensive line and on that second play, when he broke free, it was a big, big positive thing for us mentally as a unit. We knew we could line up physically with anyone and get the job done. And he was very patient working with us and following our blocks and it showed with his performance."