Jeff Brohm got a call out of the blue.
On the other end of the line was private quarterbacks coach Jeff Christensen, a friend of Brohm's. Christensen had an under-the-radar quarterback from Long Grove, Illinois, with whom he had been working and he wanted to know whether Brohm would be interested in speaking with the player.
Brohm, who had just taken over at Purdue, already had two quarterbacks committed from the previous coaching staff in West Lafayette, plus a walk-on coming in. But he and new Purdue quarterbacks coach Brian Brohm decided to look at the quarterback's film.
“I said, I kind of like him,” Brian Brohm said of watching Aidan O'Connell. And then Jeff said, “I kind of like him, too.”
The Stevenson High School product was under no illusions that he would play right away; he had chosen Purdue over a walk-on offer from Cornell and a Division III offer from Wheaton College. At one juncture in his Boilermakers career, O'Connell was near the bottom of a Purdue quarterbacks depth chart nine to 10 names deep.
Four years later, O'Connell is Purdue's unquestioned starter and Saturday will lead the Boilermakers against Northwestern at Wrigley Field in a homecoming of sorts for the Chicagoland native.
A win over the Wildcats (3-7, 1-6 Big Ten), who have won six of the last seven against the Boilers, would give Purdue (6-4, 4-3) its first seven-win regular season since 2007.
O'Connell's journey to the top of the depth chart has been halting and meandering, but it started with a work ethic that pushed him to hone his craft despite the distinct possibility he would never see a meaningful rep in practice, let alone a game.
“I love the game so I knew, if nothing else, I'm working on skills that are going to help after football,” O'Connell said. “Working on being a hard worker, staying disciplined, staying after it. It wasn't a burden, I enjoyed doing those things. ... I didn't get a lot of reps back in the day. I didn't really get to practice during practice, so I had to practice after practice.”
All that work began to pay off in 2019, when O'Connell moved from fourth string to starter following injuries to Elijah Sindelar, Nick Sipe and Jack Plummer. He showcased his throwing ability on the field for the first time when he led a comeback win over Nebraska following Plummer's injury mid-game.
Four weeks later, O'Connell had 408 yards and three touchdowns in an overtime loss to Indiana.
“He had some uncanny poise and presence in the pocket, just the calmness to him that is not as natural for first-time guys going in, is probably due to his strong faith in the man upstairs, himself and his teammates,” Jeff Brohm said. “I think he knew his limitations, what he was good at.
“I can't stand here and say that I saw what would happen now back then.”
O'Connell won the starting job heading into the shortened 2020 campaign, but a foot injury ended his season after three games. In 2021, he lost an offseason competition to Plummer, who was Purdue's first-stringer until midway through the campaign.
O'Connell relieved Plummer in late September against Illinois, threw a game-winning touchdown pass then threw for 370 yards in each of the next two Boilers games, including an upset of then-No. 2 Iowa.
In the last two weeks, O'Connell has put together perhaps his most impressive performances, throwing for 536 yards – third-most in Purdue history – and three touchdowns in a win over then-No. 5 Michigan State and following that with 390 yards in loss to Ohio State.
The fifth-year senior has a chance to lead Purdue to its first nine-win campaign since 2003. And he has one season of eligibility remaining. Could he return for one more year at the helm?
“We would like all of our guys to play as long as they want to, Aidan included,” Jeff Brohm said. “I'm big in general about not looking down the road at all. I know he loves to compete, loves to play, loves to do everything to represent Purdue in the right way.”
For his part, O'Connell is undecided about 2022. He says he is focused on the task at hand.
“We have a chance at a special season still,” the former walk-on said.
Note: Purdue defensive lineman Lawrence Johnson, a Snider graduate, will be battling an injury to get on the field against Northwestern. Johnson had a tackle despite the injury against Ohio State, but Brohm said he is among a group of players “gutting it out right now.”
Purdue at Northwestern
When: Noon Saturday
Where: Wrigley Field, Chicago
Records: Purdue (6-4, 4-3 Big Ten), Northwestern (3-7, 1-6)
TV: Big Ten Network Radio: 1380 AM, 100.9 FM