This story appears in the latest edition of Tiger Rag Extra, hitting newsstands mid-April. Find your copy here.
By CODY WORSHAM
Tiger Rag Editor
For Danny Etling, it just feels good to be Danny Etling again.
Last year, LSU’s junior quarterback was rarely himself. Depending on the week, he was Jeremy Johnson, Treon Harris, or Brandon Allen, taking over as scout team quarterback while sitting out the mandatory year after transferring to the Tigers from Purdue.
“I was running the other team’s plays,” Etling says, “snapping the ball to myself and trying to get our defense ready.”
Wait…no center to snap the ball to the scout team quarterback?
“We did,” Etling laughs, “but sometimes the center would snap it over your head. And Coach Steele wasn’t as patient as you would’ve liked.”
Etling’s own patience looks to have paid off this spring. He’s no longer self-snapping the ball to a quarterback in character. Instead, the Terre Haute, Ind. native is backing up incumbent starter Brandon Harris while, in the words of his linguistically flexible head coach, “coming like heck” for the starter’s nod.
“It’s really good competition,” says Miles. “(Etling) understands what’s going on, gets the ball where it’s supposed to go. Will get nothing but better.”
ETLING’S ROAD TO Baton Rouge was anything but traditional. A four-star prospect from Terre Haute South Vigo in the Class of 2013, Etling looked entrenched as a four-year starter at Purdue when he won the job as a freshman, starting the last seven games of the Boilermakers’ season and completing 149-of-267 (55.8 percent) passing for 1,690 yards and 10 touchdowns with seven interceptions. Though all eight starts came in defeat, Etling was trending in the right direction by season’s end, enjoying three straight games with a passer rating of 120 or better. In the finale, Etling caught fire, hitting on 33-of-49 passes for 485 yards and four touchdowns against Indiana.
“It just started clicking,” Etling told reporters after the game.
“I think you’re seeing a guy who is going to be a spectacular player for us,” Boilermaker head coach Darrell Hazell added. “I really believe that. You see the poise that he’s starting to play with, and he’s starting to throw the ball with some accuracy. You’re going to see a great quarterback here.”
Hazell’s prediction proved short-lived. Etling held on to his starting job through spring and fall camps heading into 2014, winning twice in five starts out of the gate as a sophomore. But the second-year slump was inevitable. Etling’s passer rating dipped to 102, with solid starts against Notre Dame (27-for-40, 234 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT) and Southern Illinois (15-for-26, 196 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs) sandwiched between losses to Central Michigan and Iowa, in which Etling combined to toss for three picks to zero touchdowns. That first poor game saw Etling benched temporarily; the second, permanently, no thanks to an ankle injury suffered the week before.
Ask Etling about his Purdue days, and he evades the question with the nimbleness of a scrambling quarterback dodging a determined pass rusher.
“I had an ankle injury and tried to play on it,” Etling says. “It didn’t go so well. Things go on from there. I was healed by the next week. It was a one week thing.
“We decided to go different ways from there.”
Etling’s final snap against Iowa was his final snap at Purdue. He spent the rest of his sophomore season on the bench. He deactivated his Twitter account. He re-evaluated his situation.
And, eventually, he decided to make a move.
RICKEY JEFFERSON WON’T admit to missing any tackles, but as he and the Tiger defense prepared to deal with Dak Prescott last September, the then-junior, now-senior safety found himself surprised by the elusiveness of Prescott’s imitator.
Lining up across from Jefferson on LSU’s scout team was Etling, who, at 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, was of a similar stature to Mississippi State’s All-SEC quarterback. His Prescott impression? Spot on, says Jefferson.
“He’s very shifty,” Jefferson admits of Etling.
That wasn’t Etling’s favorite week. He preferred Western Kentucky – “just straight throwing screens and throwing passes” – to Prescott’s more between-the-tackles running, which left him with more than a few bruises.
Such was Etling’s 2015, as quiet as his summer arrival, when he decided to transfer to LSU because, in no small part, of the presence of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. Both are from Terre Haute. Both went to South Vigo. Cameron even worked out Etling during his days with the Baltimore Ravens, and the two re-connected when Etling selected LSU over Arkansas after visiting both schools.
Etling quickly faded into the background at LSU. As all eyes focused on Harris and Anthony Jennings and their battle for quarterback supremacy, Etling – all too familiar with that narrative – was happy to be out of the spotlight for a season. During game weeks, Etling spent his mornings studying the opposition’s offense and his evenings studying LSU’s. He watched the road games from his couch. He went through warm ups at home games, and treated those pre-game sessions as if they were the real deal, getting comfortable in Tiger Stadium.
“I was actually focused on the game,” Etling says. “I was trying to get some mental reps in. I was trying to think through the game plan and go through the things with the guys. It was definitely fun walking in that stadium. It was like playing at Penn State or something like that, but times 100. It was cool.”
Meanwhile, as Etling got his feet settled in the program, he got a break from the media blitz that came with starting at Purdue as a freshman.
“I kind of enjoyed my year of being anonymous and a year of silence from the media,” Etling says. “It’s been nice to relax.”
NOW THAT DANNY ETLING is Danny Etling again, he happily admits that the new Danny is very different from the old one. Two seasons under fire, and one to cool, can have that transformative effect, best represented by the constant smile etched on Etling’s face during his first extensive interview with the media in over a year.
“I’m not the same quarterback that I was as a freshman, just going in and playing for the first time,” Etling says. “I’ve had a lot of ups and downs, especially in my college career, so it’s been nice to have a year off, re-evaluate everything and change my style of play and just learn football again and have fun with it.”
So what’s changed? For one, Etling’s knowledge of the game has expanded. An A-student in high school and a philosophy major in college, Etling’s always been a thinker, but his base of football intuition has grown from experience.
“In high school, you don’t really know anything,” he says. “You see, like, two coverages. You’re thrown in there quickly, and you’re not quite ready, and I don’t think I was ready, obviously. You change your style of play by being smarter and learning football.”
He also learned how to handle football, the highs and the lows. That was information he was more than willing to share with Harris as he endured the hardships of his first year as LSU’s starting quarterback. When Harris struggled in November, Etling could relate like few others could.
“As a room, quarterbacks are the only people who understand what the other person goes through,” Etling says. “We understand where the ball is supposed to go. Everybody is always critical of them. We always have to stay supportive of each other and we do a good job of that. We don’t hold animosity toward each other. I had to go through the same thing at Purdue, and I understand what (Harris) goes through. People say things to you, and it sucks, but we get each other with that, and we’re going to continue to grow as teammates.”
“He’s just a great guy to have in the quarterback room,” adds Harris. “His leadership and his veteran presence, he comes to work. We get along so well, and we push each other…He’s an accurate thrower, a hard worker, a great, great, great person, somebody who I really like. To me, he’s a role model.”
That transfer of knowledge went both ways. Etling, hungry for live snaps, peppered Harris with questions of his own throughout the season. If he wasn’t out there physically, Etling was going to be there mentally, and Harris was his avatar between the lines.
“There is no substitute for game reps,” Etling says. “He got a lot of those, so obviously you watch those, you learn those things, you ask about experiences and learn about the offense from guys who have been a part of it. It has been good to exchange information and talk about our experiences.”
Those experiences, once separate, are now shared ahead of the 2016 season. Harris remains the starter, but Etling is nipping at his heels, one accurate toss at a time.
“Every snap you take is audition,” he says, “because your teammates see it, and the film doesn’t lie.”
So far, Etling’s acing the audition, a fitting analogy for a quarterback who spent a season playing the part of so many other quarterbacks. Come September, however, Etling won’t hesitate, if offered, to take another leading role.
“It was not a fun year for me to sit out, to see your teammates battling and you can’t do anything to help them,” he says. “It’ll be a fun year this year.”