Danny Etling watched from the sidelines as the 2015 season — one of the strangest in LSU history — unfolded in bizarre fashion.
In his mandatory year off to complete his transfer from Purdue, Etling saw the coach who recruited him, Cam Cameron, miss fall camp while fighting cancer; his team race to a 7-0 start after lightning canceled their season-opener; his backfield teammate, Leonard Fournette, slide from Heisman shoo-in to totally out of the race after LSU’s 1-3 November eliminated them from playoff contention; and the head coach who offered him a scholarship dodge firing by the brim of his hat.
“It was pretty brutal,” Etling said last spring. “It was not a fun year for me to sit out, to see your teammates battling and you can’t help them. It’ll be a fun year this year.”
Little did he know.
If 2015 was weird, 2016 was legitimately insane, and no one felt the brunt of it quite like Etling, who began the year an anonymous back-up and finished it as the starting quarterback of a record-setting offense.
“Craziest season I’ve had so far,” he says. “That’s for sure.”
For Etling, that’s saying something. A four-star recruit out of Terre Haute, Ind., Etling stayed close to home when he signed with Purdue in 2013, and he was immediately — and, probably, prematurely — thrust into the starting lineup as a freshman for a one-win team.
In West Lafayette, even QB1 can hide in plain sight.
“At Purdue, one time, some students tried to give me free tickets on campus,” he recalls. “I was like, ‘I don’t need them. Trust me. I’ll be okay.’ They were like, ‘No, seriously, take them.’ I said, ‘No, I’ll be at the game. I’ll find a way in somehow.'”
Etling always thought he would finish his career as a Boilermaker, particularly after he finished that freshman season with three straight games of at least 60 percent completions. He saved his best for last in 2013 — completing 33-of-49 passes for 485 yards and 4 touchdowns against Indiana, a performance that, at the time, seemed as if it would be the first of many memorable outings for Etling in old gold and black.
It wasn’t to be. An ankle injury limited Etling early in his sophomore season, and he was benched after five games, never to play another down for Purdue. Things deteriorated enough to the point that Etling pondered quitting football altogether.
“When I left Purdue, I didn’t know what I was going to do,” he says. “I walked into the office and asked to transfer, and I had no idea where I was going to go. I didn’t know if I wanted to play football or if I was going to go D-2 or 1-AA.”
Then came a call from an old friend at LSU. Cam Cameron, who met Etling as a high school sophomore, was in the market for a quarterback, and Etling fit the bill.
“Don’t quit on it,” Cameron told Etling. “Give us another try.”
“When I got down here on my visit, I met with Coach Cameron and Coach Miles,” Etling says. “They breathed some new life into me. I can’t thank them enough. I don’t know if I would want to play football right now if it wasn’t for them.”
[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=”16″]59.75: Danny Etling’s QBR after LSU wins, right around the national average.
82.3: Danny Etling’s QBR after losses, which would’ve ranked in the top 10 nationally, extrapolated over the entire year.[/perfectpullquote]
Soon, Etling’s career was thousands of miles to the south and several degrees warmer than he’d ever anticipated. He spent the 2015 season serving as LSU’s scout team quarterback, oftentimes snapping the ball to himself when a center wasn’t available. He studided the opposition playbook by day and learned LSU’s playbook by night. He caught the eye of his teammates for his work impersonating Dak Prescott. When the team traveled for road games, he watched games from his couch. Before home games, he treated warmups as if they were live reps, all the while unsure if he’d ever get any actual live reps.
Doors have a way of opening themselves, though. It’s a credit to Etling that he stuck his foot in as soon as it peered open in 2016.
Brandon Harris’ struggles in LSU’s season opener at Wisconsin and in the first quarter of game two against Jacksonville State gave Etling the chance to show what he could provide to the offense.
He took it, and since he’s taken every significant snap for LSU this season.
Some have been brilliant — particularly those in Baton Rouge. He became the first quarterback in LSU history, by this writer’s research, to complete at least 60 percent of his passes and throw for at least 200 yards in his first four Tiger Stadium starts. He helped lead LSU to program-record-breaking offensive outputs against Missouri (yards in an SEC game), Southern Miss (yards per play), and Texas A&M (first 300 yard passer and 200 yard rusher in a single game). He was one of just four FBS quarterbacks to finish the season with back-to-back games posting a QBR of 90 or better.
Others have been heartbreaking, including two on the final plays of defeats. Derrius Guice was stopped short of the goalline as time expired against Florida, and Etling’s last-second touchdown pass to DJ Chark appeared to give LSU a win at Auburn, but officials ruled the snap wasn’t completed in time.
The loss didn’t cost Miles and Cameron their jobs, but it was the final blow. Both were gone the next day.
It was the first — and largest — of several adversities Etling would have to overcome as a junior. The personal cost — seeing Cameron and Miles go — was painful, but Etling soon suffered the unique pain of an Alabama loss. He completed just 11-of-24 passes for 92 yards with one pick and no touchdowns against the Tide, his worst performance of the campaign.
[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“After a tough loss, people are going to be upset. They’re going to find a scapegoat, find someone to be mad at. I think the quarterback is usually a likely source to vent their anger. You take it with a grain of salt.” – Danny Etling[/perfectpullquote]
Such, he knows, is the dual nature of being a quarterback. Luckily, his time at Purdue hardened him, prepared him for those moments at LSU, the highs and the lows.
“That’s something I learned from Purdue,” Etling says. “After a tough loss, people are going to be upset. They’re going to find a scapegoat, find someone to be mad at. I think the quarterback is usually a likely source to vent their anger. You take it with a grain of salt, make sure you prepare for the next opponent, and make sure you play better the next week.”
That advice did Etling well. Like his team, he was at his best in the week’s after a defeat. In games following an LSU win, Etling’s average QBR was 59.75, right around the national average. In games after an LSU loss, Etling’s QBR was 82.3, which would’ve ranked in the top 10 nationally, extrapolated over the entire year.
What’s harder to quantify is the closeness formed by the rocky road his team has traveled.
“Anytime a lot of things are going on outside that you can’t control, a lot of people talking, all those adverse things you’ve gone through, it’s brought us all closer together — moreso than anything else could’ve,” he says. “We’ve just been playing for each other and playing for the coaches.”
Now, Etling and his teammates will be rewarded for his resilience with his first career bowl game. The Citrus Bowl will give him the chance to silence any critics who remain, the voices who believe a new offensive coordinator, whoever he ends up being, will need a new quarterback.
Best of all for Etling: he doesn’t have to watch it from home. He gets to end the season on the field, and, he hopes, on one final high note.
“Who really wants to live on a merry-go-round?” he says. “You want to live on a roller coaster — ups and downs make the ups so much better.”