The floor was most comfortable for Danny Etling — the floor.
Not the couch or the La-Z-Boy, not the bed or the futon — the floor.
He slept there often last fall and this past spring because of his ailing back. A disc, the spongy connective tissue between two of his vertebrae, swelled to the point where it put pressure on a spinal nerve.
BAKER — There is a reason the Gage family’s living room is mostly empty.
The impaired nerve sent waves of tingling pain down his left leg, so strong that at times his foot and parts of his leg went numb. Sleeping was the worst. Flat, hard surfaces felt the best, but that came at a price.
“He was going through sleep deprivation,” said Steve Englehart, the head football coach at Florida Tech and Etling’s longtime quarterback instructor.
“He did hide it from me,” Englehart continued. “He finally told me he couldn’t feel his foot, leg, couldn’t sleep at night. I don’t know how he played a whole season with it. … After he had that surgery, he said, ‘It’s like it’s a new me.’”
Those painful days are over for LSU’s starting quarterback, and questions about the health of his back were answered last week in a 17-16 win at Florida. Etling carried the ball five times on designed runs against the Gators, picking up 29 yards and converting two drive-extending third downs.
The “new” Danny Etling came alive.
The 6-foot-3, 215-pounder ripped off 15 yards on a draw on a third-and-6, kept the ball on two zone-read plays for 7 and 3 yards and lowered his shoulder on an option keeper for a 3-yard gain on third-and-3.
Sure, Etling’s running ability is no game changer, but his feet made critical plays in a close win — just another layer to coordinator Matt Canada’s offense that emerged last Saturday in Gainesville, Florida. The quarterback run adds another element to an offense that seems to be finally finding its identity ahead of LSU’s clash Saturday with No. 10 Auburn (5-1, 3-0 Southeastern Conference).
For Etling, he’s using a part of his game that’s spent the past eight years collecting dust — ever since he operated the veer offense as a freshman in high school. He developed a nickname back then: “Vanilla Vick,” he said earlier this week, a reference to former dual-threat star Michael Vick.
His high school coach, Mark Raetz, wishes to dispel any suggestion that he created the nickname.
“That was not me,” he laughed.
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Etling is no stranger to designed runs. He ran some zone-read at Purdue, and he began his high school career in Raetz's veer option system. He was so successful in it, Raetz laughed, that the coach overhauled the offense, switching to a more pro-style system to suit Etling’s strength as a pocket passer.
At one point, Raetz, also the track coach, lured Etling to that sport. He used him as a hurdler and a member of the 4x400-meter relay team.
Said Raetz, still laughing: “That was short-lived.”
OK, so Etling is no speed demon, but Canada’s confidence in his quarterback’s running ability — five months after back surgery — speaks volumes about his health. He’s rebounded from a trying 12 months, fighting through that back injury starting in the spring of 2016, through last season and then during spring practice before doctors mended the disc.
His parents were on hand for the surgery.
“An hour afterward, he was able to lift his left leg,” said Joe Etling, Danny's father, “and he hadn’t been able to do that in a year and a half.”
It relieved the pain immediately, Etling said in June.
“I felt pretty great afterward,” he said. “Slept like a baby.”
That wasn’t always the case.
Joe Etling learned of his son’s injury in the spring of 2016, but the quarterback had been suffering from the issue even before that.
“His mother and I knew how much pain he was in last year,” he said. “It’s nice to see he’s fully healthy.”
Joe saw last week what you saw, too — a kid whose health is no longer in question.
The Tigers (4-2, 1-1) need the “new” Danny Etling more than ever. They need him to hit the passes he missed against Florida and continue to use that additional element with his feet.
They need him to win the big one, something Orgeron referenced a month ago after the season-opening victory over BYU.
“Everybody is waiting to see him win the big game," the coach said. "And let me say this correctly: He'll never win the big game by himself. We'll do it as a team. But until he does that, I think that's going to be his mark, and he knows that.”
Does last Saturday count?
“Yeah, it was a big game. (But) it's not the big game,” Orgeron said.
Danny Etling and D.J. Chark are more familiar with Kevin Steele’s defense than your average …
On Saturday, an unranked LSU team hosts a top-10 squad for the first time since 1999. The Tigers haven’t won such a game since a 12-6 victory against then-No. 5 Auburn in 1995.
It is a big one.
Etling is finally fully healthy for it, too, capable of opening up LSU’s offense with those QB runs. It’s unclear how much those will continue. They were somewhat surprising last week.
CBS color analyst Gary Danielson said as much during the broadcast after one of Etling’s five designed runs.
“You can really feel how important of a football game this is for LSU,” he said on air. “They’re willing to run their quarterback even though they know they’ve got a true freshman, Myles Brennan, behind him. Ed Orgeron told us (Brennan is) not ready to play in this type of a game.”
Several of the Etling keepers were the quarterback’s decisions, center Will Clapp suggested, based on a pre-snap or live read of the defense. On one play, Etling had three options — Canada’s version of a triple-option attack that players raved about during camp.
He could (1) hand to running back Derrius Guice, (2) keep it himself or (3) flip a flare pass in the flat to tight end Foster Moreau, with receivers blocking for him.
Etling tucked it, gained 7 yards and ended up on the ground after defenders smashed him. Whether they’re designed runs or scrambles, Etling has refused, on third downs, to avoid collisions. This comes to players’ dismay.
“I’ve been telling Dan for a while he needs to learn how to slide,” Clapp said. “He’s always looking for the 15-yarder. I don’t know why. We need to get Dan over to the baseball field with (Paul) Mainieri so he can teach him how to slide.”
His high school days were much of the same, Raetz said: “You wouldn’t see him go down voluntarily.”
During interviews earlier this week, a reporter asked Etling, “Do you know how to slide?”
The quarterback smiled.
“On first and second down.”
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