Danny Etling spent last fall captaining LSU’s scout team offense.
That means emulating the quarterback LSU will face that Saturday.
He was Western Kentucky’s Brandon Doughty the week the Tigers hosted the pass-crazed Hilltoppers. That was a fun week. Etling tossed hundreds of screen passes and crossing routes. He liked that.
He was Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott as the Tigers prepared for the Bulldogs and their run-heavy playcaller. That wasn’t so fun. He did not like that.
“Dak Prescott sure did run it up the middle a lot and got hit,” Etling said smiling. “I was kind of live during that period.”
This was Etling’s life: By day, he ran the opposition offense. By night, he digested LSU’s offense in preparation for this – a quarterback battle.
“I kind of enjoyed my year of being anonymous and a year of silence from the media,” Etling said. “It’s been nice to relax and those types of things.”
Those days are long gone, of course.
Etling, a junior who transferred from Purdue, spoke to reporters for the first time since he joined the program last summer. He chummed it with the media for about 10 minutes Tuesday night following LSU’s fifth spring practice.
He smiled, laughed and made sure – he had just showered – that his blonde locks looked good for the one dozen cameras focused on his 6-foot-3, 226 pound frame.
He spoke like a 21-year-old who’s majoring in philosophy and who’s in an out of LSU’s journalism building: crisp, congenial and curt, at times when he needed to be.
Does he think he’ll really have a shot to play this season?
“I’m not really worried about that honestly,” the Indiana native said. “I’m just worried about getting better. Everyone views it as that position (QB) just needs to play well, and, whatever I can do to help that position play well, is what I’m going to do.”
He’ll have to overtake an incumbent starter with a powerful arm and quick feet. Brandon Harris is “probably the starter right now,” coach Les Miles said last week, but Etling is “coming like heck.”
The two are locked in what many around the program view as a competitive fight for the starting job. You wouldn’t know it by listening to them talk.
Etling and Harris both say they’ve been bouncing ideas off each other and learning from the other.
They each have a reason for listening to the other.
Harris has been in offensive coordinator Cam Cameron’s system for two years, more than double the time that Etling has, Etling says. Etling has experience in another conference, and he’s got nearly as many career starts (13) as Harris (12), Harris says.
“I mean this from the bottom of my heart, he’s a great teammate,” Harris said. (He’s) a guy who I go into that quarterback room every single day and I try to learn from what he learned from the Big Ten. We pass ideas off of one another.”
This isn’t the Harris vs. Anthony Jennings fight that played out the last two seasons – two guys that didn’t often crow about one another or admit to even being friends.
No, this is different. Harris used the word “great” to describe Etling 12 times in a 15-minute interview on Tuesday – the quarterback’s first interview with local reporters since Oct. 17 after LSU beat Florida.
Harris’ focus this spring: build on LSU’s offensive explosion in a 56-27 win over Texas Tech in the Texas Bowl. Cameron moved from the press box to the field for that game – something that was expected to happen during the entire season, Harris said, before Cameron fell ill. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer over the summer, but felt good enough by the bowl to move to the field, the quarterback said.
“I think you’ll see this upcoming season with him being on the sideline that our offense will soar and be what we want it to be,” Harris said.
Harris says he’s taking the first team reps during spring, and it’s something instilling confidence in him, he said. In his third spring drills with the program, he’s finally the guy. He’s performing different drills as well – much of it, he said, courtesy of new receivers coach Dameyune Craig, hired from Auburn last month.
“Knew him very well from his time at Auburn and recruiting at Auburn,” Harris said. “Guy I look up to and serves as a role model to me. He came in, along with Coach Cam, gave us some great quarterback drills, stuff that helped me with touch and different things he had to deal with over the course of his career. It’s really helped me.”
And then there’s Etling. Ineligible last season because of NCAA transfer rules. Etling couldn’t travel with the team last season. He watched all of the road games, including the bowl game, from Baton Rouge.
That’ll change this season.
“It was pretty brutal. It was not fun,” he said. “It was not a fun year for me to sit out, to see your teammates kind of battling and you can’t do anything to help them.”
Etling is a former four-star recruit who started the final seven games of his freshman season in 2013 and then the first five games of 2014 before losing the job. The Boilermakers went 2-10 in those games that Etling started.
In 13 career games, Etling was 238-of-429 (55 percent) for 2,490 yards, 16 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions.
He attributes his benching as a sophomore to an ankle injury.
“Tried to play through it and didn’t work out so well,” he said, “and we just decided to go different ways from there.”
He admits he wasn’t ready as a freshman at Purdue, thrown into the fire of Big Ten football.
“I’m not the same quarterback I was as a freshman, going there and playing for the first time,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of ups and downs, especially in my college career. It was nice to have a year off and re-evaluate everything and change my style of play, and just, you know, learn football again and have fun with it.”
He didn’t as much change his style of play in the year off as he grew mentally, he said. Cameron and him have a close connection. They’re from the same hometown (Terre Haute, Indiana) and attended the same high school.
Etling says he’s “compfortable” with the offense after studying it for eight months, while, yes, running offenses for Western Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi State and Arkansas.
That scout team work against LSU’s starting defense helped him realize something many Southeastern Conference newbies find out quickly:.
“It was just the closing speed,” he said. “You’d throw it and just … guys close so fast. It was good to go against the 1s every single day to get used to that speed.”
He’ll need the work next season - if Harris must miss a game or if he beats him out. It’s a long way until that Sept. 3 season opener against Wisconsin, and Harris doesn’t mind being pushed.
“We play at LSU,” Harris said. “We expect competition every single year. That’s the thing that brings out the best in every player. I don’t want anything ever handed to me – I don’t. It’s just that simple. The moment you get relaxed, that’s when you see your play start to decline. Every day you come out there, you want to feel like your job is on the line.”
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter @RossDellenger.