Danny Etling’s life is changing.
He’s being noticed more on LSU’s campus.
“I guess,” Etling said, “the days of being anonymous, like last year, are a little bit over.”
He’s taking more snaps in practice.
“I’m a little more sore during the week,” he said.
He’s the victim of more fake Twitter accounts, too.
“I don’t have Twitter,” the Tigers new starting quarterback clarified this week.
LSU is changing Etling’s life. And he’s changing LSU’s offense.
It’s the same playbook, coach Les Miles and players say, but it’s different, eh, pages. Even defensive players can see that.
“He’s opening up the playbook because Danny is able to do the things he can do,” end and outside linebacker Arden Key said.
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Etling cemented his role as LSU’s starting quarterback with a 19-for-30, 215-yard outing in the 23-20 win over Mississippi State on Saturday. Combine that with his emergence in a win over Jacksonville State on Sept. 10, and Etling has quickly transformed from a little-known backup to a household name in south Louisiana.
They all know who's leading No. 17 LSU (2-1, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) into a road game Saturday against unranked Auburn (1-2, 0-1): It's Etling.
He’s drawing lofty comparisons, too. Ed Cunningham, the ESPN color analyst for the broadcast of LSU’s game last week, called him another Matt Flynn, the quarterback who led the Tigers to the 2007 national title.
He might be missing traits of many major conference quarterbacks these days — the powerful arm, the 4.5-second 40-yard dash speed — but Etling’s pocket poise, escape ability, touch passing and pre-snap reads resemble Flynn, a guy who finished with a 12-2 mark as a starter.
Those Flynn qualities have changed LSU’s offense.
A good example is fullback J.D. Moore’s two catches against Mississippi State. They were both designed plays for him, each of them swing passes in which Moore served as the primary receiver.
With Brandon Harris at quarterback last season and the first five quarters of this season, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron did not call such a play. Moore said he’s never been the primary receiver.
“When we can call a variety of plays and spread the ball around, I think everyone feels the momentum that we had,” Moore said. “The defense doesn’t know where the next attack is coming from — a deep (throw), check down, a run. Having that versatility brings confidence to the whole offense.”
Arden Key and his teammates still joke about Kevin Steele.
It goes beyond the play calls. It’s the formations, too. Cameron is diving deep into parts of a playbook that he’s been unwilling, possibly unable, to use with guys like Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris.
In the first half against Mississippi State, the Tigers used four-receiver sets on four plays. That’s been a rarity the previous two seasons, outside of late desperation drives.
They also flashed a formation using their top two tight ends — Foster Moreau and Colin Jeter — aligned on either side of the line in wing back positions, tucked just behind and just outside of each offensive tackle.
The real kicker here: They didn’t block. On the three plays LSU executed in that formation, Moreau and Jeter ran pass routes. Moreau even caught his first career pass from that alignment, gunning up the field and cutting toward the sideline on an out route.
Standing tall in the pocket, Etling’s pass sliced around a defender’s arm, finding Moreau for an 18-yard gain.
“He facilitates it pretty well,” Moreau said of Etling, his roommate for the last year. “He looks pretty calm back there when you watch film. He has a good pocket presence.”
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Just call him The Facilitator, a smart kid whose Flynn-like qualities have opened up so many doors, err, playbook pages, for this squad.
Cameron also placed running back Leonard Fournette in a wing back position Saturday, and the fourth-year coordinator tried a handful of gadget plays and reverses, too.
Etling’s addition has even altered LSU’s typical conservative nature under Miles. For one, he threw on nine of the first 13 plays of the game and 11 of the first 12 third down attempts. Overall, Etling dropped back to pass on 13 of 16 third-down attempt against the Bulldogs. That's 80 percent. LSU ran on third down last year 37 percent of the time.
That’s not the half of it. Up 23-3 in the third quarter, Etling threw three straight passes. Up 23-6 in the fourth quarter, Etling dropped back to pass on six plays of a 13-play drive. Instead of milking the clock, Miles and Cameron allowed Etling to sling it.
“I think a lot of the coaches trust me; players trust me,” Etling said Monday. “Whatever the defense gives me, I’ll take it. Just got to be patient and take what they give you.”
It’s been giving him plenty.
One of Etling's best traits is his progressions — based on post and pre snap reads — through his receiving options. It has resulted in a spreading of the football. He’s targeted 10 different players in seven quarters of football. That’s just five fewer than Jennings targeted in all of 2014, according to ESPN, and seven fewer than Harris targeted in all of 2015.
His first 14 completions Saturday went to seven different receivers. His first eight passes against Jacksonville State targeted each three position groups: tight end, receiver, running back. None of them were targeted on consecutive attempts.
“Danny is going to use all the weapons that he can gather,” Miles said, “to move the football.”
That resulted in Moreau’s first catch, D.J. Chark’s first touchdown reception and Moore’s first two-catch outing.
No, it's not a new playbook. It just looks that way.
“People think we’re expanding our playbook,” Moore said, “but Danny is just doing a better job of finding open guys. Some of that is his ability, but I think Brandon has those same capabilities to find the open guy and spread it around."