Danny Etling has been searching for the answer for two years.
“Introspective thinking,” Etling called it. He has done a lot of that since losing the starting quarterback job at Purdue in 2014.
“Maybe I wasn’t ready when I first played,” he said.
“I battled some injuries as well,” he continued.
“Maybe I wasn’t the best thing for the team at the time,” he added.
It could be all three or any one of the three. He still doesn't know.
“Hopefully I’ve improved,” Etling said Saturday night, “and I can be what this team needs me to be.”
For one night, at least, he was the missing piece in what has been a puzzling LSU passing game. He was the perfect fit for coordinator Cam Cameron’s pro-style offense: a poised pocket-passing quarterback. He flashed characteristics starter Brandon Harris has lacked at times.
He worked through his progressions — from the first receiver, to the second guy and, finally, the check-down man. He read coverages and recognized blitzes, throwing on one play to the side of a cornerback blitz for a 12-yard gain and a first down.
He stood tall and firm in the pocket, resisting the urge to escape and stepping up and into his passes. He spread the wealth, too, targeting three position groups (receivers, tight ends and running backs) on his first eight attempts.
“Whatever he did, he was able to spark them,” defensive back Tre’Davious White said.
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Is it enough to win him the starting job? Coach Les Miles indicated as much after Saturday’s 34-13 win over Jacksonville State, a game Etling entered to begin LSU’s third series. The Tigers (1-1), ranked No. 20 in the AP poll, host Mississippi State (1-1) at 6 p.m. Saturday, a game set for an ESPN2 broadcast.
“I think Brandon, we had to get him comfortable and settle him down,” Miles said. “I don’t know that that will happen — depends on how this quarterback competition plays out.”
Etling hit on six of his first eight passes and led the Tigers on three touchdown drives. Harris misfired on three of four attempts on the Tigers’ first two drives.
The competition may have ended with Etling’s second-quarter surge Saturday. Harris entered the game on a “short leash,” said Clay Matvick, the play-by-play man for ESPNU’s broadcast of the game. ESPN crews normally meet with the coaching staff leading up to the game they broadcast.
“Les Miles, true to his word, said, ‘I'm going to give Brandon Harris every chance to keep his job, but, if things do not go well, he's going to be on a short leash,’ ” Matvick said on the air.
The coach, caught by ESPN cameras on the sideline, encouragingly tapped Harris on the helmet after he presumably delivered the news: "You’re coming out." Moments before, Harris misfired on a pass to wide-open tight end Colin Jeter.
Boos poured down, and Etling began to warm up.
“He didn’t say much,” Etling said when asked about Miles’ message. “He just said, ‘Go out and be yourself and make some nice decisions and put us in a position to win the game.’ ”
Etling wasn’t perfect. His final six passes fell incomplete. Two were dropped, two sailed high and another was underthrown and intercepted — a ball, intended for receiver Malachi Dupre, that Etling said he regrets throwing.
“Got to put that one out there (farther) or get it to the check-down (receiver),” he said.
Danny Etling has been the other guy.
Etling, a former four-star recruit out of Indiana, started the final seven games of his freshman season at Purdue in 2013 and then the first five games of 2014 before losing his job. The Boilermakers went 2-10 in those games.
In 13 career games, Etling was 238-of-429 (55.5 percent) for 2,490 yards, 16 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
“Football will bring you to your knees sometimes,” Etling said. “It will be sad and it will knock you down, but if you don’t love the game, you can’t really bounce back. I was a young kid at Purdue. I’ve grown up a lot in the last year, and I’ve been on both ends of the spectrum. It’s never fun. This position, it’s one of criticism. It’s one that’s going to bring a lot of attention as well. Obviously, you take it with a grain of salt and keep rolling.”
He knows what Harris is experiencing, too. Local TV cameras caught Harris racing off the field after Saturday's game. He was the first one into the home tunnel, nearly beating the officials.
"I empathize a lot with him. It’s not a fun position," Etling said. "It’s terrible. It’s something that, maybe, only quarterbacks can understand. It’s something that I definitely understand. I really wouldn’t wish it upon anyone, but we’re definitely going to need him this season to keep improving."
Etling didn’t know for certain that he would play against Jacksonville State, he said, and Miles said coaches toyed with the idea of inserting Etling during last week’s loss to Wisconsin.
“We were not in the exact same position,” Miles said. “We didn’t want to bring him in in an ugly spot, where the pressure of the position might adversely affect how he played.”
Dan Hawkins, the former Boise State and Colorado coach who’s now an ESPN analyst, called the game in which Etling lost his job at Purude.
“There was a dropped pass. He completed a ball, but it came back (for a holding penalty),” Hawkins said. “You kind of lose your mojo and away you go and you look for a breath of fresh air.”
Etling’s back now, after sitting out the mandatory year following his transfer to LSU last summer. He’s back in the driver’s seat, hoping to hold down this starting gig.
“If I start off slow, then they’ll try and go a different way,” he said. “It’s all about production and making good decisions for the team. If I’m not doing that, I’d expect them to make a change as well.”