The first place Danny Etling began learning his now-effective play-action move might surprise you.
“I had a Game Boy and there’s a Brett Favre video, and he’s showing play-action and hiding the ball like this,” LSU’s quarterback said, gesturing as if he’s tucking an imaginary ball into his belly.
You remember Game Boys, right? The electronic handheld console manufactured by Nintendo.
That’s where it started for Etling, the fifth-year senior who is off to a hot start in this season. The 12th-ranked Tigers (2-0) visit Mississippi State (2-0) on Saturday night in Starkville with one of the more accurate passers, at least through two games, in college football.
He’s completed 71 percent of his attempts, with a touchdown and no interceptions. Seven of his completions went for 20 yards or more — two more than the program had through the first four games of last season.
Six of those seven long balls? They came after a play-action — a fake to a running back or, in Matt Canada’s offense, possibly a receiver in motion behind center.
The play fake is something Canada is using significantly through two games. Of Etling’s 31 total attempts, 13 followed a play fake. He’s completed nine of those 13 for a whopping 270 yards. That’s an average of 30 yards on each play-action completion.
People are starting to notice.
“Etling sells the fakes well,” said Cole Cubelic, a former Auburn center-turned-sideline analyst for SEC Network who called last week’s game against Chattanooga. “When you have a back like (Derrius) Guice, it makes it easier to bait linebackers and safeties towards the line of scrimmage.”
Play fakes are an essential part of a pro-style passer’s repertoire. And Etling has always been destined to be a pocket quarterback.
Steve Englehart knew that when, at the age of 10, he began molding Etling into the quarterback he is today, teaching him — among the many lessons — how to master play-action. Etling trained with Englehart at least two days per week for more than three years. The coach shaped a scrawny sixth-grader into a major college quarterback target. He became one of Purdue’s highest-rated signees ever in 2013 before transferring to LSU two years later.
“I wanted to make him the most complete quarterback I could,” said Englehart, a former college quarterback who is now head coach at Florida Tech and, like Etling, a native of Terre Haute, Indiana. “You never know what type of system you’re going to fall into.”
Etling points to Englehart for teaching him everything about being a quarterback in every type of offense. From reading pass coverages to checking through receiver progressions, from running the veer option to operating out of the shotgun, Etling did it all.
Sure, as a child his introduction to the play-action was that Game Boy football game. Englehart came later with more in-depth lessons.
“He’s the one who showed me video and showed me how to study it and learn how to do it,” Etling said. “After that, I kind of took to it.”
The video was of Peyton Manning, said Englehart.
Manning, the now-retired Super Bowl-winning quarterback for the Broncos and Colts, was known for his sneaky play-action fakes. Surely you remember those stretch running plays Manning orchestrated while in Indianapolis. Manning stuck his football-holding hand into the belly of a running back before yanking it, curling around the opposite side in a bootleg and then firing downfield for a big score.
“I really liked Peyton Manning’s play-action. If you watch his first three steps, you’d be like, ‘Is it run or pass?’” Etling said. “Everything would look the exact same until the last second.”
This is Etling’s approach to his own play-action game: Sell it and sell it hard. In fact, sell it, even when you hand off the ball.
Through the first two games, Etling has given the ball to a running back and then immediately feigned an empty-handed throw to a receiver out wide. This is a Canada staple, players say. He’s all about disguise and mystery.
“Coach Canada is big on the fakes,” center Will Clapp said. “It’s something he made a big emphasis on this offseason.”
With Canada, the fakes are, like that pre-snap movement, essential to his scheme. There is a fake on nearly every play. Usually, it’s a receiver or F-back faking a jet sweep exchange just before or after Etling snaps the ball.
The pre-snap fakes do not designate the play as a play-action pass, but they do serve as more wrinkles in this shifting offense, things that can drive defensive coordinators crazy.
“With the motions and things like that, they’re always working to get the edges of the defense,” State defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said earlier this week. “You’ve got to be able to play good football, be able to set the edges and build a wall inside.”
The play-action deep balls make that more difficult. Canada mixes up the play-fake calls, but his favorite time to run them, at least through two games, is on first down (seven of the 13). Six of the 13 were fakes to Guice, LSU’s star junior tailback. Three of the play-actions were to wideouts: two to a jet-sweeping Derrick Dillon and another to DJ Chark.
You’ll recognize that fake to Chark.
Etling’s 36-yard touchdown pass to Drake Davis last week came after two play fakes — first to Guice and then to Chark, running an end around. UT-Chattanooga’s deep safety took a giant step toward the line of scrimmage, his eyes clearly on Chark.
That put Davis in a one-on-one matchup with a cornerback. From his position on the wide side of the field, the athletic, speedy sophomore saw all of this transpire before running his post route for a score.
Before each play, Davis checks the safety’s position. Etling makes a similar read.
Did he bite on the fake? Check.
“When the safety’s not looking at me, not sneaking up at me, I kind of figured, ‘This is a good call by Coach Canada,’ ” Davis said.
There are times at practice when the receiver is fooled by Etling’s fakes, too.
“If I don’t hear the play in practice, I’ll sometimes think that he gives it off,” Davis said. “He does a really good job. Coach Canada coaches and emphasizes it.”
Why has it worked so well? Etling was asked that immediately after Saturday’s win in a bustling post-game interview scene.
“Because I’ve got Derrius Guice!” he shouted back.
There’s more to it, of course.
The offensive line’s first step might be more important than Etling. Linemen are often the “keys,” Etling says, for defensive players. Basically, linebackers and safeties watch the guard and tackle more than the running back and quarterback.
“It really starts with the offensive line to not give away too many keys that we’re passing the ball,” Etling said. “If the offensive line and the back does their job, as long as I make everything look the exact same as if I’m handing it off, we do a good job.”
For offensive linemen, this is no easy task.
These 300-pounders must take an aggressive first step, feigning a run block, before settling back into pass-block mode.
“Pass pro involves a ‘give ground to gain ground’ mentality most of the time,” Cubelic said. “So this starts off backwards. Then obviously keeping the defensive line off the QB is critical as he will have his back turned to them for a period of time.”
Oh, yes, that’s another tricky part to play action.
Most play-action moves require a quarterback to turn his back to the defense during the fake. Being blind to the defense for 1-2 seconds is not ideal in the fast-moving game of college football.
Etling’s initial read of a secondary before the snap can change during that short span of time. He must apply the changes, he says, within 1 second’s time and then, by his second “hitch,” the ball must be out.
“That’s another thing that’s tough to learn and develop,” he said. “Something I’m still even working on.”
He has continued to work on things with Englehart, even visiting the coach over this past summer. The two are close, a relationship that dates back more than a decade, when this all began in a Midwestern town on the border of Illinois and Indiana.
He’s doing it on the Bayou now, faking it with the best of them.
“As he was growing up, I always thought that he’d be a pro-style quarterback, just because of his skill set,” Englehart said. “I always talked to him about, ‘Here’s what your skill set is, so we need to work on this: play action.’ ”
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Danny Etling has completed 9 of 13 attempts after a play-action this season. Here are more details on LSU’s success with pass attempts after play fakes.
Play fake by stats
- Completion-Attempts: 9-13
- Yards: 270
- First downs: 7
- Touchdowns: 1
Play fakes by down
- First down: 7
- Second down: 4
- Third down: 2
Play fakes by position
- Running back: 11*
- Receiver: 3
*Etling faked to a running back and receiver on one play
Play fake by receiver targeted
- DJ Chark: 3
- Stephen Sullivan: 2
- Russell Gage: 2
- Foster Moreau: 1
- JD Moore: 1
- David Ducre: 1
- Drake Davis: 1
- JaCoby Stevens: 1
- Derrius Guice: 1
Play fake by pass length
- Long (20+ yards): 7
- Intermediate (6-19 yards): 4
- Short (5> yards): 2