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WEST LAFAYETTE -- When you're a quarterback, as Purdue's Danny Etling is, risk and reward are never far way.
Do you play it safe or take a shot? Go with your gut or your heart? Be smart or be, well, reckless?
And can you really thread a ball through that tiny opening 40 yards down field?
Etling lives the temptation.
“When I first got here, I was (a risk taker), all gung ho and trying to force stuff that wasn't necessarily on the read. When I'd get asked about it, I'd say, 'But it was open.'”
Offensive coordinator John Shoop didn't buy it. One person's “open” is another's invitation to disaster. Shoop demands efficient quarterback play, which means taking what the defense gives you. Etling sometimes struggled with that during last year's freshman baptism of fire.
That year of experience, and the work that followed, has brought wisdom, although not a starting position. But before we get to that, let's look at what experience has done for Etling. Here is the internal debate he wrestles with.
“Coach Shoop really wants us to take what is given to you, for the most part. Some times you want to give your players a chance. That's one of the tough things about playing quarterback, weighing those risks and rewards of maybe throwing a deep ball as opposed to taking what they're giving you.
“If there's a 50-yard gain out there, you want to take that 50-yard gain, as opposed to a five-yard gain. You're never going to hear complaints about getting that five-yard completion. That's the way Coach Shoop coaches us up. If you're getting completions, he won't argue with you or chew you out for missing a big play.”
Etling had his big-play moments last year while throwing for nearly 1,700 yards and 10 touchdowns, but it wasn't nearly enough in an offense-challenged season. More plays will be needed, and while Shoop pushes a be-smart message, it's not without its deep-ball option.
“We know this -- we're going to have to get some chunks this year and we have some guys capable of doing it,” Shoop says. “In practice, even if you don't complete it, you still have to keep practicing it.”
The defense will have a big role in how big and many Purdue's chunks are, especially when the pass rush gets fierce, which means the quarterback must play with vision and awareness.
“When you get that pass rush,” Etling says, “it's like, 'Pass rush, let's find something.'
“You need to know where your hots are, where your deeps are. When you step up in the pocket, you get maybe a little more time, like a half second, to check to a post, then fire it. If you feel rushed, you have to know where your check downs are and balance between the two (deep pass, short pass).
“I can do it now. I feel very comfortable now. Last year I was scrambling to find the No. 1 read, the No. 2, the No. 3. Now it's like, 'Here's the No. 1 read. Oh, here comes the defensive end, where's my check down? Find it. Complete it.
“That will help me get less sacks. That's one of my goals. Cutting down the turnovers is the other one.”
That's a good idea given Purdue quarterbacks were sacked a Big Ten-worst 38 times last year. Etling threw seven interceptions and lost several fumbles.
This goes against coach Darrell Hazell's limit-the-turnovers mandate.
And so Etling works and studies and works some more, sometimes approaching the obsessive stage. For this, Hazell has a solution:
“All of us need balance in our lives,” Hazell says. “Sometimes you need to step away. We need to clear our heads and not be overwhelmed. I'm not saying that's where Danny is, but we all need some balance. To be able to put a movie on, or laugh and not be as serious about something. That's all part of the whole picture.”
The other part of the picture is that Purdue needs to name its starting quarterback. In Hazell's ideal world, the decision would have been made five days ago. That it's been delayed until after Saturday's jersey scrimmage, he says, is not because of Etling struggles as much as Austin Appleby success.
So the quarterbacks rotate opportunities with the No. 1 offense, even going to St. Joseph's College, an hour north of West Lafayette, for a pair of practices.
Through it all the coaches analyze and scrutinize, none more than Shoop. The offense averaged 14.9 points last season and it would be nice to add at least 10 points to that average. No position is more important to that than quarterback.
“We're light years ahead of where we were,” Shoop says, “but we have to be a little quicker at the line of scrimmage.
“(The quarterbacks) will get that. They'll use more quick cadences. They're sharp guys, accurate guys, and we have good chemistry.”
Good chemistry is fine, great production is better. Whether it comes via risk or reward or a combination of the two, it has to come.
No one knows it better than Etling.
“I'm really pushing myself. It's not like I won last year or put up big numbers. I didn't have a lot of success. The entire team is trying to prove something. It's not just me.”