BATON ROUGE - Hope is high at LSU for the 2017 football season as it has a new head coach in Ed Orgeron, a new offensive coordinator in Matt Canada and a new quarterback.
That's right. He has the same name as last year - Danny Etling. But the senior from Terre Haute, Indiana, feels like a new man after back surgery on April 24 and rehabilitation over the last three months.
"All of a sudden, I'm sleeping eight hours every night," Etling said at the Southeastern Conference spring meetings last month. "I'm walking around with no pain, sitting for long hours with no pain. It's been an incredible feeling."
Unknown to most was the lower back issues Etling dealt with throughout spring drills and at times during the 2016 season when he started 10 of 11 games after winning the job from previous starter Brandon Harris, who is now at North Carolina.
"He couldn't feel his leg," Canada said Friday morning on the "Off The Bench" radio show with Jordy Culotta and T-Bob Hebert on 104.5 FM in Baton Rouge. "But Danny wasn't going to miss those reps. So he fought through when he wasn't comfortable. He really wasn't comfortable all last fall."
Etling, who was sacked 42 times as Purdue's starter in 13 games in 2013 and '14 for 3.2 a game, has had recurring back issues during his career. He chose not to have any procedure shortly after the season because he thought he could play through it and so he could learn the new offense of Canada on the field during spring practice.
"The more and more I tried to play on it, the worse and worse it started to hurt, and it continued to get worse," Etling said.
"What a tremendous competitor and what a tremendous leader who said, 'I'm not going to take the spring off,'" Canada said.
And it apparently is paying off. LSU tailback Derrius Guice and wide receiver D.J. Chark each raved about the "new" Etling during SEC Media Days recently.
"He says he feels the best he's felt in years," Guice said. "It shows. He's throwing a lot better. He throws a lot smoother. He looks more natural out there. I mean, the past year, it looked like he was a robot, trying to force everything. No one knew he was going through a lot of pain as much as he was going through until after the surgery. So, hopefully, he'll be a lot better now."
And, despite the pain, he had some smooth moments. In fact, over his last two games of the 2016 season, he completed 36 of 57 passes (63 percent) for 541 yards and four touchdowns with one interception in 54-39 and 29-9 victories at No. 22 Texas A&M and over No. 13 Louisville in the Citrus Bowl. He compiled a 162.5 passing efficiency rating in those two games, which extended over the course of the season would have placed him ninth in the nation in that category - one slot behind Canada's Pittsburgh quarterback Nate Peterman.
Etling, who struggled in the 10-0 loss to Alabama at 11 for 24 for 92 yards with an interception and five sacks, finished sixth in the SEC and 53rd nationally in passing efficiency at 135.6. He was 160-of-269 passing for 2,170 yards with six interceptions and 20 touchdowns on the season. Despite back pain during spring drills, Etling completed 13 of 17 passes for 216 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions in a scrimmage on April 6. Something was obviously wrong in the spring game, though, as he completed just 4 of 11 passes for 53 yards with an interception on April 22 while curiously allowed to take contact. He had the surgery two days later.
"I could tell he would be hurt sometimes," Chark said. "But during the spring grind, a lot of people have different nicks and bruises. I didn't know it was that serious with Danny. So when he had the surgery, it was eye opening. I didn't know he was hurt during the season. Danny's the type of guy that doesn't want anybody to have pity for him. The way he's playing now, I can see that he was hurt during the season."
Chark has been feeling the difference in his hands during summer throwing drills with Etling and other receivers that cannot be attended by coaches.
"I was like, 'No, Danny, I'm not about to come out here and catch you if your back is still hurt,'" Chark said. "But he was like, 'No, c'mon.' So, the first time I went out there with him back in June, I'm thinking, 'Well, he can definitely put more power on the ball when he needs to.' The first time I was catching him, I was expecting him to loaf it. And he threw it real hard. I was like, 'You ain't got to show me all your strength right now.' But he's definitely feeling real healthy."
Etling, whom Canada yelled at to throw the ball harder during spring drills, suddenly has his fastball back.
"At first, I didn't realize it, but now when I'm running routes, he can get the ball wherever," Chark said. "The timing is great. Coming out of the breaks, instead of having to look, it's already right there. His anticipation is better. He really worked on that while he was hurt. And now that he's not hurt, he's so much better."
Orgeron said Etling is close to 100 percent.
"He's done really well," he said. "He's been a leader. I think he's ready. He should be ready to go. Obviously, we can't see him throw the ball, but I heard he's throwing well."
Entering preseason practice, Etling is clearly at No. 1 with sophomore Justin McMillan at No. 2, followed by true freshmen Lowell Narcisse and Myles Brennan.
"Right now, if we were to play, Danny would be our starter," Orgeron said. "There's still going to be competition there, but right now, Danny is the leader."
NOTES: LSU sophomore outside linebacker/defensive end Isaiah Washington of Karr High in New Orleans has left the program. Washington missed all of the 2016 season with a knee injury and played in just six games as a true freshman in 2015 after suffering an injury that August. He was going to enter preseason practices low on the depth chart.
True freshman signee Tyler Shelvin of Lafayette via Notre Dame of Crowley is not expected to be academically cleared by the NCAA in time for the start of practice on July 31, but Orgeron expects the five-star defensive tackle to be back before too long.
"He should be cleared," Orgeron said. "His weight's down to 323 the last time I checked. I've got to check every week to make sure. But his academics are on course. It may take a week into camp before he's ready."
LSU reports for practice on Sunday, July 30, and practice will start on July 31. ... The season opens on Saturday, Sept. 2, when the Tigers play Brigham Young at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas, at 8:30 p.m. on ESPN.
Glenn Guilbeau covers LSU sports for the USA Today Network of Louisiana. Follow his stories on Twitter at @LSUBeatTweet.