BATON ROUGE – Danny Etling had just been told he would be going in at quarterback for LSU in the next series.It was time … for “the perfect cheer.”
Yes, the infamous line from Will Ferrell and Cheri Oteri when playing extremely hyper high school cheerleaders on Saturday Night Live in the 1990s. At least that was LSU tailback Derrius Guice’s reaction.
“I knew Danny was coming in when I was on the sidelines, and he came over to us – the running backs and the offensive line – and was like, ‘C’mon, let’s go! I’m in! Now, let’s go, let’s go,’” Guice said.
Guice used a mocking, high-pitched voice, not unlike Ferrell in his routine, and couldn’t stop laughing.
“So, I was like, ‘OK, let’s go!’ I didn’t know what was going on,” Guice said, still laughing. “It caught me off guard. I did not see that coming. I didn’t.”
Etling, a junior transfer from Purdue, replaced starting quarterback Brandon Harris on LSU’s first series of the second quarter Saturday with the walking dead Tigers trailing second division Jacksonville State, 3-0, after a season opening, 16-14 loss to Wisconsin last week and very much in need of any kind of cheer. Harris was frequently inaccurate and looked “uncomfortable” in both games, LSU coach Les Miles said, and was 1-of-4 for eight yards in the first quarter against Jacksonville State with no first downs.
“You could tell Danny was nervous in the huddle,” Guice said. “I just started laughing. I thought it was funny because Danny’s always been like that since he’s been here – a nervous guy.”
Guice, who started his first game that night because Leonard Fournette sat out with an ankle injury, says he is never nervous.
“The main thing I told him when he first got in the huddle was, ‘Just calm down, relax, we’re going to do what we’ve got to do, we got your back always, and let’s move the ball,” Guice said, and added another, “Let’s go,” for good cheer measure with a smile.
Etling, who is the same height as Ferrell at 6-foot-3, left no one laughing as he stood tall and anything but nervous in the pocket as the game wore on. He missed on his first pass, but not by much to tight end Colin Jeter. Then he found fullback Darrel Williams for seven yards and hit wide receiver Malachi Dupre in the hands for a long gain, but Dupre dropped it. After hitting Williams again for 12, he threw a perfect, 46-yard strike to tight end DeSean Smith for a 46-yard touchdown, and he was off.
"Maybe I was a little bit nervous," Etling said Saturday. "But I've kind of done it before. Been on both ends of the spectrum on that one."
He completed six of his first eight passes and drove LSU to four touchdowns through the third quarter for the 34-13 win. On Wednesday, Miles said Etling would “take the first snaps,” which is Miles Code for “start,” in LSU’s next game.
Etling, who started 12 games at Purdue as a true freshman and sophomore in 2013 and ’14, will start his first game as a Tiger Saturday when No. 22 LSU (1-1) hosts Mississippi State (1-1, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) at 6 p.m. in Tiger Stadium on ESPN2.
“Danny did a great job at having us all prepared each play, letting us know what we’ve got to do,” said Guice, who gained 155 yards on 19 carries with a 32-yard run in Etling’s second touchdown drive and an 18-yard reception in Etling’s third touchdown drive for a 20-10 lead in the second quarter. “I’m just happy for Danny. The fans came alive. In the first quarter, they were dead.”
Miles hopes Etling keeps everyone up and cheery Saturday.
“He just prepares hard and has a nice comfortable throw and does the things that you’re supposed to do,” Miles said.
Etling transferred to LSU in the summer of 2015 after LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron recruited him. Both went to Terre Haute South Viga High School in Terre Haute, Indiana, where Cameron was an All-American quarterback and star basketball player in the late 1970s and is now in the school’s athletic Hall of Fame and pictured throughout the school.
Etling, a three-year starter at Terre Haute South, was the No. 9 prep drop back quarterback in the nation in 2013 by Rivals.com and was offered scholarships by Iowa and Colorado. As a true freshman, he passed two others on the depth chart and started the last seven games of 2013, completing 149 of 267 passes (55.8 percent) for 1,690 yards and 10 touchdowns with seven interceptions for a 116.1 efficiency rating on a 1-11 team. He was thrown into a game that year just like on Saturday. Against Northern Illinois, he came off the bench to complete 19 of 39 passes for 241 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. His first start was against Nebraska in a 44-7 loss in which he completed 14 of 35 passes for 184 yards with a touchdown and interception while getting sacked five times.
He lost his starting job at Purdue after five games of the 2014 season when he was 89-of-162 passing (54.9 percent) for 800 yards and six touchdowns with five interceptions for a poor efficiency rating of 102.5. The Boilermakers were 2-3 at the time and finished 3-9. He compiled all those numbers under much duress behind a weak offensive line. As a true freshman in ’13, he was sacked 31 times, including 16 in three weeks against Nebraska, Michigan State and Ohio State. In eight of his 13 games at Purdue, he was sacked three or more times. In five starts as a sophomore, he was sacked 11 times.
“There were some injury issues at Purdue,” said Terre Haute South head coach Tim Herrin, who was the team's offensive coordinator when Etling was a rare three-year starter there from 2010-12. “But the main thing was a spread offense like Purdue runs wasn’t Danny’s strength. He’s not a great runner. Danny is a pure pocket passer, who is very good at play action and getting you into the right situations."
Etling threw for 1,505 yards and 11 touchdowns as a senior. Through high school and college, he has never been on a winning team.
“He is one of the hardest workers we’ve had here,” Herrin said. “And he was meticulous about getting everything down – the plays, the formations. He would talk to his receivers during the game about route adjustments based on what coverage the defense was using. He’s a leader. He has a strong arm, and his fundamentals are very good.”
Etling has been spotted by coaches and players working overtime with younger receivers in recent weeks. On Monday, he stayed late to work with Dupre.
“I think he has a very strong arm, very bright guy, kind of knows where he’s going with the ball,” Miles said. “I didn’t expect him to come on and understand it as quickly as he has, but you do recognize how hard he works and his natural abilities.”
He is a magician at the Madden NFL video game, which involves manipulating opponents’ coverage and making checks at the line of scrimmage. Etling utilized both skills well against Jacksonville State.
“It’s ridiculous,” LSU sophomore left guard William Clapp said of Etling’s maddening Madden abilities. “He was beating me 28-0 in the first quarter.”
In one quarter Saturday, Etling led Jacksonville State, 20-7.
“I can see that he’d be great at Madden,” Herrin said. “He knows a lot about pass coverage. One of his biggest strengths is his preparation. When he was at Purdue, he’d prepare like he was the starter whether he was or not.”
If a new video game is developed called “Quarterback Controversy,” Etling may be your man. He was the popular backup after being thrown into a game his freshman year at Purdue, then he was the starter, then the backup again at Purdue. At LSU, his popularity grew as the backup last spring. Now, he is the starter again after getting thrown into a game.
“Football will bring you to your knees sometimes,” he said after Saturday’s game. “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.”
If he plays poorly, Harris could return. Etling knows that all too well.
“If I start off slow, then they are going to 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, then I would expect them to make a change as well. That’s never fun.”
If that happens, though, Etling would keep working and keep on playing Madden.
“He has some energy to him,” Miles said.
Several Tigers noticed that before they knew he was going in at quarterback Saturday.
"I didn't really know he was going in, or if it was ever officially said to us, but when he started coming down the sideline high fiving guys, I started to wonder if he might be going in," LSU fullback John David Moore said with a smile.
“We kept telling him in the huddle, ‘Let everything come to you. Be patient and just do what a quarterback do,’” Guice said.
"Pretty soon, he was calm and composed in the huddle," Moore said.
“This position. It’s one of criticism,” Etling said. “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.”