WEST LAFAYETTE —
Danny Etling fit the part Tuesday.
Decked out in a three-piece suit with rosy red cheeks and a beaming smile, Purdue’s new starting quarterback nervously answered question after question in the same basement cafeteria where so many other big-name football Boilermakers had stood before — Drew Brees, Rosevelt Colvin, Ryan Kerrigan, Matt Light, Kyle Orton and Shaun Phillips.
The excitable freshman couldn’t believe he was already here.
“It’s something you’ve dreamed of all your life, to be a starting quarterback in the Big Ten,” Etling said Tuesday. “It’s kind of weird to have a dream come true. That’s, I guess, the best way I can describe it.”
Etling hasn’t given much thought to the significance of being the quarterback of the future as this quarterback-rich school.
He’s more concerned with getting Purdue’s stalled offense jump-started.
So Etling spent his time during the bye week studying game tape, quietly calling out plays and trying to get in sync with his receivers before making his first career start Saturday against Nebraska (4-1, 1-0 Big Ten).
Expectations are high for the 19-year-old, who graduated early from Terre Haute South High School so he could start college in January.
When he replaced fifth-year senior and team captain Rob Henry in the Sept. 28 loss to Northern Illinois, the crowd roared with approval. Nothing has been the same since then.
By the time Etling picked up his cell phone after the postgame news conference, it was filled with text messages, and now the anonymity of walking around campus peacefully has been replaced by other students asking if he was actually Danny Etling.
“I’m like, yeah,” Etling said with a giggle.
But the three days between the Northern Illinois game and last Tuesday, when coach Darrell Hazell called each quarterback to his office to explain the decision, were filled with tension and excitement.
Etling wasn’t sure what would happen.
Hazell didn’t debate it long.
“I slept on it and I had a pretty good idea and I called coach [John] Shoop in and we talked about it,” Hazell said. “I said a few weeks ago, when we go to Danny, if we go to Danny, that when we go, we have to go.
“We can’t go back and forth. I said, ‘When we decide if we ever decide to go with him this year, you’re going to have to go and you’ve got to live with the results that you get. So you’ll have to sleep another four nights and I think that is the best thing for our football team.”
The Boilermakers’ offense needed a boost.
With Henry running the show, Purdue’s usually high-scoring offense sputtered. The Boilermakers (1-4, 0-1) head into Saturday with averages of 17.0 points per game and 3.1 yards per carry.
Henry was completing just 53.6 percent of his passes, throwing for less than 200 yards per game and had four touchdowns and six interceptions and only three plays went for more than 40 yards.
So when Henry stopped potential scoring drives with interceptions on back-to-back series against Northern Illinois, Hazell made the change.
Etling entered the game with 35 seconds left in the half, completed his first two passes to move the Boilermakers from their own 47 to the Northern Illinois 30 and Paul Griggs kicked a 47-yard field goal to cut the deficit to 27-13. He finished 19 of 39 with 241 yards, two TDs, two interceptions and was sacked three times.
But it was enough to convince Hazell things could be different with Etling behind center.
“Our guys were running around with a lot of energy the last couple days, and excitement,” Hazell said. “I think what you’re going to see with the quarterback change and you’ll be able to see some of those young wideouts a little bit more and better.”
That’s not the only change Hazell is making.
Hazell moved Jordan Roos into the starting spot at right guard, juggled his receiving depth chart in part because of B.J. Knauf’s two-game suspension and is adjusting the defensive line rotation to try and get more pressure on the quarterback.
The changes include using defensive tackle Bruce Gaston more often at end and using freshmen defensive linemen Evan Panfil, Jake Replogle and Ra’Zahn Howard.
“It’s really not a big change,” he said. “Where I am, I am, but for the most part, I feel at home.”
And Rob Henry is still trying to get acclimated to playing safety, where Hazell said he is making progress but has not yet moved onto the depth chart.
Etling, too, is trying to get acclimated to his new role — trying to become the next big thing at the Cradle of Quarterbacks.
“I’ve been trying to do it [prepare] pretty much the same,” he said. “I might be doing a little more because now you know you’re playing, so you obsess about it a little more.”