Purdue's rebuild begins with quarterbacks

Purdue isn't a program that wins in spite of its quarterback. It isn't a place for game managers or those content with handing off the ball 40 times a game.

You don't need to be a Purdue historian to know that the program's spikes in success are tied to its star quarterbacks, from Bob Griese in the mid 1960s to Mark Herrmann in the late 1970s to Drew Brees from 1997-2000. Even average Boilers teams had productive signal-callers, from Bob DeMoss to Len Dawson to Gary Danielson to Jim Everett to Kyle Orton to Curtis Painter.

Purdue lacks the luxuries or location to consistently build great teams with defense or the run game. Although the program bills itself as the "Den of Defensive Ends," and for good reason, it's more significant nickname is "Cradle of Quarterbacks." Fifteen Purdue quarterbacks have moved on to the NFL, accounting for more starts and throwing for more yards than those from any other FBS program.

As the Boilers begin digging out from a 1-11 bunker last fall, their worst season in 20 years, they know where to start.

"The entire quarterback room has a big responsibility in turning this whole culture around," quarterback Danny Etling told ESPN.com. "Any time you've ever had success at Purdue, you've always had a very good quarterback at the helm. That shows with our Rose Bowls. It was Bob Griese and Drew Brees. So in order for Purdue to be successful, the quarterback position has to be playing very, very strong."

Growing up in Terre Haute, Ind., Etling needed no education on Purdue's quarterback tradition. Boiler quarterbacks dominate the passing section of the Big Ten record book, occupying the top four spots in single-season yards and four of the top eight spots in career yards.

But last season, Purdue finished last in the Big Ten and 119th nationally in both scoring (14.9 points per game) and total offense (282.9 yards per game). It ranked 106th in team passing efficiency.

"At Purdue, you're the focal point of why a team is going to be successful or not," Etling said. "I'd rather have that on my shoulders. I'd rather have to be the big man on campus having to take control of a team and try to lead them, throwing it 30, 40 times a game instead of handing the ball off a bunch. That's what Purdue has a history of doing."

Purdue's history is what lured Etling, rated by ESPN RecruitingNation as the country's No. 12 quarterback in the 2013 class. Austin Appleby grew up in North Canton, Ohio, as a big Ohio State fan, but he also knew about Purdue's reputation for producing NFL quarterbacks.

The same draw also helped Purdue land 2014 recruit David Blough, who, like Brees, hails from Texas. Blough, who stood out at the prestigious Elite 11 finals last summer, has already enrolled at Purdue, like Etling did last winter.

"We have three Elite 11 quarterbacks right now, three pretty highly touted guys and it's not by mistake," Appleby said. "There's such a tradition here for good quarterbacks. Danny, David and myself, we're all genuinely good people. We love to work and we love to push each other. You won't find a time where you walk into the film room and one of us isn't in there. That's the thing that has separated us, aside from the talent."

Appleby and Etling both competed alongside Rob Henry for the starting job last spring and summer. Henry got the nod for the opener, but after a 1-3 start, Purdue turned to Etling, who started the final seven games.

Although Etling showed some promise, especially in his final three games when he competed 66.7 percent of his passes for 871 yards with six touchdowns and two interceptions, he'll need to beat out both Appleby and Blough when spring ball kicks off March 6.

"We didn't have the season we wanted, and I don't think any job is safe," Appleby said. "That’s one of the best things that could possibly happen to this team. There needs to be a sense of urgency in the program that we are going to turn things around and we're going in a certain direction. You either need to get with us or you need to get outta here. That's been explained to us from the top.

"It's enough talk. We've got to be men of action."

The quarterbacks are taking charge this winter, from meeting with receivers and linemen to review routes and protections to organizing 7-on-7 sessions in the indoor facility. They've also tried to set examples with some of the off-field policies coach Darrell Hazell implemented after his arrival, such as sitting in the front row of classes and not wearing hats indoors.

"The quarterback has to set the tone," Etling said. "The tone is set by the strong, and we're a very, very strong quarterback room, I believe, one of the better ones in the country."

Etling wasn't pleased with his play last fall and has set several goals for his sophomore season: 3,000 passing yards, a completion percentage well above 60 and, the most ambitious, 30 completions per game -- "whether we call 35 passes or 50," he said. He has worked on his timing with receivers and wants to make quicker decisions, whether it's on downfield shots or checkdowns.

Although Appleby appeared in just two games last season, completing five of six attempts, his approach to be the starter hasn't changed. He thinks he knows the offense as well as the coaches.

"There's always an urgency," Appleby said. "I'm looking to get this program back on the right track, and it's going to go through the quarterback position."