Nine Big Ten programs will feature true quarterback competitions this spring, and we're taking a closer look at the candidates, the circumstances and the stakes of each race. Up next: Purdue.
Sophomore quarterback Danny Etling sat down to a plate of grilled chicken and green beans Monday night while he and the rest of Purdue’s quarterbacks chatted about video games, hockey and stats class.
One topic that never came up was the same one that has rested on the lips of most Boilermakers fans this offseason: the open quarterback competition between Etling, sophomore Austin Appleby and early enrollee David Blough.
“We’ve never talked about the competition,” Etling told ESPN.com. “Whoever wins the job, there's support behind [him]. There’s no animosity or hostility. I don’t think you’d even be able to tell we’re in a competition by the way we act, but we’re big competitors when we step on the field.”
There’s no room for disagreement on this team because it knows -- just as its T-shirts were emblazoned with the word “Forward” during winter workouts -- that it needs to move on from one of the worst seasons in school history. The Boilermakers finished 1-11, while their offense was last in the Big Ten in scoring, total yards and pass efficiency. Only four teams in the FBS scored fewer points (14.9 ppg) or finished with fewer yards (282.9 ypg).
That’s a big reason for this open competition. As a freshman, Etling started the final seven games and showed flashes of greatness in the last three. But there’s no job security for a team whose only win came on a nail-biter against Indiana State. And there can be no hurt feelings or sense of entitlement among a group of quarterbacks who told ESPN.com that any turnaround has to start with them.
“It’s pretty special how our group of quarterbacks is able to support each other the way that we do,” Appleby said. “But make no mistake; our competition is very, very heated. It’s fierce; it’s nasty. When we’re on the field, it’s go-time. But when we step away from those white lines, we’re our closest supporters.”
This trio of signal-callers, all of whom earned invitations to the Elite 11 while in high school, spend every day together in the film room, at dinner, in dorm rooms and even in class. (Appleby and Etling sit next to one another in a statistics class.) They’ll regularly challenge each other to contests involving push-ups or pull-ups. And even during their off time, they’re either trash talking while playing Madden or strategizing for the next day.
Spring practice starts Thursday and, throughout this week, Purdue’s quarterbacks have taken turns approaching teammates at lunch or exchanging texts to set up times to meet one-on-one to go over the playbook. They’ve pored over film and assignments, hoping the extra work allows quarterbacks coach/offensive coordinator John Shoop to do more than just pick up where he left off in November.
Even Shoop was a bit taken aback by all their work. He grabbed a coffee Tuesday morning and decided to get a head-start in the film room at a “doggone early hour” -- Etling was already there, with his feet kicked up on the chair in front of him. And, Shoop added, such a scene isn’t unusual. Etling arrives early and turns the lights on at the facility; Appleby stays late and turns them off.
“I coached 12 years in the NFL,” Shoop said, “and these guys work as hard as any quarterbacks I’ve been around. That’s going to serve them – and us – well. It’s challenging to stimulate them every day because they just always want more.”
That’s not to say it’s all work for Purdue’s quarterbacks. They try to find fun in everything, and they’ve even taken to devising “the milkshake game” to unwind after their daily 3:30 p.m. film session. The game is basically Purdue football’s answer to basketball’s H-O-R-S-E. Each quarterback will call his shot, like hitting a Gatorade bottle from 30 yards away, and the others will try to mimic it. First one to three wins; loser has to bring the other two some milkshakes.
It’s that kind of chemistry, that kind of relationship, that can’t be faked. And Etling laughed while recalling the most recent result.
“David lost; he’s in milkshake debt,” he said. “He tried to give us ice cream and milk at the training table and I’m like, ‘David, are you kidding me?’ ”
There seems to be no jealousy in West Lafayette, Ind. Appleby said he’s preparing to be the starter, but he plans to help his two friends no matter what the result. Ditto for Etling. Shoop said he knows his quarterbacks and, even though a starter might not be named until the summer, he knows they’re getting along just fine – and that an open competition is just what they need.
“I don’t think they’d have it any other way,” Shoop said.
Added Etling, in a separate interview: “You always have to earn your job; you want the best guy on the field. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”