Even though LSU coach Les Miles won’t name junior transfer quarterback Danny Etling the starter, Etling starting on Saturday vs. Mississippi State (7 p.m., ESPN2).
Etling relieved former starting quarterback Brandon Harris last week after a terribly slow start that failed to produce a first down in the first quarter of the Tigers’ game vs. Jacksonville State. Harris already was coming off a poor performance in a loss to Wisconsin the week before, so the switch wasn’t unwarranted.
But despite winning the game with Etling at quarterback, playing JSU at home is very different than facing Wisconsin in a neutral site game. So the question has been asked, is Etling really the better option at quarterback? The answer is simple: yes.
Here’s why, and what we can expect to see from Etling that Harris didn’t do enough of.
The traits that give Etling the nod over Harris are simple to describe but difficult to acquire: Poise and touch. Accuracy and arm strength are the go-to qualities people discuss about quarterbacks. However, those are both skill traits — abilities that can be improved on with workouts and repetition. I’m not saying a guy like former Boise State QB Kellen Moore would have been able to have a cannon arm like former Ohio State QB Cardale Jones if he worked out enough. But, improvements to a certain degree on both accuracy and arm strength can be assumed with the right training over a period of time.
A quarterback’s instincts have much less predictable growth — more often than not, QBs either have them or they don’t. Being able to notice a receiver in between two defenders, assess the distance and put just enough velocity on a pass is unteachable to a lot of quarterbacks. To add to that, staying calm in a relatively clean pocket while defenders are flying all around is also a trait that some signal callers just can’t master.
In the three quarters of play I saw from Etling, I noticed more consistent success in the “unteachable” areas than I did with Harris.
The play above shows both poise and touch. Etling’s drop back wasn’t too far back despite the extra blitz, he made sure he was able to step into his throw, and he put it right on the money. It looks like a simple throw and catch, but it’s not. Etling just made it appear so.
Harris is the better athlete and has the better arm compared to Etling, but it’s success on the 10- to 20-yard throws like the one above that make Etling more valuable to the Tigers offense with Leonard Fournette and Derrius Guice as the focal points.
Here’s another example as to why.
Creating instead of escaping
If you turn the volume up in that video, you can hear the play-by-play announcer say, “Etling out of the pocket. … Creates!” That word is perfect for what’s being shown. Instead of merely escaping pressure, Etling used his movement to create something else.
Since Fournette’s arrival on campus, LSU’s offense has been trying to find the best complement to him. It was believed Harris’ running ability paired with his strong arm would give the Tigers a good option offense, which would open up the field. However, as Harris proved his arm was not accurate enough to be a consistent threat, teams — specifically Wisconsin last week — continued to stack the box and not give much help to the secondary.
With Etling at the helm, defenses have to be more versatile. If they stack the box, Etling can throw it over the top of the linebackers. If they back off, he’s shown the poise to hit underneath passes with success. Multiple threats from the quarterback position are nice, but aren’t always the best option.
A work in progress
While Etling is LSU’s best option moving forward, he does have some work to do — as does the offensive game plan.
It’s been common, to this point, for offensive coordinator Cam Cameron to give his talented wide receivers deep ball one-on-ones. Etling dialed up four or five of these throws during the game, all of which ended with the same result.
Etling has to work on long passes, since they’re unlikely to be taken out of LSU’s offense completely. However, it would benefit the offense as a whole if Cameron got more creative to get receivers like Travin Dural and Malachi Dupre open in the 15 to 20-yard range as opposed to relying on them making plays in the air 40 or 50 yards downfield.
Etling will give LSU’s receivers more opportunities to record yards after the catch. Getting the ball in the hands of Tigers playmakers not named Fournette has been the struggle for this offense. That gets easier with Etling as long as the offense is tailored to him, not Harris.
Mississippi State is a good opponent to test that out on — not as weak as JSU and not as strong as Wisconsin.