Six days after Purdue legend Drew Brees jumped ahead of Dan Marino for third place on the NFL’s all-time passing yards list, a pair of fellow ex-Boilermakers will start at two of the biggest programs in the country.
The scenario would’ve been unthinkable not so long ago; now it’s reality. “QBU” has opened up a Southeastern pipeline, and it’s raising questions sure to bother SEC purists everywhere.
“Purdue has always been the cradle of quarterbacks, and will continue to be that,” Boilermakers coach Darrell Hazell told ESPN on Tuesday. “It’s a proud moment for the Boilermakers.”
Danny Etling wrested the LSU quarterback job away from Brandon Harris, who showed little improvement as a passer five quarters into 2016. Florida’s Austin Appleby was beaten out by Luke Del Rio in fall camp, but a last weekend’s “very dirty” North Texas hit has sidelined Del Rio for the time being. That leaves Appleby as the Gators’ No. 1 guy, on Tennessee week no less.
How did two quarterbacks from a Big Ten basement-dweller wind up starting for two SEC powerhouses?
That’s a question few can answer like John Shoop. The former Purdue offensive coordinator, let go by Hazell after last year’s 2-10 season, coached both Etling and Appleby during his time in West Lafayette (2013-15). And he was there for all the shuffling that preceded their departures, too.
- 2013: Senior Rob Henry was pulled from a Week 5 loss to Northern Illinois in favor of then-freshman Etling, who started the remaining seven games. An AP recap billed it as “the start of the Etling era.”
- 2014: By the sixth game, the Boilermakers had replaced Etling (55 percent completion, 6 TDs, 5 INTs) with fellow sophomore Appleby, who threw for 1,449 yards, 10 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in seven starts (10 appearances). Etling transferred after the season.
- 2015: The cycle continued. Appleby started three games, throwing 5 touchdowns to 6 interceptions, before redshirt freshman David Blough replaced him. Blough started all but the season’s final game, which he missed because of injury. Purdue wound up 2-10. Appleby left the program as a graduate transfer. Blough has remained starter in 2016, and threw 5 interceptions in a Sept. 10 loss to Cincinnati.
The first half of this equation is how Purdue managed to lose both Etling and Appleby. While Shoop was careful in his wording, he made one point clear: He wanted both quarterbacks to stay.
“They’re wonderful players,” Shoop said. “If you want to have a discussion about why those guys transferred, I think you should call the head coach Darrell Hazell and talk about it with him, or Danny and Austin if they want to talk about that. The only thing I want to say about that is they are both wonderful, very good football players. It was very tough for them and for me. I love those guys with all my heart. I’ve been texting with them all week, and I’ll be rooting for them, that’s for sure.”
Hazell, via a team spokesman, has declined to comment on the matter beyond what was said during his Tuesday press conference.
“I wish them the best and I hope they both have success down there,” Hazell said.
The fourth-year Purdue coach likewise did not respond to Appleby’s jab at his old school.
“I’ve never been around a place where our coach truly cared,” Appleby told reporters on Monday. “It’s a lot of talk at some places, and you don’t really know if they truly got you. There’s no doubt about it here.”
Both players had some hard realities to confront here. The offense under Hazell was slightly different than his predecessor, Danny Hope, and Appleby — a 2012 signee — redshirted at Purdue the year before Hazell was hired. Etling was a part of Hazell’s first class. But both their leashes were short, a by-product of Purdue’s struggles under Hazell. The Boilermakers are just 7-31 with Hazell as coach.
“All young men are looking for a good situation and a good fit,” Shoop said. “The thing with quarterbacks is only one guy can play.”
For Appleby and Etling, they found their respective fits at Florida and LSU, both of which also run pro-style offenses.
“When it’s not what a player signs up for, I don’t understand why that player’s not allowed to transfer (without having to sit out a year),” Shoop said.
But what about the other half of this formula? How did Florida and LSU, schools nestled in recruiting-rich areas that have won national championships in the past decade, wind up with Purdue transfers at such a vital position?
This answer is pretty easy to illustrate:
Florida QB signees, 2010-14
|2011||Jacoby Brissett||4-star||13||3/4||Transferred, now starting for Patriots|
LSU QB signees, 2009-15
|2009||Russell Shepard||5-star||49||0/0||Played RB, WR|
|2010||Zach Lee||3-star||0||0/0||Signed with MLB team|
|2011||Stephen Rivers||3-star||4||0/0||Transferred to Vanderbilt, then Northwestern State|
Amazingly, neither of these schools have been able to recruit on even a semi-competent basis.
LSU’s best quarterback in that stretch was Zach Mettenberger, who was kicked out of Georgia and transferred in, while Florida’s main guys (Driskell and Brissett) were forced to cope with a revolving door at offensive coordinator. They transferred and excelled elsewhere.
So now with former Purdue quarterbacks firmly atop the depth chart, what can Florida and LSU reasonably expect from each?
“They’re really comfortable with themselves at the line of scrimmage,” Shoop said. “One of the things that’s changed in college football, you hear people like Bill Polian — who gave me my first job in the NFL — talk about it: College quarterbacks don’t think for themselves as much. Something I always tried to do is help the quarterbacks feel empowered.”
Perhaps this is part of a larger issue in the way college teams develop their quarterbacks. Perhaps it’s simply the reality that talented guys will transfer in order to get their shot.
What we do know: Appleby and Etling are getting a second chance, and the SEC is happy to provide it.
“They found really good situations,” Shoop said.