WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP) — Purdue quarterback Danny Etling spent the offseason getting stronger, smarter and sharper.
It was just enough to keep his job.
On Monday, coach Darrell Hazell announced Etling would start the Boilermakers' Aug. 30 season opener against Western Michigan after fending off two challengers in a closer than expected three-man quarterback derby. Sophomore Austin Appleby is likely to back up Etling for the second straight year and highly-touted freshman David Blough could wind up redshirting.
"They both played well the last two weeks," Hazell said, referring to Etling and Appleby. "I think the difference was that he (Etling) was a little bit ahead coming out of the spring, but I thought Austin did a great job of closing that gap."
Etling, a 6-foot-2, 218-pound sophomore, started the final seven games last season and finished 149 of 267 for 1,690 yards with 10 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
Despite being the incumbent, Etling knew what he was up against at a school dubbed the Cradle of Quarterbacks -- a sophomore eager to take his job away and a hot-shot freshman from Texas who rekindled memories in Boilermakers fans of another former Purdue quarterback from Texas, Drew Brees.
So the Terre Haute, Indiana, native continued improving his game.
After producing his three best performances in the final three games of 2013, Etling added 30 pounds to his slender frame, worked relentlessly in the film room and on timing with his receivers, improved his accuracy and toned down his exuberance.
He came back a noticeably different player. As the most experienced quarterback in camp, he looked confident and comfortable in practice, outplaying his challengers and eventually winning the job in part because he executed the offense with more precision and efficiency.
"I can diagnose things so much quicker with pre-snap looks and see what they're trying to take away," he said.
Even Hazell sees a noticeable change.
"They're light years ahead of last year," the second-year coach said. "Those guys worked extremely hard in the classroom. Now the calls just roll off their tongues before it (a play) even happens."
A year ago, Hazell named fifth-year senior Rob Henry the starter during preseason camp, then turned to Etling just four games into the season. He held onto the job the rest of the season despite going 0-7 as the starter. Purdue was a dismal 1-11 and was one touchdown away from a winless season.
Now the roles are reversed.
If Blough redshirts and the Boilermakers struggle early, Hazell would likely go with the 6-5, 229-pound sophomore from Ohio. Appleby didn't play last season but insisted Monday that rather than worry about transferring, he's intent on winning the competition with Etling.
"I'm here for a reason and that's to win a championship with this team," a disappointed Appleby said. "All I can do is be the hardest worker on this team, the hardest-working quarterback in the country. I'm 100 percent sure I'll get my opportunity, and I'm going to be ready when I do."
Hazell said the coaching staff would like to use a redshirt year on the 6-1, 195-pound Blough, who emerged as one of the nation's top prep players during the 2013 Elite 11 camp, if the Boilermakers figure out how to fill his holding responsibilities. Blough is currently the No. 3 holder on the depth chart.
But Etling isn't satisfied with winning Round 1 of the quarterback challenge.
He knows he must start winning some games, too.
"You never want to look over your shoulder because I know we have very, very capable quarterbacks in the room. I want to continue pushing myself," Etling said. "It's a little bit different (this year) because you're not just getting thrown into a game. I think it's good win the job and show the team that you won the job."