If Danny Etling’s career path has taught us anything, it should be to never count him out

Ryan Hannable
August 07, 2019 - 7:14 am
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When the Patriots opened training camp on July 25, Danny Etling ran onto the field in his No. 5 jersey, but it wasn’t a red one reserved for quarterbacks, it was a white one just like the rest of the offense.

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A year after being selected in the seventh round as a quarterback out of LSU, with no prior experience, Etling is now working as a wide receiver with a little special teams mixed in this summer.

With Tom Brady, Brian Hoyer and rookie Jarrett Stidham ahead of him on the depth chart, it seems like the Patriots are doing whatever they can to try and find a way for Etling to stick around.

As a rookie member of the practice squad last year, Etling was one of the hardest workers in the building, doing whatever he could to help the team. Clearly, Bill Belichick thought highly of him as he allowed him to travel to away games, something nearly unheard of for Patriots practice squad players.

Through the first few weeks of training camp, it has been quite apparent Etling is new to the position, as he’s dropped some passes and struggled with his route-running. But, he’s been the last person to leave the field every day and it’s clear he wants to do everything he can to get better.

Some might wonder if Etling feels like a failure after not working out as a NFL quarterback, but he doesn’t believe that is the case.

"I wouldn’t think so, no," he said after Day 1 of training camp. "I love football. I love playing football. I am out here in an NFL training camp getting to play for the Patriots and getting to find a new role for myself and getting coached by some of the greatest coaches and getting to be teammates with some of the greatest teammates of all-time. I have really enjoyed being part of this team and I am willing to do whatever it takes in order to do that and to keep becoming a better football player.”

Knowing Etling doesn’t have any experience as a wide receiver and seeing him on the field for a few weeks, many have said he doesn’t have a chance of making the team, but that’s how his entire career has gone, and time and time again he’s proven his doubters wrong.

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Etling grew up in Terre Haute, Indiana and as a middle school student it was clear football was his passion. His parents, who are both attorneys, wanted to do whatever they could to help him succeed and sought out Steve Englehart, the then head coach at Rose-Hulman, a Division III college in town, to work with their son.

Even though he was in sixth grade, for two days a week the two would work on everything it took to become a successful quarterback.

“What always stuck out was his determination and his ability to want to learn and be coachable,” Englehart said. “I never put too much thought into how far he would make and whether or not he would play college ball. I was just trying to give him the best chance to play high school quarterback. Obviously, his drive and determination has gotten him as far as he has. He’s always been a football junkie and a guy who has craved information and craved how to improve himself and get better.”

Englehart recalled driving by the local middle school in the middle of winter with snow on the ground and a young Etling throwing a bag of footballs to a five-man sled 20 yards away working on his accuracy.

That was just him.

“Even at an early age, other kids his age were doing other things — dating girls, driving a car, or whatever — that was something that was never important to him,” Englehart said. “Even if it was, he had the mental strength to stay focused on what his goals were.”

According to Englehart, Etling wasn’t just a freak athlete where everything came easy. Sure, he had some natural talent, but he wasn’t a born quarterback.

“He wasn’t really a natural,” Englehart said. “I would say that he’s a self-made man. He’s carved himself into what he is. He wasn’t just born with that.”

Etling’s hard work paid off as he became the starting quarterback for the Terre Haute South Vigo High School football team.

His incredible work ethic was something that impressed his coach, Mark Raetz, in a big way.

“It was pretty rare,” he said. “Our workouts were the minimum and he’s one of those kids that was always out trying to do something extra. He would organize workouts for our kids on Sundays throughout the whole year. It would be the middle of January with snow on the ground and we would have 15-20 kids out working with him on Sundays. 

“That is how he is. He’s able to bring other people up to his level in that regard.”

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After a tremendous run at Terre Haute South Vigo, Etling was heavily recruited and attending a number of showcases, but ultimately settled on Purdue University.

Led by his decision-making and accurate arm, he was starting by the sixth game of his freshman season. The previous week he replaced struggling senior Rob Henry in a loss to Northern Illinois, but it seemed like the program was all-in on Etling and wanted to see him grow and develop.

A year later, Etling found himself benched in the middle of a game and ultimately never played a snap again for the Boilermakers.

Head coach Darrell Hazell, who didn’t actually recruit Etling, had moved on from him. He went 2-10 as a starter and finished with 16 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.

On June 11, 2015, Etling was granted his release from the school.

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It didn’t take long for him to find a new team. It was announced later that month he was transferring to LSU. However, due to transfer rules he needed to sit out that season. 

Etling still worked his tail off to learn the offense and make sure he was ready for the next season. 

In the second game of the season, Etling took over for Brandon Harris vs. Jacksonville State and was the quarterback for the rest of the season. The Tigers went 7-4 and won the Citrus Bowl over Louisville. The quarterback threw for over 2,100 yards with 11 touchdowns and five interceptions.

The following offseason many looked past Etling and at freshman Myles Brennan, who many believed was the next big thing. Ultimately, coach Ed Orgeron named Etling the starter and despite going 9-4, it seemed every week there was buzz for the team to bench Etling.

That never bothered him. He went out there and did his thing, which included wins over nationally ranked Florida and Auburn.

“He’s constantly been told maybe he didn’t have the skillsets and ability to play in the Big 10 and then next thing he’s in the SEC and people at LSU were doubting him,” Englehart, who is now the head coach at Florida Tech, said. “Obviously, I am a college coach so I am around recruiting guys and it’s amazing what some of them would say. ‘There’s no way he can do what he’s doing or play in the SEC.’”

The quarterback continued to prove people wrong when he was selected in the seventh round by the Patriots in the 2018 NFL draft.

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Etling’s highlight last year came in the final preseason game against the Giants when he turned a naked bootleg into an 80-yard touchdown run.

His speed wasn’t something he was known for back as a high schooler in Indiana, but Raetz saw it evolve over time.

“I am also the track coach, so I was able to talk him into running track because speed was never something natural for him,” he said. “It’s something he’s worked at. I could tell from high school he got faster, and college, and now when I saw him this summer, I was like, ‘Holy cow.’ It’s all the work he’s put in.

“Watching him have the 80-yard touchdown run last year, it was like, ‘Who the heck is that guy?’”

Both Raetz and Englehart never would have imagined him as a NFL wide receiver, but Englehart isn’t totally surprised though, as he knows Etling truly is a team-first guy and will do whatever it takes to make it.

“I don’t know if five or 10 years ago, I would say he would be able to play wide receiver in the NFL, but every time I have seen him, and I have worked out with him over the last five years, I have noticed every time that he’s more athletic,” he said. “He’s leaner. He knows how to use his body better. 

“… I think he sees it as an opportunity to stay with a great organization and also potentially able to learn the quarterback position from a different set of eyes and that is the way he is.”

While it’s an extremely uphill battle and will be the toughest obstacle he’s ever overcome, earning a roster spot as a wide receiver could just be next. 

“I would never bet against him,” said Englehart.

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And if things do not work out in the NFL, it seems there’s a general consensus on what Etling will be doing: coaching.

He himself admitted in a recent Patriots.com interview that if he wasn’t in the NFL he probably would be coaching somewhere.

“He would be an awesome coach,” said Raetz. “He’s one of those film junkies and gym rat type of guys. He’s got the knowledge and not just quarterback, but I would say all aspects of football with the amount of work he has put in learning things and in the film room. I have no doubt he would be an unbelievable coach.”

“I think he would be a great coach. I really do,” Englehart added. “… He would 100 percent would be a great coach. He’s already shown that. I have been around him a little bit last couple summers seeing him with younger kids and giving the instruction of playing the quarterback position, he does a good job communicating. I could definitely see him being a great coach.”

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While it would be surprising to see Etling star at wide receiver in the preseason, based on his past it wouldn’t be a complete shock. And regardless of what happens, it seems like Etling has a decent fallback plan.

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