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March 11, 2013

Quarterbacks prepare for battle







Rob Henry figures it's his time.

With a knee injury knocking him out just weeks before he was going to be Purdue's full-time starting quarterback and then enduring the how-many-quarterbacks-are-going-to-play roller coaster of last season, Henry has been through enough that he deserves a shot to start.

"You go from basically thinking that I'm going to be the starter for three and a half years here to now I only have one year left and I haven't played that much, quarterback anyway. It's crazy how life goes," Henry said. "But you learn to roll with the punches and take advantage of any opportunity you have."

This spring certainly seems to be Henry's best shot.

With Robert Marve and Caleb TerBush, the starting QBs of the last two seasons, gone, new coach Darrell Hazell is searching for Purdue's quarterback of the future.

Or quarterback of the present if you're senior-to-be Henry.

But just because Henry has experience starting seven games, it doesn't seem to give him much advantage over the likely other options to start, redshirt freshman Austin Appleby and Bilal Marshall and true freshman Danny Etling.

Hazell watched only one game from Purdue last season, the one he attended in Dallas, and he's installing a new offense under coordinator John Shoop.

So it's not exactly the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately approach that will matter.

It's who shows up in spring ball and seizes the job.

"Everybody starts at zero and we'll see who can learn this offense the best and who can go out there and run the offense the best, who can take care of the ball and all the things will determine who the quarterback will be," Appleby said.

Henry said there's too much information to process and relay to the field for any one quarterback to do it quickly enough to separate himself in spring ball. Henry figures all the QBs are learning and growing at the same time, so it'd be tough to name a starter coming out of spring.

But each guy still is going to deliver his best to try to snag that title.

And each one seems confident it will be him.

Despite being an upperclassmen, Henry seems to have the biggest knock on him of the three most likely candidates to start: He's an athlete, not a pure drop-back passer.

But Henry scoffs at that notion, reminding that he played almost exclusively under center in high school for a pro style offense and that fans haven't really seen what he's capable of as a passer.

"Right before I got hurt, I felt like I was playing really well, heading into my redshirt sophomore season," said Henry, who threw eight touchdowns, seven interceptions and completed 53 percent of his passes in 11 games in 2010. "I felt like I was going to have a really, really good year. You can go back and look at the film - I think anybody can see that. Since then, I really haven't had an opportunity to do that. Last year, just week to week was so uncertain, not getting many reps during the week and then getting thrown in there and trying to make something up. But I'm definitely looking forward to showing people how far I've come since the last time I was really the starter, which will be three years. I'm definitely looking forward to that.

"I've become a lot more accurate, a lot more confident. I've tweaked a few things with my throwing motion and my form. I've gotten a lot stronger so I'm able to control the ball a lot more. I feel really good about it."

Appleby doesn't have any numbers to tout.

He spent last season on Purdue's scout team, preparing the defense for opponents.

But he insists he grew from that experience, using time to learn from upperclassmen about "what works and what doesn't" and spending extra time studying film and learning defenses.

Appleby is the prototype QB, too, listed at 6-foot-5, 235 pounds. He has the pedigree, having been coached by QB guru George Whitfield and being an Elite 11 finalist.

"I feel like it's mine to win," Appleby said. "I don't see any reason why I shouldn't be the starting quarterback out of spring. It's my job to do everything I can in order to earn it. It's a wide-open race.

"I have a new coach. I'm learning the system. I never ever doubted my abilities and now that I've met the learning curve, I'm going to continue to learn and continue to get better, but I think I'm ready to lead this team to a championship."

In Shoop's system, a progression-read based offense, there will be a premium placed on accuracy. Shoop has told his quarterbacks he expects them to go 30-for-30, and he'll yell at them for every incomplete pass.

Appleby and Etling said they love that expectation level and are striving to meet it. Even though they know it may not be possible.

Appleby said he thinks he can make every throw and when he doesn't, he's harder on himself than Shoop could ever be.

"It's good that coach is going to hold us to that standard because there's no reason we shouldn't be," Appleby said. "Maybe it's unrealistic, but if we're 25-of-30, we're still lighting it up. The perfection is what we're going to aim for."

Last season, Marve completed 66 percent of his passes, good for Purdue's all-time single-single high.

But he was a sixth-year senior who had been in Purdue's system for years, and he admittedly didn't grasp it right away.

At least Henry and Appleby have a working knowledge of college defenses.

But what about Etling?

An NFL offensive coordinator, mentor Cam Cameron, has said he has nothing left to teach Etling. He raved about Etling's technique and footwork and physical ability.

"I think I need to work on everything. Stars don't matter anymore," Etling said. "Right now, I need to get better at everything, especially I would say accuracy, footwork and just learning the playbook and just completely memorizing that and making it my own. I have to be so accurate that even when someone is coming at you, you just don't miss. You can go 30-for-30 or 40-for-40 and don't miss the entire game. Until I can get that, I won't be satisfied. Just 100 percent, that's really what I want to do. That's a crazy goal. I don't know if anyone has ever done that, but that's what he expects from me and that's what I'm going to expect from myself."

Etling said he'd like to start. But he also is trusting in the coaches that if they don't think he's ready, then he's not ready.

But he's going to fight, just like Henry, Appleby and Marshall.

"They're all really good," Etling said. "So obviously I've got a lot of work to do. Easily Rob, he didn't get a lot of reps in practice last year, so a lot of fans are like, 'He's not that good.' But he's really good. So it's whatever the coaches think. I'm just here to throw my hat in the ring and see what happens. Worse thing happens is I get a redshirt and get a year to be a backup if someone gets hurt. If the cards don't fall into place, it's not the worst thing that'll happen."

Maybe intangibles could separate the one in this battle for the starter? That'd seem tough.

Teammates continually praise Henry for his leadership, and Appleby and Marshall have gotten high remarks from Marve, too. Etling has been talked about as a tireless worker, as well. Henry, Appleby and Etling all have been lauded for their toughness as well, taking a beating for the Boilermakers or from under center in their senior seasons in high school. Marshall would appear to be the least physically developed of the group, but Marve has spoken highly of Marshall's character.

And Appleby, for one, has no concern as to whether the team would follow his lead despite being only a redshirt freshman.

"The way you earn their respect is by being accountable, come in early and work as hard as you possibly can to be the guy that can lead by example," he said. "I don't need to be the rah-rah guy per se, I'm not an upperclassmen and some places of my leadership, it's not my place. The upperclassmen run this team and we'll go as they go. But I will have my part in leading the team and there's no reason why I can't do it and I do it in my own way and guys are responding. It's not going to take just one of us, it's going to take all of us. If we're all heading in the same direction, we'll do special things."




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