Welcome to the reality of last year's 1-11 season gone wrong, when bad offense combined with bad defense for perhaps the most forgettable season in program history.
Nothing is sure except it has to get better, so the fact Etling is the returning starter isn't as important to head coach Darrell Hazell and offensive coordinator John Shoop as executing their “completion-driven” attack.
Etling and Austin Appleby have rotated with the No. 1 offense throughout the spring, including last Saturday's scrimmage.
“We've got to play better, obviously,” Hazell said. “The young guys have to play better.”
Unofficially, Etling was 10-for-21 for 113 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. Appleby was 11-for-21 for 92 yards and an interception.
Those numbers were skewed by at least six dropped passes. Plus, Appleby lost a TD pass when he was ruled sacked thanks to the scrimmage's protect-the-quarterback rules.
In the big picture, the sack mattered less than the fact quarterbacks have a throw-fast-and-accurate mandate.
“We're constantly coached to be faster, get the ball out of our hands quick,” Appleby said. “I'm getting coached every day that I need to work as fast as my mind works. I need to get the ball out of my hands. Speed things up. From the moment my mind makes up where to go with the ball, get that thing out. That's what I'm working on.
“We'll get it straight for (Saturday's) spring game and the first game of the season.”
Etling is optimistic glitches will be corrected. For one thing, the scrimmage format left a number of receivers being used instead of a set rotation.
“Any time you switch guys around, your rhythm can be deterred,” Etling said. “Once we get the guys we want and get the offensive line healthy and I get working on timing, the balls will be more accurate. The catches will be there.
“We haven't had many drops in practice. We can't have those going forward.”
Last year Etling emerged as the starter when senior Rob Henry struggled. In eight games Etling completed 55.8 percent of his passes for 1,690 yards, 10 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
Appleby played in two games, completing 5-of-6 passes for 68 yards and a touchdown.
Etling is far ahead of last year's spring pace, when he was just a few months out of high school.
“I feel I played a lot better. I'm starting to improve. A couple of balls got away from me. I'm working on protection and sliding up in the pocket correctly. We missed a lot of plays out there.”
Added Appleby: “We're not where we need to be to be as a championship team, which is to be expected in the spring. As an entire offense we have to assess everything, get coached up real hard to make the adjustments we need. We have a lot of room for improvement, that's obvious, but we're willing to put in the work and get it fixed. We'll be ready for that first game.”
One Boiler who seems ready is tailback Raheem Mostert. The two-time Big Ten indoor sprint champ in the 60 and 200 meters rushed for 134 yards and two touchdowns on nine carries.
“Raheem is electric,” Appleby said. “We've been saying it. It's no secret. You can see what he can do when he gets the ball in his hands. He needs about that much room (holding his fingers about 6 inches apart) and he's gone.
“For an offense, that's awesome. From an offensive line standpoint, if you stay on your block just a half a second longer, and get him just a half-foot hole more, he's gone. For a quarterback to understand how a run game like that will open up the offense … if you can run like that, we'll be unstoppable in the play-action game. In the Big Ten the best teams can run the ball.”
Added Hazell: “Raheem is a guy who will be a huge weapon. If he gets to the second level, watch out. He's pretty special.”
Purdue took an offensive hit when converted tight end Dolapo Macarthy dislocated his left shoulder during the scrimmage after a big hit from safety Robert Gregory. He's expected to miss two months. Macarthy was a seldom-used receiver last season but had shown promise this spring. That leaves the Boilers with starting tight end Justin Sinz and plenty of inexperience behind him.
With the spring game set for Saturday, Hazell is encouraged by the improvement from last spring, his first as the Boilers head coach.
“As far as the offense, we looked at some numbers, and some of them were staggering, how low the MAs (missed assignments) were, how low the mistakes were, how low the turnovers were.
“The thing we've asked the defense is to get lined up and run to the ball. They've done that so far. There's a lot of good hitting out there. That's what you need. You need lot of spirited guys who will strike you.”