Purdue coaches empowering players

March, 28, 2014
Mar 28
9:00
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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Purdue quarterback Danny Etling showed up to a recent interview holding a piece of paper marked with X’s, O’s and notations.

It wasn't a play sheet for that afternoon's practice. Etling had created most of the page himself. Boilers offensive coordinator John Shoop provides his quarterbacks with general concepts, and then lets their minds run wild. He encourages Etling, Austin Appleby, 2014 signee David Blough and the other signal-callers to submit plays for review. Some will be used in practice. Some will even be used in games this season.

[+] EnlargeDanny Etling
Adam Rittenberg/ESPNPurdue QB Danny Etling shows off the sheet where he creates plays that could find their way into a game.
"You just throw it on a piece of paper," Etling told ESPN.com "He'll be like, 'Terrible, terrible, terrible ... that one's not bad. Let's talk about it.' That’s how our plays develop, by that thought process. Out of every 10 plays you draw, nine of them suck but one might be good and that's the one you might run on Saturday."

Shoop is the "puppet master," as Etling puts it, and has final say on all play calls, but Purdue's quarterbacks are very involved in the planning process for practices this spring -- and will be for games this fall.

"I value that," Shoop said. "It's our job as a staff to make our team feel empowered, like they're in control. These guys are not robots. Our staff takes a great deal of pride that the men who come and play for us are going to learn the game of football."

After a 1-11 season, where one of Purdue's biggest problems -- not lining up correctly -- occurred before the snap, you would expect the coaches to take even greater control of the learning process. The classic scenes of coaches and players -- red-faced coaches screaming and pounding on tables, players scared out of their cleats -- would seem likely inside the Mollenkopf Center this spring.

But there's a problem with that teaching model.

"They’ll just sit there and nod their heads, say they got it," defensive backs coach Taver Johnson said, "and then we’ll go down to the field and they’ll have absolutely no clue."

Purdue has chosen a different direction this spring. There's plenty of teaching being done, but the Boilers’ coaches are doing all they can to involve players in the process.

"Every time you take over a new program, your staff has to teach everything," coach Darrell Hazell said. "How do you line up, how do you break a huddle, where you are on the field. Now it's becoming fun, because you don’t have to worry about all those little things.

"You can concentrate on ball and getting guys better."

It beats the alternative.

For Shoop, it means having quarterbacks present their own plays at each meeting, and seriously considering them for use. For Johnson, it's having a player stand at the front of the room and teach his teammates press technique. For wide receivers coach Kevin Sherman, it's having each wideout prepare a report on a concept or set of concepts, while encouraging them to get creative.

Sophomore receiver Cameron Posey took it to heart.

It's our job as a staff to make our team feel empowered, like they're in control. These guys are not robots. Our staff takes a great deal of pride that the men who come and play for us are going to learn the game of football.

-- Purdue offensive coordinator John Shoop
"Cameron used little Indians and cowboys on a cardboard," Sherman said. "He used different color lines on his routes. Very creative. I was very proud of them. They were very, very invested in what we're trying to do."

Etling admits the plays he submitted last year were "high school stuff," possibly because he had just come from high school. But he eventually learned all that goes into a play and what Shoop likes. One of his submissions made it into a game against Illinois and went for a completion.

Although the players' submissions still need refining, Shoop never writes them off immediately. He fully expects to use an Etling play or an Appleby play in games this fall.

"These coaches are very unique, especially with Coach Shoop in the way he challenges us mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually," Appleby said. "Coach Shoop says if you never walk into this room comfortable, we're not doing our jobs and we're not getting better.

"The only time I would say I wouldn't be able to develop as a complete quarterback is if there was a ceiling put over my head. There is no ceiling."

Appleby hopes to pursue coaching after his playing career and would like to be an offensive coordinator in college.

"I can't get enough of it," he said. "It's my favorite class. I know we're student-athletes, but my football class is what I look forward to all day. I get a chance to learn from [Shoop], not only as a player, but if I pursue a coaching career, it's going to pay dividends."

The coaches have successfully created more player investment in the learning process. The next step: translating it to the field when it matters.

"Any time you can get the players thinking like the coaches," Hazell said, "you have a chance to move forward."

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