- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Freshman Danny Etling will make his first career start at quarterback for Purdue this weekend, two weeks after making his college debut vs. Northern Illinois.
Boilermakers fans are excited about the future of their young signal-caller, and in that they have company in the Big Ten. Though quarterback is generally viewed as a position that takes experience and maturity to handle, several Big Teams have gone with a youth movement under center.
In fact, Etling can look across the field on Saturday and see another young player in his position: Nebraska redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong, who is expected to fill in for the injured Taylor Martinez for the third straight game. Etling will be the fourth freshman quarterback to start for a Big Ten program this season, meaning a full third of the league has trusted its offense to a player in his first year of college competition.
What happened to making guys wait their turn and hold clipboards for a few years? The explosion of offense throughout the sport has helped speed the development for quarterbacks.
"I think they are more prepared earlier with all the 7-on-7s and everything that's going on," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. "There's been more of an opportunity for guys to go out and throw all summer long."
"Some of these kids are playing year round football," Indiana coach Kevin Wilson said. "They're coming in more prepared, and the talent's better. I think the offensive game has gotten to where maybe it's helping quarterbacks."
Freshman quarterbacks aren't a new phenomenon. Minnesota started freshman Philip Nelson last year, while Wisconsin started turned to redshirt freshman Joel Stave. Indiana's Nate Sudfeld didn't start but saw a lot of time last season as a freshman. Two years ago, Braxton Miller started for Ohio State his first year of playing, while Indiana played freshman Tre Roberson. Current seniors Martinez and Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase both started as redshirt freshman.
Still, the crop of young quarterbacks seems especially large this year, and it's one that could impact the Big Ten for years to come.
The headliner of the group is Penn State's Christian Hackenberg, who was ranked as the nation's No. 1 pro-style quarterback recruit last year. Despite not arriving on campus until the summer, Hackenberg has started since the opener. He ranks second in the league in passing yards with 1,367 while throwing for eight touchdowns and four interceptions.
"When you see a guy with [Hackenberg's] body language and how he handles himself, I think it's very impressive," said Hoke, whose Wolverines play at Penn State on Saturday. "I think he looks very composed and he has handled different situations very well. A lot of things impress me about him, like the way he moves up in the pocket and I think he throws a great football."
Minnesota's experience with a first-year quarterback didn't end with Nelson. Redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner stepped in earlier this season when Nelson was hurt and then got the start over Nelson last week at Michigan. At 6-foot-4, 230-pounds, he's a hard-nosed runner who ran for 151 yards and four touchdowns against San Jose State. Last week, he completed 14 of 21 passes for 145 yards and ran for 66 yards.
"I really thought he made some big plays with his legs and executed really pretty good,” acting coach Tracy Claeys said after the loss to Michigan.
Armstrong had to step in for Martinez, who continues to battle a case of turf toe. He has gotten Huskers fans excited by his play, completing 20 of 28 passes for 304 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in his first two games. The idea that he should replace a healthy Martinez is silly, but the future looks bright.
"He's still a work in progress," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. "There are some mistakes he made that might not have been real apparent to the naked eye, but they're still there and he's still learning a lot. I think every time he goes out there, it gives him an opportunity to grow. Mistakes and things will happen to him, but he's a smart guy and he understands the offense and what's being asked of him."
Etling completes the quarter of first-year quarterbacks. Purdue fans were thrilled to see him throw for 241 yards and two touchdowns (along with two picks) in the otherwise disappointing loss to Northern Illinois. Etling was the most important recruit in Hazell's first signing class, and his ceiling is so high that former starter Rob Henry has been moved to safety for the rest of his senior year. While Hazell says Etling opens up the entire passing game for the Boilers, he won't put too much on his plate early.
"He's a very bright guy who works very hard, and he's one heck of a talent," Hazell said. "I'm really looking forward to his progress here in the next few years."
Several Big Ten fan bases are saying the same thing right now about their starting quarterback.