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Thursday, July 25, 2013
PSU, Purdue unfazed by youth under center

By Adam Rittenberg

CHICAGO -- Penn State coach Bill O'Brien and his Purdue counterpart, Darrell Hazell, will face the same decision sometime next month: Should I start a true freshman quarterback this season?

It's a daunting and exciting possibility, depending on who you ask. It's also a realistic one for both Penn State and Purdue heading into 2013.

Danny Etling enrolled early at Purdue and put himself in position to compete for the team's top quarterback job following a solid spring. Christian Hackenberg didn't even need to go through the spring to be considered for Penn State's starting job. When camps kick off in August, Etling will compete with senior Rob Henry and possibly redshirt freshman Austin Appleby for the Purdue job, while Hackenberg will vie with junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson in State College.

Both Hazell and O'Brien vow to play the best quarterback, regardless of age, but there are added risks of going with a true freshman, including the impact on the rest of the roster. Will the Purdue locker room support Etling if he beats out Henry, a former team captain and one of the most popular players on the squad? How will a Penn State team carried by veteran leadership in 2012 respond to a quarterback who hasn't played a meaningful down at the college level?

According to players on both teams, they'll be just fine.

"If it is Danny, we'll be behind him," Purdue defensive tackle Bruce Gaston told ESPN.com. "We'll be behind whoever, especially if it is Danny because we're not going to let a freshman go in there thinking that he has no support. That's not going to do anything but hurt us in every aspect of the game.

"We have no clue who [the starter is] going to be, but we'll support them."

So will Henry, according to Gaston.

"Rob is one of the most humble people I know," Gaston said. "Rob would definitely not make a fuss or anything. He'll handle it in the most professional way."

Penn State's situation is a bit different as both Ferguson and Hackenberg are newcomers. Although Ferguson went through the spring with the team, players had much more familiarity with Steven Bench, last year's backup quarterback who transferred to South Florida after being told he wouldn't compete for the starting job.

Whoever emerges in camp at Penn State will be a new voice of leadership.

"They're definitely going to need a little bit of help, a little bit of guidance," senior linebacker Glenn Carson said, "but they're both guys that have a lot of confidence, have that swagger that is much needed as a quarterback. I think they're going to be fine. They might need a teammate's helping hand, but I really don't feel like I have to go too far out of my way because they have that confidence built in."

A young quarterback can help himself by reaching out to older teammates, like Minnesota's Philip Nelson did in 2012. Minnesota took the redshirt off of Nelson midway through the season, and the true freshman started the Gophers' final seven games.

"It's easy to get behind somebody who asks for help," Gophers running back Donnell Kirkwood said. "He was new, he was a freshman, Wisconsin was his first start and he was a little shaken up by that, but he took on a leadership role."

Carson has no concern about a divided or apathetic locker room at Penn State, depending on who wins the quarterback job.

"This team understands how important these guys are to us," Carson said. "Even though they're freshmen and they're young, they're just getting into the program, the team really respects these guys and knows how important they are. It's going to be a really big camp for both of these guys.

"They're going to have to truly emerge, not only as players but as leaders so that they really can take the locker room."