Danny Etling and Christian Hackenberg were friends and roommates just over one year ago, back when the two high school seniors competed in the Elite 11 and spent their nights dreaming about starting in the Big Ten.
They never talked about future Penn State-Purdue meetings, or the prospect of playing one another. Both hoped to start for the respective teams as true freshmen, but that seemed so far away that it was more like a dream than an inevitability.
"I don't think we thought it would come this soon; I guess it never really crossed our minds. If I knew, I probably would've tried to sabotage him in our room," Etling said with a laugh. "'Oh, I don't think you want to go to Penn State.' He's a pretty good player."
The two have fallen out of touch since that summer, but they'll see each other Saturday afternoon when Etling's Boilermakers try to knock of Hackenberg's Nittany Lions at Beaver Stadium. Because of cross-division scheduling, it'll be the only time the two see each other on the field until their senior seasons in 2016.
"I'm sure after this game, we'll pick it back up," Hackenberg said. "And I'm sure it'll be good for both of us."
Both former four-star recruits followed similar paths to the Big Ten. Etling was the small-town hero from Terre Haute, Ind., who ESPN ranked as the 12th-best QB in the nation. Hackenberg attended high school in a sleepy one-stoplight town and was ranked as the top signal-caller in the country.
Hackenberg committed Feb. 29, 2012, with Etling committing two months later. Both chatted at regionals for the Elite 11 and then roomed together in Redondo Beach, Calif., for the main event -- where they talked about "crazy Trent Dilfer," the grueling workout inspired by the Navy SEALs and their upcoming senior seasons.
"It was a great experience for both of us. Just getting to know him, he's a really good kid," Hackenberg said of Etling. "So it'll be neat competing against him at this level now."
Both true freshmen have endured the weight of lofty fan expectations this season. Hackenberg was the highest-rated recruit that PSU had signed in six years. He was heralded as the savior of the Lions' program before he ever put on a blue jersey, and fans screamed his name and tapped on his shoulder for photos when he attended PSU games as a high schooler.
Etling arrived in West Lafayette with less star power but nearly as much pressure. He was the highest-rated prospect Purdue had signed since ESPN started ranking players in 2006, and fans hoped the teen with the Drew Brees poster on his wall could follow in the NFL star's footsteps. Etling was initially expected to redshirt, but Boilermakers coach Darrell Hazell called his number in Week 5 -- and Etling had to wait a few moments to take his first snap until the wave of crowd noise died down.
Hackenberg has lived up to expectations so far, throwing for 2,187 yards with 13 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Like the Boilermakers themselves, Etling has struggled in five games, compiling 819 yards, four touchdowns and five picks.
"Obviously, it's a lot of weight on your shoulders when you're walking around and people are saying how you're doing -- whether it's supportive or not supportive," Etling said. "But you just have to take it all with a grain of salt and listen to your coaches, teammates and family. That's what you have to learn, and this season has been a big learning tool for me."
Scouts at the Elite 11 last year remarked on Hackenberg's physical tools and commented on Etling's accuracy. Experts wondered aloud just how far they'd go and lauded both their potential, which -- despite experiencing their fair share of lows as college rookies -- still clearly exists.
Hackenberg, who enrolled over the summer, believed he hadn't yet hit the "freshman wall" and said he's learning more every week. Etling said, despite still awaiting his first career win that he's improved these past few weeks and continues to grow more comfortable.
On Saturday, the two will seek bragging rights and another chance to separate themselves. And both are looking forward to see what the other can do -- and where their careers wind up.
"We haven't talked as much since we've both been so busy, so we'll both do our talking on the field," Etling said. "And, hopefully, this'll show a little bit of the future in the Big Ten."