O'Brien Sizes Up QB Competition

It'll be a two-way battle in the spring with a talented rookie joining the fray come summer. When does the head coach plan to pick a starter?

Penn State kicks off spring practice Monday, and the Nittany Lions' biggest question mark is at quarterback. Second-year coach Bill O'Brien and his staff must find a replacement for 2012 record-setting senior Matt McGloin.

But don't expect a rapid resolution to the QB battle. Speaking before an awards banquet in State College Sunday, O'Brien said he does not plan to settle on a starting quarterback until preseason practice.

He also indicated that five-star QB signee Christian Hackenberg, who will not enroll at PSU until the school's second summer semester in late June, has a chance to be in the mix.

But Hackenberg will have to play catch-up to a pair of sophomores -- 2012 second-teamer Steven Bench and junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson. They now share the top spot on the depth chart.

“We're gonna balance the reps between Steven Bench and Tyler Ferguson,” O'Brien said before speaking at the Central Pennsylvania National Football Foundation Awards Banquet. “Then at the end of the spring, we'll evaluate at that point.

“We will not name a starter at the end of the spring,” he added. “Sometime during training camp -- whenever I decide -- we'll name the starter. It'll be a little different than it was last year.”

In 2012, O'Brien named McGloin the starter shortly after spring practice. That ultimately led to the preseason transfer of junior Rob Bolden and redshirt sophomore Paul Jones quitting the team after he was moved to tight end during the season.

Bench, who arrived in the summer, became the second-teamer (he completed 2 of 8 passes for 12 yards). Ferguson signed with Penn State in December.

“Our quarterback room, as we sit here today, is completely different than our quarterback room was last (spring),” O'Brien said. “You've got a totally different group of guys. They're young, they're hungry.

“I really enjoy being around them,” he added. “We've been allowed to be around them the last couple of weeks because of NCAA rules (changes). And it's really fun to watch how they learn and communicate. It's going to be a neat group to work with.”

In discussing the qualities he'd like to see from his eventual starting quarterback, O'Brien touched on things like decision-making, accuracy and leadership. Of course, being able to run the team's complicated pro-style attack is key, too.

“No. 1 is he has to have a very, very good grasp of the offense,” O'Brien said. “I would say at the very least, that two weeks before (the season-opener vs.) Syracuse, we have to feel good that this guy, whoever it is, has an excellent grasp of this offense. That he can run the offense in front of 100,000 people (with the) crowd noise. (And) he can communicate. It's a whole different language than what they've been using in high school or junior college.”

Asked if it is reasonable to expect Hackenberg to be able to absorb everything quickly enough to compete for the starting job, O'Brien said he believes the strong-armed incoming freshman can.

“I feel like I have a good relationship with this guy,” O'Brien said. “We've talked a lot of football over the past year. … Based on those conversations, I think he can (compete).

“But when the bullets are flying, as a young quarterback, we have to see how he does when he gets here,” O'Brien added. “We think very highly of him and we think very highly of all these guys we're coaching. It'll be a heck of a competition.”

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