OB on the Road Again

O'Brien talks Nittany Lion quarterbacks and more as the Penn State coaches caravan gets rolling in Reading.

READING, Pa. -- As the Penn State coaches caravan kicked off Tuesday at PSU's Berks campus, the focus was, as always, on quarterbacks -- one who is leaving, one who flew in not long ago and one who is yet to arrive.

Steven Bench is going. Christian Hackenberg is coming. Tyler Ferguson, who arrived from a California junior college in January, is the No. 1 guy at present, if only by default.

“You would definitely say the job is between two guys,” coach Bill O'Brien said, “and you would say Tyler Ferguson, having been here since January, is a little bit ahead of where Christian Hackenberg is, only because he's been here, and he's been through 15 spring practices and countless meetings.”

Bench announced he is transferring last week, after meeting with O'Brien and learning Ferguson was ahead of him in the pecking order. O'Brien, while declining to say exactly what Ferguson does better than Bench, said he told Bench he “felt like he would still get repetitions here at Penn State -- no starter has been named -- but I told him going in (to preseason camp), probably, you won't get quite as many repetitions as the other guys, but you're still going to get reps.”

Bench then sat down with his family and decided he wanted to go to a place that afforded him a better opportunity to start. O'Brien said he respects his decision and wishes him the best.

“I wish he stayed with us, because I think he's a really good teammate,” he said. “He's a good kid.”

At the same time, the coach reiterated that because of last summer's NCAA sanctions, it is “an unprecedented time at Penn State” and “an unprecedented time in the NCAA,” since every Nittany Lion has been free to leave, and will be free to do so, until Aug. 1.

“I don't want anybody to transfer,” O'Brien said. “… I certainly wish that (Bench) would have stayed and competed, but again, he's decided to do that. I'm not going to sit here and get into all the different things that Tyler and Steven did during the spring. I just felt at this point in time I wanted to evaluate these guys honestly, tell them the truth.”

O'Brien doesn't anticipate any other departures, though he did say offensive lineman Anthony Stanko has elected to leave the team but remain on scholarship. There are two other players in the same boat, which according to coach leaves him with 67 guys on scholarship, and 64 at his disposal.

According to a program source, if Stanko and the other two players in question remain at Penn State, they will count against the 65-man scholarship limit that goes into effect for the 2014 season.

Ferguson and Hackenberg, the much-ballyhooed recruit from Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy, will likely get equal reps in preseason drills, O'Brien said. Hackenberg started receiving written material from the coaching staff as soon as he signed his letter of intent in February -- “weightlifting stuff and things like that,” O'Brien said -- and the coaches have talked often with him on the phone.

But Hackenberg was not allowed to sit in on meetings during his subsequent visits to campus, and still must be brought up to speed on strategic matters.

O'Brien also said running back Zach Zwinak suffered a wrist injury during the Blue-White Game, and as usual the coach declined to reveal the extent of the injury, beyond saying that it's “not life-threatening” and that Zwinak, who rushed for exactly 1,000 yards in 2012, will be limited to noncontact work at the beginning of preseason practice. He hopes Zwinak will be a full go somewhere around the midpoint of camp.

Because of injuries like this one -- and because of the 65-scholarship limit the Lions face in the future -- O'Brien wouldn't mind seeing the format of the spring game revamped. Again, he wouldn't get into specifics, only that it needs to be tweaked.

“I think the Blue-White Game is fantastic for our fans and for that weekend, for Penn State,” he said. “But I think we're going to have to make some decisions going forward, especially in the era we're in right now.”

Again, he doesn't want to do away with it entirely, just change things up.

“I have bosses,” he said, “so I'm probably about to get in trouble, but in my mind I think you've got to think of ways to have a 15th practice, which is what that is, and make it a great experience for your fans. It's not that we're not going to do (it), but maybe it won't be a game down the road. It's a practice. It's a big weekend for our university. I understand that, and I'm all for that. Everybody comes back, but I think the people that come back have to understand the situation that we're in. We cannot get our best players hurt in the Blue-White Game. That's when you get labeled a dumb coach.”

O'Brien also said Big Ten realignment was “a great idea,” even though the East Division, of which PSU will be a part, figures to be “Murderers' Row.” And in general he said that during the caravan he hoped to thank fans and give them some idea of where the program is headed.

Starting with the quarterbacks, of course.

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