Lions' starting QB? Wait till game time
"We are going to have to make a decision [on a starting quarterback] at some point during training camp to allow the starter to get enough reps to be ready for the Syracuse game."
- Penn State coach Bill O'Brien, July 24, Big Ten Football Media Days, Chicago.
It's been more than a month since Bill O'Brien addressed the issue of Penn State's starting quarterback for the first time.
He had a known quantity in sophomore Tyler Ferguson, a junior-college transfer who went through spring practice with the Nittany Lions. Ferguson played well enough for O'Brien to inform sophomore Steven Bench - last year's backup to Matt McGloin - that he would be the third quarterback in a two-man competition. Bench eventually transferred to South Florida.
O'Brien's unknown was freshman Christian Hackenberg, one of the nation's top high school quarterbacks last year. He knew from film study that Hackenberg was mechanically sound and made good decisions, but wondered how quickly he could pick up O'Brien's complex offense before the start of preseason camp.
The competition began Aug. 5, the first day of camp, and apparently has continued right into Thursday's final full-scale practice before the Lions' season opener against Syracuse on Saturday at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
However, as much as O'Brien hoped to have his decision maybe two weeks before the game, the contestants apparently have made it difficult for him.
"I'm going to do what's best for the football team. I said that [naming a starter] in Chicago but I hope you guys didn't mark it on your calendar so you're all outside my office a week from now. Just hold your horses."
- O'Brien, Aug. 8, Penn State media day, Beaver Stadium.
The coach insists that Ferguson and Hackenberg both have looked good. He has spoken only in terms of the two players' similarities - intelligence, accuracy, competitiveness, athleticism, and even height (Ferguson is 6-foot-3, Hackenberg 6-4).
O'Brien has declined to discuss whatever differences exist between the two other than the one-inch gap in height and the one-year disparity (Ferguson 19, Hackenberg 18) in age.
That's about it. Media members covering the team have tried anything imaginable, short of reading tea leaves, to figure out who holds an edge.
On his radio show Thursday night, O'Brien admitted for the first time that he has named a starter, and has told the two principals and the rest of the team. He did not say when he made his decision.
The guess here is that Hackenberg will take the field for the first snap of the season. But that's far from etched in stone, at least to those attempting to look inside the Lasch Football Building from the outside.
"I'd say by the end of the week we'll make a decision on who will start the Syracuse game."
- O'Brien, Aug. 20, pre-practice interview, Lasch practice field.
"I don't have to do anything you guys want me to do."
- O'Brien, half-kiddingly (we think), later in the same interview.
Syracuse also went through preseason without a clear starter at quarterback. Coach Scott Shafer said in an Aug. 19 interview that he would not publicly name the starter before the game.
So if the Orange don't do it, why should the Nittany Lions?
"There was a benefit last year because you had an older guy that had been in the program for a long time," O'Brien said, referring to record-setting fifth-year senior McGloin.
"But in this situation, you have two young guys, neither of them have been here very long. I think it's important for each guy to continue to earn their stripes and continue to gain the respect of their teammates."
Neither one is perfect. O'Brien said as recently as Tuesday that "they've had their share of mistakes." But Saturday is almost here, and someone has to run out from the sideline and take the first snap.
It's a mystery.
"I'm not trying to bust anybody's chops. I want to do what's best. And what's best for Penn State right now is for you to find out when we take the field for the first snap of offensive football against Syracuse."
- O'Brien, Aug. 27, first weekly teleconference.
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