NCAA FOOTBALL: Penn State expands playbook
STATE COLLEGE — A starting quarterback race won’t hinder the development of Penn State’s offense this spring, especially not with the experience returning elsewhere on the field.
Like the Big Ten’s leading receiver, Allen Robinson. Or the cadre of tall, athletic tight ends led by Kyle Carter. Or 1,000-yard rusher Zach Zwinak.
Indeed, the successor to 2012 record-setting signal-caller Matt McGloin — whether it’s Steven Bench, Tyler Ferguson or incoming freshman Christian Hackenberg — may be the guy who can best keep up with the rest of the offense come fall.
Coach Bill O’Brien said he’s expanded the playbook during spring practice — despite the quarterback competition — because the offense otherwise is comprised primarily of players with a year in the system.
“We’ve added more to our language,” O’Brien said. “I think the quarterbacks have adapted well. I think it’s all about how hard you work at leaning at it, and how good of a job you do at teaching it.”
And that’s what the spring is for. There also is the never-ending coaching chess match now that Big Ten opponents have a year of film on the revamped Penn State attack.
“Last year was the foundation for the offense. We have to add more because our opponents have seen it for a year,” O’Brien said Wednesday. “We’re a different team. Whoever the quarterback is will be a different guy. ... We’ve added and we’ve adapted (the playbook) to the type of team we have.”
The final 10 days of spring drills will be used to brush up on defensive schemes, too, leading up to the April 20 Blue-White game. Plus, O’Brien hopes players will step up to fill roles on special teams.
O’Brien called the quarterback derby even between Bench and Ferguson. Bench was McGloin’s backup last season as a freshman; Ferguson is a junior college transfer who just joined the team in January.
“They both have good huddle demeanors. Bench is probably a little more comfortable. That’s just because he’s been here longer,” Robinson said. Ferguson “definitely has a lot of progress this spring. They’re both looking good.”
O’Brien was even more diplomatic. Neither candidate has created any separation, he said. Both are teenagers who settled on Penn State from other regions of the country — Bench is from Georgia, Ferguson from California.
Hackenberg will arrive in Happy Valley this summer. O’Brien has said the heralded recruit from Virginia will get a look in preseason camp, and that a decision on a starter won’t come until August.
For now, it’s just Bench and Ferguson in the race.
“One minute to go. We need a touchdown to win,” O’Brien exclaimed before a practice period open to media inside cavernous Holuba Hall after a rainstorm sent the team indoors for drills.
As the sound of thunder rumbled through the practice facility, Bench took a turn guiding the offense in a two-minute drill, followed by Ferguson.
They were mirror images during position drills, taking snaps at the same time, throwing the same routes except to opposite sides of the field. Bench looked slightly more accurate than Ferguson during this practice period open to reporters.
“Really, I can’t say that one guy has really stood out above the other guy,” O’Brien said. “These guys have had to catch up to the veteran guys, and I think they’ve done a good job. Both guys have had tough moments. Both guys have had good moments.”
It does help to have Robinson. He led the league in receptions (77), receiving yards (1,013) and receiving touchdowns (11) last season.
But he figures to draw more attention from opposing defenses this season. To help prepare, a bulked-up Robinson added about 13 pounds in the offseason while dropping body fat. He weighed in at 217 last week.
“I think it will be a little different than last year,” Robinson said. “Sometimes, I’ll get covered a little differently. I just have to do what I have to do on routes and catch balls.”