NCAA FOOTBALL: QB competition still close at Penn State
STATE COLLEGE — Penn State coach Bill O’Brien grabbed a microphone and started barking play calls over the stadium loudspeakers.
That’s one audible not heard often at Beaver Stadium.
O’Brien’s time on the microphone offered a little insight into the offense and a little levity as the Nittany Lions wrapped up spring practice Saturday with the Blue-White scrimmage in blustery Happy Valley.
“Don’t make me yell at you,” he yelled jokingly at a player before calling one play.
Another time, he encouraged the 28,000 fans in attendance to start a wave. They made a half-hearted attempt before it fizzled.
“That was interesting,” O’Brien said about the open microphone time. “I think it was pretty clean, so that’s good.”
Otherwise, the starting quarterback race has been the highlight of spring practice. Steven Bench and Tyler Ferguson had their moments and mistakes.
O’Brien has said he won’t pick a starter until preseason camp in August, after incoming freshman Christian Hackenberg joins the competition.
That timeline didn’t seem to change after Saturday’s scrimmage.
Bench started and finished 9 of 15 for 99 yards and a touchdown, while Ferguson was 9 of 15 for 90 yards and two scores. They operated a scaled-down playbook Saturday, though O’Brien has said he has installed more plays this spring to build on last year’s success.
For now, it’s back to the film room to evaluate Bench and Ferguson.
“No, I’m not any closer sitting here right now,” O’Brien said. “I’ve enjoyed coaching both guys and eventually I’ll have to make a decision. I’m not ready to make that right now.”
Bench and Ferguson weren’t made available to reporters after the game. Their teammates were diplomatic when asked about the quarterback derby, or deferred to O’Brien.
No. 1 wideout Allen Robinson called it a close competition.
“Both have strong arms,” he said. “As far as them being able to recognize coverage, as far as them being able to learn quickly — it’s two things that they both can do.”
The spring game has a different scoring system, with the defense beating the offense 67-47.
Otherwise, the offensive highlights were provided mainly in the running game, even with returning 1,000-yard rusher Zach Zwinak sitting out most of the afternoon after hurting his left wrist or hand on the opening drive. The injury to Zwinak didn’t appear serious, though O’Brien said he would know more today.
Backup Akeel Lynch ran for 83 yards on 13 carries, while Deron Thompson had 97 yards on 12 carries.
The pass rush looked good, registering nine sacks, including two from tackle Austin Johnson, who could replace standout Jordan Hill in the starting lineup come fall. Ends Brad Bars and Evan Schwan also had two sacks each.
Still, it’s just spring practice, so players weren’t hitting like they would be for a hard-fought Big Ten contest. Wearing red jerseys, quarterbacks weren’t allowed to be hit, so the officials sometimes quickly blew the play dead if the defender had a clear path for a sack.
New defensive coordinator John Butler kept it basic on defense too, though the coaching staff will be able to draw insight from film because tackling was otherwise allowed on most plays. O’Brien had limited full contact for much of the spring in an effort to help keep players healthy for the fall.
Penn State is in the midst of a two-year process to whittle its scholarship roster down by 20 to 65 in 2014 due to NCAA sanctions.
“Some simple, Day 1 coverages,” said Butler, who was promoted from secondary coach in the offseason. “But the biggest thing is today we were tackling. With what we’re doing, we’re trying to get to the gate with as healthy a football team as we possibly can.
“When we have the opportunity to scrimmage and tackle, that’s the most important evaluation piece,” Butler said.
Key players including tight end Kyle Carter (right wrist), safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong (right shoulder) and defensive tackle DaQuan Jones (back) all sat out because they were either recovering from offseason surgeries or trying to get over minor issues. So did highly-touted freshman tight end Adam Breneman (right knee), who enrolled in school early after graduating from high school in December.
All players are expected to be 100 percent for August training camp.
It felt like early November on Saturday with intermittent snow showers interrupting brief bursts of sunshine. The wind whipped up hot dog wrappers in the air.
O’Brien praised the hearty crowd before turning off the microphone.
“OK, thank you, fans,” he said after the drive ended with a touchdown. “We’ll see you in the fall.”