STATE COLLEGE — Prized incoming freshman Christian Hackenberg is officially in the Penn State quarterback derby before ever taking a snap.
The post-spring depth chart released Thursday listed Hackenberg and junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson, a sophomore, as the top two candidates to take over the starting job left vacated following the graduation of Matt McGloin.
Coach Bill O’Brien had given every indication in spring practice that Hackenberg would get a chance to compete for the job when preseason camp opens in August.
“He’s a talented player, so we’ve got to see what he can do,” quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher at a recent charity golf tournament. “He’s got to earn whatever he gets — Coach O’Brien will be the first to tell you that. But he’s going to get every opportunity to show why we recruited him here.”
Ferguson does have the advantage of at least having had spring experience after joining the team in January. He’s also working out and gaining offseason rapport with the Nittany Lions’ deep, veteran corps of receivers and tight ends.
“Just trying to do as much as possible, catch as many balls as possible,” star receiver Allen Robinson said last week during an appearance with teammates at Special Olympics in State College. “That the biggest thing as far as our success — trying to do as much as you can with the receivers.”
Coaches aren’t allowed to have detailed contact with players in the offseason, so the quarterbacks are expected to study up on their own.
Fisher said he thought that Ferguson was working hard and “doing what he had to do, just like (McGloin) a year ago.”
McGloin, who signed as a free agent with the NFL’s Oakland Raiders, blossomed in his lone season under O’Brien to set several passing records.
Ferguson is described in his bio as “an accurate passer with good pocket awareness and the ability to tuck the ball and run when he needs to.” Hackenberg’s bio lists him as possessing “superb arm strength and mobility.”
Neither player has ever faced a Big Ten defense — let alone any major college opposition.
Hackenberg has been reading up on Penn State’s offense to prepare for preseason camp.
“Matt McGloin made great strides last summer,” O’Brien said in a statement Thursday. “Now, he was an older guy and this year’s quarterback candidates are younger. So we’ll see how they do with that. I think they will work hard, and we’ll see how it goes when we start training camp.”
O’Brien, Fisher and the rest of the coaching staff spent the month after spring practice ended in April analyzing positions. Besides quarterback, the most notable change is in the secondary, where last year’s starting safeties — Malcolm Willis and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong — aren’t assured of starting jobs.
Willis, a senior, is competing with junior Ryan Keiser for one of the starting jobs. Both were described as having “practiced at a high level” in the spring.
Adrian Amos has been moved from cornerback to safety, with Obeng-Agyapong now backing him up.
Two sophomores are first string at cornerback: Jordan Lucas, who earned a spring practice award for conduct, attitude and improvement; and Trevor Williams, who had been moved over in the spring from receiver.
Regardless of where they’re listed on the depth chart, Willis and Obeng-Agyapong could see plenty of playing time anyway if the Nittany Lions use more nickel or dime defenses to help make the lack of depth at linebacker.