STATE COLLEGE — Don’t hold Penn State coach Bill O’Brien to the timeline that he would settle on a starting quarterback in a couple weeks.
There’s a lot to analyze when neither of the top two candidates has ever taken a Division I snap.
For now, junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson has a slight edge on prized freshman Christian Hackenberg in large part because Ferguson has more experience with the offense.
That’s saying a lot given he just arrived in January and has never played in a major college football game. But that’s still more experience than Hackenberg, who was playing high school ball a year ago.
“I said that in Chicago (at Big Ten media days), but I hope you didn’t mark it in your calendar,” O’Brien said Thursday at Penn State media day when asked if he still planned to settle on a starter by the end of next weekend, which would be two weeks before the season opener Aug. 31 against Syracuse at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey.
“Just hold your horses,” O’Brien said.
It’s a big responsibility for someone with so little experience, especially following the success of last year’s starter Matt McGloin. He set school records in deftly guiding the offense in O’Brien’s first year on the Penn State sideline.
Last year’s backup, little-used Steven Bench, transferred to South Florida after spring practice, leaving program newcomers Ferguson and Hackenberg as the top quarterback candidates.
The 6-foot-4, 210-pound Ferguson threw for 2,614 yards and 22 touchdowns in 10 games for the College of the Sequoias last season, completing 55 percent of his passes. He enrolled in school in January, so was eligible to take part in spring ball.
The 6-foot-3, 215-pound Hackenberg played in the Under Armour All-American game after playing for Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia.
As of Thursday morning, Ferguson was taking the majority of first-team snaps.
“After three days, I would say that Tyler is a little bit ahead, again because he has knowledge of the offense,” O’Brien said. Hackenberg, on the other hand, “must be staying up late at night studying the playbook because from Day 1 to Day 2 to Day 3, he’s improved. These are two very talented quarterbacks at the Penn State football program right now.”
Having a lot of weapons at the skill positions should help ease the transition.
The backfield is stocked with 1,000-yard rusher Zach Zwinak returning. The hard-nosed but soft-spoken Zwinak said he’s fine and ready to go for the season after injuring his left wrist in the spring game.
O’Brien said promising backups Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch will also see time.
Tight end is strong with returnees Kyle Carter, Jesse James and Matt Lehman, even with another veteran, Brent Wilkerson, sidelined by a back injury. Redshirt candidate Adam Breneman, a promising freshman, could also add depth at tight end.
The receiving corps is led by star junior Allen Robinson, who led the Big Ten with 1,013 receiving yards and 11 touchdown catches.
“They both look good,” Robinson said about Ferguson and Hackenberg. “There isn’t anybody I would flat-out pick.”
The dynamics at quarterback seem to be unique, too, for position coach Charlie Fisher. He can’t remember the last time he had a room full of quarterback candidates that had never taken a Division I snap.
It certainly helps, of course, that O’Brien coached the position when he was in the NFL with the New England Patriots.
“Experience for me is just patience. Take your time and teach,” Fisher said. “The expectations are the same no matter what. Work hard, learn from your mistakes and do the best you can every day.”
The team put on shoulder pads for the first time Thursday, the third day of practice. The defense, under the supervision of new coordinator John Butler, has the early edge so far, O’Brien said.
Either way, the preseason seems much less hectic than last year, when O’Brien and a new staff took over after the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.
“Everybody’s adjusted to the play-calling and types of coaching styles. Everybody knows what’s expected,” middle linebacker Glenn Carson said. “We’re light years ahead of where we were.”