Quarterback competitions took center stage around the Big Ten this spring and will continue to do so when preseason camps kick off in August. As camp approaches, we're examining each of the unsettled signal-caller races in the league, where they stand and what needs to be done in the all important summer months.
Penn State is in the spotlight today.
The candidates: Tyler Ferguson, 6-foot-3, 213 pounds, sophomore; Christian Hackenberg, 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, freshman
Statistics: Neither candidate has played in an FBS game. Ferguson passed for 2,614 yards and 22 touchdowns in 10 games for College of the Sequoias in Visalia, Calif., before transferring to Penn State; Hackenberg passed for 2,144 yards and 24 touchdowns and added 436 rush yards and three scores for Fork Union Military Academy.
Where things stand: Ferguson and Hackenberg are listed as co-starters on Penn State's summer depth chart entering camp, which kicks off Aug. 5. Ferguson competed with Steven Bench throughout spring practice and created a bit of separation, as Bench opted to transfer after being informed he wouldn't be in the mix for the starting job in preseason camp. Hackenberg comes to Penn State as a decorated recruit, the nation's No. 1 quarterback in the 2012 class according to RecruitingNation. Although he could be a redshirt candidate if Ferguson wins the job, he'll have every opportunity to become Penn State's starter right away.
Summer buzz: Matt McGloin showed last spring and summer that despite the complexities of Bill O'Brien's NFL-style offense, a quarterback can absorb enough of the system in a relatively short timespan. McGloin surprised many by leading the Big Ten in passing yards (3,266) and passing touchdowns (24), as he helped Penn State win eight of its final 10 games.
It's up to Ferguson and Hackenberg to follow a similar path.
Penn State's safest bet in terms of offense system knowledge would have been Bench, who backed up McGloin last year and went through all of spring practice. But O'Brien clearly saw more potential with Ferguson and Hackenberg even though neither has taken a snap in an FBS game.
Ferguson impressed O'Brien with his accuracy, instincts and field vision this spring. He graded well when tested on the offense, although O'Brien hopes to see a McGloin-like jump during the summer, when players must work on their own.
"What gives you confidence is not only your own skill set but your competency in the system," O'Brien told ESPN.com "When you know it like the back of your hand, it becomes easier to go out there and perform and take advantage of the things that you do well, which is throw the ball and have good vision on the field. [Ferguson] improved every week, every day. At the end, from where he started, I felt like he had picked it up pretty well. Does he know everything? No, of course not. That would be an unfair expectation.
"Last year, Matt McGloin made a lot of strides during the summer. That's what Tyler needed to do."
Some might argue it's an unfair expectation for Hackenberg to absorb the offense in a matter of weeks, but O'Brien thinks it can be done. Hackenberg, after all, isn't a typical incoming freshman. He impressed O'Brien throughout the recruiting process, from sticking with his pledge to Penn State despite the heavy sanctions imposed on the program, to handling the media spotlight as a nationally elite prospect.
Hackenberg's maturity carries over to the field.
"When you would talk to him over the phone or in person, you could talk football with him," O'Brien said. "He understood what Cover 2 was, Cover 1, Cover 3. He understood what a one-back formation was and a three-by-one formation. There's some things I noticed during the recruiting process that I think will carry over to college.
"Christian has some really good attributes coming in the door."
O'Brien has no strict timetable on when he'll name a starter or when more of the practice reps will be directed to one quarterback. Each quarterback learns in his own way, O'Brien said, and while the staff knows what Ferguson can handle, it will be important to assess Hackenberg early in camp.
"Certainly we can't throw the kitchen sink at either one of them early on," O'Brien said. "We've got to make sure they can go out there and function. We've got to do a great job of that early on in training camp, and give them the offense bit by bit and let them grow. We do a lot of 11-on-11 drills, seven-on-seven drills during training camp, so we'll have a good idea of where they stand a few weeks into training camp."
O'Brien is focused more on the new quarterbacks absorbing the system than establishing themselves as team leaders. Despite losing a special senior class, Penn State boasts strong leadership throughout its roster, and Ferguson and Hackenberg will have plenty of "good mentors" at their disposal.
"It's hard to assume a leadership role when you’re basically a rookie quarterback," O'Brien said. "You have to come in and work hard in the weight room, which I believe Tyler has done. You have to go out on the practice field and perform and work hard and gain the respect of your teammates. Those are difficult things, and that'll come as time goes on."
The redshirt debate surrounding Hackenberg continues among Penn State fans, and a good case can be made that sitting him out this year is best for the program's future, especially with three more years of postseason sanctions. But O'Brien is focused on the moment.
"Whatever decision I make is always in the best interest of the football team," he said, "not what's good for the individual kid or the individual coach or what have you. I don't know when that’ll happen. We've got to let it play out."
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