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Thursday, February 21, 2013
Spring QB battles: Penn State

By Adam Rittenberg

Spring practice in the Big Ten is just around the corner, and more than half of the teams will hold quarterback competitions during the 15 practice sessions. Many of these will spill over into fall camp.

We're breaking down each of these position battles before they begin. Next up: the Penn State Nittany Lions.

Incumbent (2012 stats): None. Matt McGloin (3,266 pass yards, 24 touchdowns, five interceptions, 60.5 percent completions) has exhausted his eligibility.

Spring contenders: Steven Bench, sophomore; Tyler Ferguson, sophomore

Summer contender: Christian Hackenberg, incoming freshman

The skinny: Most of the Big Ten quarterback competitions feature players with some starting experience, but Penn State lacks a player who has proven himself at the FBS level. Bench played sparingly behind McGloin in 2012, completing 2 of 8 passes for 12 yards in two games. A late addition in the 2012 recruiting class, he received good reviews from quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher, who said last February of Bench, "He's got athleticism, he can throw the ball, he's a great competitor." Ferguson has done the most in college, albeit in junior college, passing for 2,614 yards with 22 touchdowns in 10 games for the College of the Sequoias in California. He enrolled early and participated in the winter conditioning program. The real intrigue here is Hackenberg, rated by ESPN Recruiting as the nation's No. 1 quarterback in the 2013 class. The 6-foot-3, 215-pound Hackenberg certainly looks like Penn State's quarterback of the future, and while some hope he redshirts in 2013, he could be the Lions' best option.

Bench and Ferguson have a head start this spring, the period where McGloin solidified the starting job in 2012. But if neither man separates himself, Hackenberg should be in the mix in August. "We have to play the best guy, whoever that guy is," coach Bill O'Brien said earlier this month. "He has to run the team the best and understands the system the best and takes care of the football the best. ... That's a long process of spring practice, and for Christian, it's the summer conditioning and then the training camp. We'll play the best guy."

Prediction: Penn State's competition is a tough one to forecast because, as O'Brien puts it, "whoever plays quarterback for us next year will be really a first-time player in college." Bench gets a slight edge because of his familiarity with O'Brien's system and because he played behind McGloin for a year. He saw firsthand how McGloin blossomed from a mediocre player to one of the Big Ten's best quarterbacks. Bench and Ferguson both are good athletes, but Hackenberg clearly has the most potential. There's certainly a temptation to redshirt him, but if neither Bench nor Ferguson is near the level McGloin reached last spring, Hackenberg will get a serious look in fall camp. If the door is open for Hackenberg, don't be surprised to see him leading the offense this fall.