STATE COLLEGE — He won’t arrive in Happy Valley for another three months. But Christian Hackenberg will have plenty of opportunity to win Penn State’s starting quarterback job.
Bill O’Brien isn’t about to count him out.
“Certainly he’ll be in the mix (to start),” O’Brien said Monday at his spring press conference. “At every single position, we’re going to play the best players
“Christian can’t do anything about the fact that he can’t be here until June. … So yeah, Christian will come in and we’ll teach him the offense, give him some reps and we’ll see how he does, certainly.”
With spring practice just opening Monday in snowy State College, O’Brien isn’t in a position to close any doors yet. The Penn State coach said he was eager to see what the quarterbacks who are already on campus — sophomores Steven Bench and Tyler Ferguson — can do on the field.
But there will always be plenty of attention paid to Hackenberg, the incoming freshman from Virginia who is rated by some recruiting services as the top dropback passer in the nation.
Still, those five-star ratings don’t mean anything once practices begin, and Hackenberg will be forced to play catch-up with Bench and Ferguson once preseason camp opens in August. O’Brien did, however, cite the quick progress Bench made last summer, winning the top backup job as a rookie despite limited time with the playbook.
In ideal circumstances, perhaps, the Nittany Lions would have an experienced and entrenched starter under center, allowing them to redshirt Hackenberg this season.
With Matt McGloin having graduated, that’s not the situation. So when asked if he would — ideally — like to redshirt Hackenberg given what he has at quarterback, O’Brien balked.
“That is not necessarily the case,” he said.
“Look — you bring these guys in. They’re on full scholarship. Unless they’re injured, then you’re gonna put them into the mix and let them compete. And you’re gonna play the best players. You’re looking to go out there and put your best football team on the field on Aug. 31 (in the season opener against Syracuse).
“We’re a long way away from that. But we don’t look at anybody and say we’re definitely gonna redshirt you.”
Though Hackenberg understandably has the spotlight on him, Bench would have to be considered the early favorite by virtue of having a year in the system already under his belt.
Ferguson, who transferred to Penn State from a junior college in California, has only had the playbook for a few months. Monday was his first practice with O’Brien and quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher.
“Steven has been in the program for a year and Tyler just got here in January, and they are both working at it,” O’Brien said. “I would say Steven probably knows (the offense) a little bit better than Tyler right now just because he’s been here for a year, which, that’s not Tyler’s fault. He’s catching up and he’s doing a good job learning.”
Ferguson stands about an inch taller than Bench, though the newcomer has a slighter frame without the benefit of Bench’s full year in Penn State’s overhauled strength program. Ferguson nonetheless showed off a nice spiral during the brief period of the opening practice that was open to media.
Bench showed an ability to create on the move during his lone stretch of meaningful snaps last season when he briefly subbed in for an ailing McGloin against Virginia. Ferguson has the experience of being a starting quarterback just last year at College of the Sequoias.
By any metric, it figures to be a close battle.
“They’e both athletic, they both can throw the football,” O’Brien said. “And now it’s going to depend on how well they can make decisions and how accurately they can throw the football.
“They both want to be coached. They’re both on time. They sit in the front row and they both pay attention and take a lot of notes. It’s a really fun group to be around.”