UNIVERSITY PARK - It's easy to presume Steven Bench would have the advantage in Penn State's quarterback battle because he was the backup last year and knows the system, but Tyler Ferguson might have gained an even bigger edge in 2012.
Ferguson actually played a significant role in college games as a starter a year ago, guiding an offense, reading live defenses and having the game in his hands. It was against junior college competition at College of the Sequoias in California, but his former coach believes that live JUCO competition can help a quarterback develop more than being a backup at the Division I level.
"The advantage would go to playing the junior college here [where] you're playing games that mean something and not practices," Sequoias coach Robert Dougherty said Monday by phone.
Bench backed up Matt McGloin last year and honed his skills as much as possible in limited reps against PSU's strong defense in practice. Any quality quarterback undoubtedly would improve facing that level of competition day in and day out.
But while Bench was practicing, Ferguson played in 10 games and threw for 2,614 yards with 22 touchdowns.
OK, but it was against junior college competition, so how much can you actually read into those numbers?
"For people that don't know junior college football out here, the level we play at, especially in our league, is pretty damn high," Dougherty said. "[Tyler was] facing big-time college defenses every week here. For the most part, the kids are D-I kind of athletes.
"The competition level, especially the DBs, they can play."
Penn State opened spring drills with its first practice Monday, and the major question between now and the fall will be the quarterback situation. Bench, a true sophomore, and Ferguson, a redshirt sophomore, will lead the team during the spring, then prized recruit Christian Hackenberg will join the mix this summer.
Hackenberg will be in the mix for the starting job, too, as coach Bill O'Brien bristled at the notion that he's already made up his mind that Hackenberg will redshirt.
"Certainly he'll be in the mix," O'Brien said. "At every single position, we are going to play the best players. ... Christian can't do anything about the fact that he can't be here until June."
The coach added, "Christian will come in, and we'll teach him the offense and give him some reps and see how he does."
Bench appeared in two games last season, briefly when McGloin was injured at Virginia and during a blowout win at Purdue. He was 2-of-8 for 12 yards and carried three times for 18 yards.
The Lions had hoped to land standout JUCO quarterback Jake Waters, but he chose Kansas State instead. Ferguson, who was recruited by Houston, was the No. 2 choice and enrolled at PSU in January.
"Tyler, athletically, is pretty gifted," said Dougherty, a former quarterback himself who played in the CFL and NFL Europe. "He can run pretty well for his size (6-foot-3, 199 pounds), has got a quick release, sees the field pretty well. He's got some intangibles that you can't teach. ... He just needs more experience.
"He's seen a lot in 10 games. He came to me with, I thought, pretty good fundamentals, and I think he improved on reading defenses and making smart decisions and not forcing things as much."
Dougherty admitted O'Brien will be able to teach Ferguson "a lot more than I ever taught him about the quarterback position."
To take the next steps in his development, his former coach believes, Ferguson will have to become a student of the game, watch a lot of film and be patient, letting things come to him instead of trying to rush himself.
O'Brien said there are some similarities between Bench and Ferguson but noted they are different quarterbacks.
"They are both athletic, they both can throw the football, and now it's going to depend on how well they can make decisions and how accurately they can throw the football," O'Brien said. "They both want to be coached. They are both on time. They sit in the front row and they both pay attention and take a lot of notes."