Quarterback competition still far from settled
UNIVERSITY PARK – Dozens of TV crews, photographers and reporters packed the sideline at Penn State’s practice field Thursday afternoon to get a first glimpse and first analysis of quarterback Christian Hackenberg.
But while all eyes were glued on the heralded freshman who’s considered PSU’s quarterback of the future, for now at least, Hackenberg is trailing junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson by a slim margin in what’s shaping up to be a good competition in training camp.
Until Thursday, most fans probably figured Hackenberg might already have a stronghold on the starting job. He’s the star recruit, after all, and Ferguson’s commitment has come into question as he wasn’t even around at the end of summer because he went home to California to be with his family and mother, who’s battling breast cancer.
Coach Bill O’Brien put any assumptions about the competition to rest early on media day when he explained why, through three days of training camp, Ferguson is taking most of the first-team reps for the Nittany Lions.
“I would say after three days that Tyler is a little bit ahead, again, because he has knowledge of the offense,” O’Brien said. “So sure, he’s a little bit ahead. He takes most of the reps with the first team right now.”
Right now, that’s the key phrase.
With 25 practices to go before the season opener, there’s still plenty of competing left in the quarterback battle.
Ferguson had the benefit of learning and working in the Lions’ complex offense during the spring, while Hackenberg just arrived in late June.
“No doubt, going through the spring and 15 practices and all those meetings, it’s just more volume of knowledge that [Ferguson has] had a chance to learn,” quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher said.
From the sound of things, and considering Hackenberg has only been around a short time, the fact that the competition is so close is a testament to how prepared he was coming into camp.
“Christian has come in here and really done a nice job,” O’Brien said. “For a true freshman to come in here and do the things that he’s done in the first three practices is really good to see.
“He’s attentive. He must be staying up late at night studying the playbook because he’s come from day one to day two to day three and improved, and he asks great questions in the meetings. So does Tyler. These are two talented guys.”
Regardless of how highly touted Hackenberg was coming out of high school, O’Brien and his staff will name a starter based on merit rather than reputation.
“We’ve got to get past all the recruiting. These are two very talented quarterbacks in the Penn State football program now, and right now, like I said, only three practices in, I would say Tyler is a little bit ahead,” O’Brien said.
Neither O’Brien nor Fisher would explain specifics about what puts Ferguson ahead or what areas the two will need to work on the most to win the job. They spoke mostly in generalities about the competition.
“Just consistency,” Fisher said. “That’s about any position, guy is consistent, makes good decisions, leads your team, shows up every day ready to go to work. We’ve got time to figure that out. That’s our job.”
Accuracy and knowledge of the offense “all play a factor,” Fisher added, but he indicated some of the decision will come down to intangibles.
“There’s other factors, too, in leadership and presence just all those little things that kind of go into making a quarterback a quarterback,” Fisher said.
None of the Penn State players wanted anything to do with evaluating the quarterback competition. From running back Zach Zwinak to tight end Kyle Carter to safety Adrian Amos, to a man, each said virtually the same thing – as if it were rehearsed – such as, “You’d have to ask Coach O’Brien about that.”
O’Brien said at Big Ten media days that he’d like to name a starter by the middle of training camp, but he shied away from any kind of timeline Thursday.
“I said that in Chicago,” the coach said, “but like I hope you didn’t mark it on your calendar, so you’re all outside my office two weeks, a week from now or whatever. Just hold your horses.”
One thing the coaches concentrate on with the quarterbacks is to “win the day,” meaning in this type of competition each must focus on doing what he can to outperform the other every day.
“If you love football, you love sports, you’re an athlete, you’re a competitor, that’s what you live for,” Fisher said of the daily competition. “That’s what it’s all about. That brings out the best in everybody.”
What exactly entails winning the day?
“To me that’s consistency,” Fisher said. “That’s coming out there and running the operation, running our team, leadership, presence and knowing what to do every day. And then at the end, the consistency factor will play out.”
For O’Brien, having a short memory and staying in the moment separates quarterbacks.
“I just want them to continue to grasp what we’re trying to do and go out there and play the next play,” the coach said. “Don’t worry about the last play. Play the next play.”