Rudel: Don’t rule out Hackenberg; O’Brien isn’t

UNIVERSITY PARK – During his post-Blue-White Game press conference Saturday, Bill O’Brien left the door open for decorated incoming true freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg to compete for the Nittany Lions’ starting job in the fall.

After it, he opened it even wider.

Sophomore Steven Bench and junior-college transfer Tyler Ferguson split time, had practically identical statistics, and neither distanced themselves in the most public of the quarterbacks’ spring competition.

O’Brien didn’t tip his hand on whether one is ahead of the other, but he didn’t back away from a question on whether Hackenberg, the No. 1 rated high school prospect in some recruiting circles, will get a chance.

The 6-foot-4, 212-pound Fort Union Military Academy product arrives in June, but he’s been studying the playbook since he signed the national letter-of-intent in February and has been in steady dialogue with O’Brien since verbally committing in February of 2012.

Hackenberg was on hand to watch his future teammates Saturday.

“We’ll integrate him right in there,” O’Brien said. “It’s very difficult to get three quarterbacks reps in training camp so we’ll have to evaluate that in the next couple months – how we’ll do that, if we’ll do that.”

Honesty and candor have been part of O’Brien’s foundation since he succeeded Joe Paterno – one reason why so few have transferred – and he plans to meet with the entire squad, one by one, over the next few weeks to discuss their status academically and their place with the team.

“We have to do a good job making sure where these two guys [Bench and Ferguson] stand and making sure they know where they stand,” O’Brien said. “And then when training camp starts, we’ll have to give Christian some reps and give him a chance to compete.”

Clearly, O’Brien is not against the idea of starting a true freshman and although he admits his offensive system is “fairly complex,” the Lions do have a negotiable soft non-conference schedule (Syracuse, Eastern Michigan, Central Florida and Kent.)

Perhaps as tellingly on Saturday, O’Brien did not make either Bench, Ferguson or quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher – all requested by the media – available for post-game interviews.

Neither QB was available all spring, either, but it was thought they’d get their first taste of handling the media contingent (once again, 100-plus) after Saturday’s annual scrimmage.

It’s the first time in memory – even under JoePa, who protected his younger players, especially his younger quarterbacks – that the quarterbacks were shielded in the spring.

Ferguson, who arrived on campus in January, appeared to display the stronger arm, but Bench also showed accuracy in firing some completions into tight spots.

It’s difficult to overly evaluate a Blue-White Game, where most of the players don’t even play two series in a row, and rules are skewed to eliminate quarterback sacks.

O’Brien said both Bench and Ferguson “did decent things” on Saturday and throughout the spring.

When he was asked about one, he went out of his way to include the other, and he admitted he emerged from the spring “no closer” to determining a starter than he was 15 practices ago.

“It’s a decision that has to be made,” O’Brien said, “but not today.”

What he is sure about, however, is that he’s not a two-quarterback man. He said it a couple of times this spring, and he reiterated it Saturday when asked if he still prefers to use just one.

“Yes,” he said. “Only one quarterback can play at a time, in my opinion.”

And my opinion? Christian Hackenberg is driving home today, set to return in two months, still squarely in the mix.

Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or You can also follow him on Twitter@neilrudel.