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Why doesn't O'Brien keep PSU's starting QB secret?

August 20, 2013 - Cory Giger
UNIVERSITY PARK -- Why should Bill O'Brien name a starting quarterback at all? Pick one, sure, but why not just keep it secret until Penn State actually takes the field against Syracuse?

O'Brien said Tuesday he's not going to name a starter until the end of the week, giving Christian Hackenberg and Tyler Ferguson a few more days to, as he said, "earn their stripes."

So we'll know soon enough who's going to start.

But really, why should we know? Why do football coaches give away a competitive edge of publicly naming a starter at any position, let alone the most important position on the field?

Depth charts aren't required in college football, yet basically every team in the country releases one before the season. Why not keep that secret, which is an option, and force opponents to guess and do extra homework preparing to face you in an opener?

That's exactly what Syracuse coach Scott Shafer has decided to do. The Orange will have a new starting quarterback against the Nittany Lions, and Shafer has said he won't announce if the starter will be Drew Allen or Terrel Hunt until the day of the game.

Penn State's practices are closed to the media, so O'Brien could keep the starting quarterback under wraps, to some degree anyway. It probably would leak from a player or some practice observer, but in a situation like the Nittany Lions face with two young guys who are neck and neck in the competition, there wouldn't seem to be a benefit to publicly naming the top guy.

"I don't have to do anything you guys want me to do," O'Brien said with a laugh when I asked him if it's really necessary to tell the world who's starting.

"I will name somebody," the coach added. "I'll tell you guys, there will be a guy that runs out there and starts the first game, and the guy that's the starter is going to play the majority of the snaps."

It's a much different situation than last year for O'Brien, who had an easy choice in naming Matt McGloin the starter. Revealing at the beginning of June that McGloin was his guy made it clear to the entire team who would lead the offense, plus it gave McGloin extra confidence.

"In this situation, where you have two young guys who neither of them have been here very long, I think it's important for each guy to continue to earn their stripes and continue to gain the respect of their teammates," O'Brien said.

A starter will be named later this week, and by the sound of things, O'Brien has a very tough choice and will have a lot of confidence in whoever he picks.

"These are two of the best young quarterbacks I've ever coached," O'Brien said. "Tyler is 19 years old and Christian is 18. I'd say by the end of the week, we'll make a decision on who will start the Syracuse game. I would say that both guys will play this year."

Notice how he said specifically "the Syracuse game." That seems to indicate the competition will continue beyond the opener and that both players will continue to get chances to showcase their skills.

"Whoever the backup is is a young guy that needs to get his feet wet a little bit," O'Brien said. "So why not play him a series here or there, just to get him into a major college football game and let him get his feet wet?"

Whoever he decides and whatever criteria he uses, O'Brien will be a better head coach for having gone through this process. It's the first time in his career that he's had to have a true quarterback competition, and it certainly won't be the last.

O'Brien noted how at Georgia Tech he had a clear starter in George Godsey, and it was the same at Duke with Thaddeus Lewis. There certainly was no issue at quarterback during his time with the Patriots and Tom Brady, and last year McGloin was head and shoulders above everyone else.

"This is the first situation [for me], and it's a really good situation for our football team," O'Brien said.

One thing to keep in mind is that whoever starts the opener might or might not be the quarterback of the future for the Lions. Ferguson might give PSU a better chance to beat Syracuse if he's still slightly ahead of Hackenberg in terms of grasping the entire offense. But if Hackenberg already is this close in the competition, it's conceivable he could catch up in just a few more weeks, or by the start of Big Ten play.

That's probably why every time O'Brien is asked about the starting quarterback he makes sure to downplay the decision.

"I think people put too much stock into the naming of a quarterback," he said.

Well, it is the most important decision in all of sports. And this particular decision could shape the Penn State program and O'Brien's head coaching career for years to come.

It's surprising that O'Brien, who's shown a tendency to be very decisive, hasn't already made up his mind. Or maybe he has and he's merely letting things play out a few more days just to be sure.

Whatever the case, we'll know by the end of the week who will be starting. For the first game at least.

Follow Giger on Twitter @CoryGiger

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