O'Brien's biggest issue: Who plays quarterback?

Glenn Carson (40) returns at linebacker and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong (7) at safety for the Lions. Obeng-Agyapong may also see time at linebacker.
Glenn Carson (40) returns at linebacker and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong (7) at safety for the Lions. Obeng-Agyapong may also see time at linebacker. (GENE J. PUSKAR / AP)
Posted: August 05, 2013

The two people battling to be the 2013 starting quarterback for Penn State have never have taken a snap in a big-time college football game. That might leave some head coaches apprehensive, but not Bill O'Brien.

O'Brien, who will lead the Nittany Lions into Monday's opening day of preseason practice, is excited about working with the quarterbacks, sophomore Tyler Ferguson and freshman Christian Hackenberg. He loves being able to "mold" each player, not just in terms of mechanics and fundamentals but in being a leader.

O'Brien says "a million things" go into molding a quarterback.

"It's how to act," O'Brien said last month. "Be the first one to a meeting. Be early. Take notes. Be a great locker room guy. Don't ever miss a class. Don't ever get in trouble off the field. What can you do extra in the weight room to help your game? What can you do on the field on your own to help your game?

"In the meeting room, I teach you this on Monday and when you come back on Tuesday, do you know it? 'Yeah, I know it, Coach, but I have two questions.' And they're great questions, and that starts a conversation on football, so you know the guy's into it. He's putting the time in.

"Then you go to practice. These guys love to practice. The great quarterbacks that I've been around, when they walk on the practice field, the whole team knows they're there. It's performing well at practice and not settling for anything less than the best, striving for perfection knowing that you're never going to get there. And then obviously on game day going out there and doing it, not turning it over, playing good football."

Matt McGloin, who set numerous school passing records last season, is no longer around. Steven Bench, last year's backup, transferred in April after O'Brien told him that Ferguson and Hackenberg would be getting most of the reps in preseason.

So that leaves Ferguson, a junior-college transfer who enrolled in January, and Hackenberg as the only scholarship quarterbacks. O'Brien said the 6-foot-3, 213-pound Ferguson is considered ahead "but only slightly" because he went through spring practice with the Nittany Lions.

Meanwhile, Hackenberg, one of the most highly recruited high school quarterbacks in the country, has the size (6-3, 218) and skill to compete for and win the job.

"Because neither of them has played in a game yet at Penn State, I'm going to basically split the reps," O'Brien said. "I think that's what's best for the team. I'm going to see, hopefully pretty quickly, who stands out. Maybe neither one of them does, and then I have to make a choice."

That choice, he said, will come about halfway through training camp to give the starter enough time to prepare for the Aug. 31 season opener against Syracuse.

The inexperience means that O'Brien has had to take a step back with his offense, which averaged 32.6 points in Big Ten play last season with McGloin at the controls.

"We've tried to tweak our scheme to match what is obviously going to be a young quarterback," he said. "What can we do to maybe, not simplify, but do some things that play into the young quarterback's hands a little better. Hopefully that works. But our expectations don't change as far as scoring points."

After attending Penn State's first summer session, Ferguson returned home to Bakersfield, Calif., to be with his mother, who is ill. O'Brien is certain Ferguson will be ready for training camp.

The wild card as camp opens is Hackenberg, whom O'Brien first saw on tape after he took the Penn State job while still helping the New England Patriots prepare for the playoffs as their offensive coordinator.

"I could tell he was a good decision-maker," he said. "I felt mechanically he was solid. I felt that he was accurate. I could tell on film that he was a bigger guy, which I liked because he could see over the trees."

Hackenberg committed early to O'Brien and kept his promise after Penn State was assessed major sanctions by the NCAA, including a four-year postseason ban.

The quarterback position is receiving the most attention, but the Nittany Lions have other issues ahead in training camp.

While they don't have to be at a maximum of 65 scholarship players until next season as ordered by the sanctions, the Lions will begin camp with fewer than 70. They must develop depth at several positions, particularly linebacker, meaning members of the incoming freshman class and walk-ons - or "run-ons," as O'Brien likes to call them - will compete for backup positions and roles on special teams.

However, right now, after a rather quiet summer compared with the tumultuous times after the sanctions came out last year, O'Brien is ready to go.

"I'm excited to get started," he said.

Contact Joe Juliano at jjuliano@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @JoeJulesInq

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