Ferguson, a junior college transfer, and Hackenberg, a true freshman, have battled since the Nittany Lions opened training camp on Aug. 5. O'Brien will let it play out a few more days, but the date with Syracuse is quickly approaching.
Critiquing, coaching and analyzing the daily play of two inexperienced quarterbacks on a practice field could be a stressful task for some coaches. But O'Brien often speaks of both Ferguson and Hackenberg's intelligence and work ethic, and the offensive-minded coach has savored this opportunity.
"I've never had more fun coaching quarterbacks than I have coaching these two guys," O'Brien said.
O'Brien has spent slightly more time with Ferguson, who enrolled at Penn State in January after a season at California's College of the Sequoias. Meanwhile, Hackenberg was a star recruit out of high school and got to campus in June.
Neither Ferguson nor Hackenberg has ever taken a Division I snap, and they have not been around their new teammates for very long. Both of these aspects factor into O'Brien's decision.
The coach wants to play both quarterbacks and though he said the starter will get more reps, he wants the other player to "get his feet wet." Last year, O'Brien named veteran Matt McGloin the Lions' starting quarterback at the beginning of June, but he has kept the competition going this season, in part to let both players get more acclimated.
"In this situation where you have two young guys, neither of them have been here very long, I think it's important for each guy to continue to earn their stripes," O'Brien said. "And continue to gain the respect of their teammates."
Teammates' reviews of the signal callers are on par with O'Brien's.
Senior tight end Matt Lehman - who caught 24 passes for 296 yards and three touchdowns last season - was encouraged by how well two unseasoned players were taking to learning to play the hardest position in a complex offense.
"Coach O'Brien talks about how these guys are two of the best he's seen as far as mental capacity and being able to pick up the offense so quickly," Lehman said. "That's definitely comforting, that we're going to have a young guy out there who knows the offense and learned the offense in just a few short months."
Asked to compare and contrast the two quarterbacks, O'Brien did not go into much detail, and said "they're more similar than they are different."
Ferguson is 19, 6-3 and from California. Hackenberg is 18, 6-4 and a Virginian. One of them will jog onto the field when Penn State takes its first snap at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., in 10 days, and guard John Urschel said that whether it is Ferguson or Hackenberg, both will benefit because of the tug-of-war for the job.
"Honestly, on any football team, competition is good. Competition breeds success," Urschel said. "When guys are competing and working hard, that's when they're truly getting better. I think this quarterback competition is great for our offense and for our team."
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