Report: Freshman Hackenberg will start for Penn State

Christian Hackenberg, a true freshman, is likely to be under center on Saturday for the Nittany Lions. He reportedly beat out Tyler Ferguson, a junior-college transfer, for the starting QB job. GENE J. PUSKAR / AP
Christian Hackenberg, a true freshman, is likely to be under center on Saturday for the Nittany Lions. He reportedly beat out Tyler Ferguson, a junior-college transfer, for the starting QB job. GENE J. PUSKAR / AP
Posted: September 01, 2013

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - The Penn State quarterback sweepstakes entered its final week with no apparent resolution. Coach Bill O'Brien decided that he wouldn't tell anyone who would start before the kickoff of Saturday's season opener against Syracuse.

But after refusing to say earlier in the week whether he had reached a decision, he admitted Thursday night on his radio show that he had made one, and that he had told the principals and the team.

Late Friday, word hit the street, in the form of an ESPN.com report, that true freshman Christian Hackenberg would take the first snap on offense for the Nittany Lions at what should be a steamy MetLife Stadium.

A five-star recruit out of Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy and one of the nation's finest high school quarterbacks last year, the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Hackenberg edged out sophomore Tyler Ferguson, a junior-college transfer, during the monthlong competition.

O'Brien had said he wanted to name a starter halfway through preseason camp. But the general wisdom was that the longer the contest played out, with O'Brien deferring the decision several times, the better Hackenberg's chances were.

O'Brien said that the starter will see most of the snaps Saturday but that the No. 2 quarterback will play some.

The coach had steadfastly talked about the two quarterbacks as a pair, declining to single out one or the other for a certain quality.

"They're two pretty comparable guys when it comes to that position," O'Brien said earlier in the week. "Both guys are smart, so whether it's in the meeting room or out on the field, they're able to digest and execute what we're trying to do."

Both teams are using first-time starters at quarterback on Saturday. Scott Shafer, Syracuse's first-year coach, had not revealed his choice.

Shafer has two candidates with different styles. Sophomore Terrel Hunt can throw on the run; senior Drew Allen, a transfer from Oklahoma, is an effective drop-back passer, standing tall in the pocket at 6-foot-5. So that could be a dilemma for the Penn State defense.

"You really don't understand or know what you're going to get," senior safety Malcolm Willis said. "We have to be ready for anything, to be quite frank."

Willis, who is second among active Nittany Lions with 17 career starts, is a figure in one of two other position battles that have carried on throughout training camp. He and junior Ryan Keiser are competing for one of the safety positions.

At offensive right tackle, redshirt junior Garry Gilliam, who moved over from tight end in the spring, has been challenging senior Adam Gress. Gress was slowed by a recent knee injury, but O'Brien said he practiced this week.

Gilliam, who sat out 11/2 seasons after suffering a gruesome knee injury at Iowa in 2010, asked O'Brien during his end-of-season interview whether he could move to tackle. He said that tight end is a strength of the Lions and that he thought he could help at tackle.

"My playing time wasn't as much as I wanted it to be," Gilliam said. "We weren't as deep at tackle."


Penn State vs. Syracuse

When: Saturday at 3:30 p.m.

Where: MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J.

Records: Penn State, 0-0; Syracuse, 0-0.

TV/Radio: 6ABC; WNTP-AM (990), WNPV-AM (1440)

Coaches: Penn State, Bill O'Brien (second season, 8-4); Syracuse, Scott Shafer (first season, 0-0).

Series: Penn State leads, 42-23-5, although it had to vacate the two most recent wins because of NCAA sanctions. The teams last met in 2009, a 28-7 Lions win at Beaver Stadium. Syracuse's last win came in 1988.

Three Things to Watch

Each team will have a new starter at quarterback. Which one will be able to overcome his nerves more quickly? And which defense will adjust better?

Given the predicted high temperature of 88, time of possession will be a major factor. Success in that regard for Penn State might be short passes to the tight ends, while Syracuse may try to soften up the Lions' defensive line with rushers Jerome Smith and Prince-Tyson Gulley, who combined for 2,001 yards last season.

Depth also could be an issue in the North Jersey heat. Each team is allowed to dress 80 players, and that means a sizable complement of O'Brien's "run-ons," particularly the freshmen, will get thrown into the fire in the opener.

Three Things You Might Not Know

Penn State has been the most-played opponent in the history of Syracuse football. The Orange are playing the Nittany Lions for the 71st time; Pittsburgh is second with 68 meetings.

No quarterbacks on the roster have thrown a pass for the Nittany Lions, but two players have. Wide receiver (now running back) Bill Belton threw two (both incomplete) as a Wildcat quarterback in the final two games ofthe 2011 season. Punter Alex Butterworth misfired on a fake punt last season against Ohio State.

Penn State's tight ends caught 82 passes last season, second in the nation to Stanford, which got 90 receptions out of its tight ends.

- Joe Juliano


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

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