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Bill O’Brien’s 7 Rules for Picking Penn State Football’s Next Quarterback

by on March 18, 2013 1:35 AM

After a winter of reliving the 2012 season again (and again), Penn State will hold its first official spring football practice Monday afternoon.

But it may be 22 weeks from now until second-year coach Bill O’Brien names his starting quarterback for the 2013 season. Or longer. When, exactly?

“…I would say, at the very least, two weeks before that Syracuse game,” O’Brien said Sunday.

The Nittany Lions open the season on Saturday, Aug. 31, against Syracuse in the New Jersey Meadowlands – that’s 166 days from now. This horse-race to find Matt McGloin’s successor will actually be a marathon. The leading contenders:

-- No. 12 Steven Bench (6-foot-2, 205 pounds), Bainbridge, Ga.; sophomore in the fall. McGloin’s freshman understudy in 2012. Took 14 snaps in two games; 2 of 8 for 12 yards passing; 3 for 18 yards rushing. Took minimal practice snaps with first unit last fall, but @SBench12 is team’s most prodigious Tweeter – 22,948 as of midnight last night.

-- No. 5 Tyler Ferguson (6-3, 199), Visalia, Calif.; after one semester at the College of the Sequoias (Calif.) he enrolled at Penn State in January. He’ll have three seasons of eligibility over the next four seasons. For a 4-6 COS team in 2012, Ferguson completed 199 of 358 passes (55.6%), for 2,614 yards, with 22 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Six games into his senior season at Bakersfield (Calif.) Ridgeview High School, Ferguson broke his collarbone; to that point, he had thrown for 1,275 yards and 10 TDs.

-- Christian Hackenberg (6-3, 215), Palmyra, Va.; a freshman who will enroll this summer. Rated the No. 1 high school quarterback last year by ESPN while playing for Fork Union Academy, where he threw for 5,509 yards and 56 TDs. In 2012 for 10-3 Fork Union, he was 156 of 291 (53.6%), for 2,144 yards, with 24 touchdowns and nine interceptions.

If O’Brien is indeed waiting until two weeks out to name a starter, that gives Hackenberg a small window to make an impression on the practice field and win the starting job. While he can work out with his fellow players and also Penn State’s strength coaches over the summer, he won’t be working directly with O’Brien until the first week of August. (Penn State’s first official day of summer drills has not yet been announced, but in 2012 – when PSU played its season opener on Sept. 1 – its first day of drills was Aug. 6.) If Hackenberg redshirts this season, after the NCAA sanctions are completed, he will be eligible to play in postseason games following the 2016 and 2017 seasons.

None of that will rule him out of winning the starting job, said O’Brien, who has been talking with Hackenberg – his No. 1 recruiting priority since Day One -- as often as possible over the past 13 months. And O’Brien has liked what he’s heard.

“Based on those conversations, I think he can” start, O’Brien said on Sunday. “Now, again, when the bullets are flying and all those things with a young quarterback, we’ll have to see how he does when he gets here. Obviously, we think very highly of him. And again, we think highly of all these guys we’re coaching. It’ll be a heckuva competition.”

For now, this is how that competition will go:

“What we’re going to do this spring is we are going to balance the reps between Steven Bench and Tyler Ferguson," O'Brien said. "And then at the end of spring, we’ll evaluate it at that point. We will not name a starter at the end of the spring. And then sometime during training camp, whenever I decide, we’ll name the starter.”

If you’re handicapping the race – and who won’t be? – here are the major criteria O’Brien said he will use when naming a starter (quotations are O’Brien’s):

1. Know the Offense. “No. 1, he has to have a very, very good grasp of the offense, I would say, at the very least, two weeks before that Syracuse game.” That means the QB must not only know all the plays, but everyone’s routes, roles and blocking schemes, and any corresponding adjustments against a multitude of defenses, in dozens of situations.

2. Speak Obrienese. Although it’s still football, the nomenclature that Ferguson and Hackenberg will have to learn is far advanced to what they are accustomed. Bench has had a year to get the terminology down Pats. “The quarterback needs to communicate. It’s interesting to watch these guys. It’s a whole different language than what they were used to doing in high school or junior college. That’ll be big.”

3. Speak With O’Brien With Ease. Charlie Fisher is the quarterback coach, but O’Brien runs the show. The QB will need to speak to the top boss with confidence. O’Brien said this is an area where Hackenberg excels. “When you are standing up in front of them or watching film with them, I like to have a lot of conversations. Like in the quarterback meeting, I want to know what they know… It’s been interesting to see the recollection that they have from last year, with a kid like Steven Bench. It’s been fun to see what a new guy like Tyler Ferguson studies and how he comes back the next day and learns.”

4. Don’t Be Picky. As in throwing interceptions. Otherwise, in just about all other circumstances, 4a. Be Very Picky -- as in making the right decision. O’Brien likes a high touchdown-to-low interception ratio. McGloin threw 24 TD passes, with only five picks, in 2012. The previous two years, McG threw for 22 touchdowns, with 14 interceptions. “Matt did an excellent job of making the right decision. That’s a big deal for us.”

5. Be a Complete Passer. “You have to throw the ball accurately. Be accurate.” McGloin completed 60.5% of his passes last season. Tom Brady, O’Brien’s former pupil, is a career 63.7% passer for the New England Patriots. Ferguson (55.6% in ’12) and Hackenburg (53.6% in '12) have some work to do.

6. Have Footballs of Steel. “We have to feel that he can run this offense in front of 100,000 fans (when) there’s crowd noise.”

7. Be The Man. “You need to be a good leader, on and off the field. Sit in the front row; it’s all the intangibles that go into it.”


Recent Column:

They Billieve: Penn State Football's Underclassmen Aren't Going Anywhere, March 14, 2013

Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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