Penn State Football: Howle at Center of Quarterback Battle
Starting center Ty Howle was talking about the Nittany Lions’ quarterback battle just minutes after last weekend’s Blue-White Game. He didn’t know that 72 hours later Steven Bench’s days at Penn State were over.
Of course, at that point neither did Bench.
But Howle’s comments, made while speaking about the intense competition to determine Bill O’Brien’s starting quarterback come Aug. 31, are still germane.
Instead of the three-man race that Howle – and most others – anticipated, the competition to be Penn State’s starter in 2013 is now down to two with the departure of Bench: incoming freshman Christian Hackenberg and first-round survivor Tyler Ferguson.
Howle knows all about the hype surrounding Hackenberg, that the quarterback was ranked No. 1 in the country last year by ESPN, that he was the star of the renowned Elite 11 QB camps last summer. So, less than 30 minutes after the scrimmage was over – even though O’Brien embargoed player comments about the quarterback – Howle didn’t mind saying a few choice words about Penn State’s top choice in the 2013 freshmen class.
“He’s a great kid,” said Howle, who will be working literally hands-on with Hackenberg. “He seems like a smart kid.”
“But,” I asked, “can he actually come in and start as quarterback this fall?”
Howle didn’t hesitate. The fifth-year senior may be 6-foot tall and 295 pounds with a scruffy beard and dark hair that flows out the back of his helmet, but he’s not your stereotypical lineman. Howle is a smart guy, having already received his degree in health policy and administration last May, in just three-and-a-half years, earning a 3.59 GPA in the process.
“Sure, it can be done,” he responded without hesitation. “(Matt) McGloin had one winter and one spring to pick it up. He excelled and set records. So it can be done. It’s all about how much he wants it and how well he can do on the field. And obviously, he has to be a great leader…. That’s a great trait, being a leader.”
Lucky for Hackenberg and Ferguson – O’Brien, too – Penn State’s offensive line is jam-packed with leaders. Overall, the anticipated starting five have 22 years of college football experience. That’s 4.4 years per player. Hackenberg may have skills of Biblical proportions. And while a veritable child (Hack is at least four years younger than some of his O-linemen) may lead them, it’s the wise men along the line who will protect and guide him.
Howle is joined on the offensive front by right guard John Urschel, a fifth-year senior who was first-team All-Big Ten in 2012 and also got his undergrad last May, with a 4.0 in mathematics. Right tackle Adam Gress is in his fifth year, while left tackle Donovan Smith is in his third season. Left guard Miles Diffenbach is a redshirt junior, while fifth-year lineman Eric Shrive will see plenty of time as well.
O’Brien is not one for huge compliments or hyperbole, so his praise of the offensive line the week before the Blue-White Game, while measured, saw the glass as more than half full.
“Last year when I came in, I had heard that the offensive line wasn’t the greatest in the world,” O’Brien said. “And I can tell you from Day One last year, I felt like those kids gelled well and played hard. They were tough guys and played well for us. This year I know these guys a lot better.”
Penn State offensive line coach Mac McWhorter was an associate head coach and line coach at Texas for nine years, helping guide the Longhorns to the 2005 BCS national championship. He also worked with O’Brien for a pair of seasons at Georgia Tech (2000-01), when O’Brien was the quarterback coach and offensive coordinator. They have a history. McWhorter is 13 years older than O’Brien, so he can likely relate to his older Penn State lineman literally watching the back of a much younger colleague in the spotlight.
His players are up to the task. Howle said he stands – to be precise, he actually squats – ready to help, especially during summer workouts when the older players run the show.
“If there’s a mistake that happens, the guys are young and we’ll correct them,” said Howle, who is from Wake Forest, N.C. “It’s not a big deal. It’s not like, ‘Ah, man.’ We correct them, move on, run the play. Afterwards, they’ll ask us about it.”
None of the Nittany Lion quaterbacks currently on the Penn State roster were on campus as recently as this past Christmas. In addition to Hackenberg, who will arrive in early June, there’s Ferguson, a juco transfer, who enrolled on Jan. 7, 2013 – the same time as walk-on quarterbacks Austin Whipple and D.J. Crook.
Bench’s transfer makes it a wholesale change of the highest order. That’s why Howle already has the young guns’ summer planned out.
“On Wednesday and Saturday mornings, we’ll do snaps together, make sure we get our timing right,” he said. “I’ll talk to the quarterbacks. We’ll talk about little stuff – protection changes, making sure we give them enough time to change a call. If they need help with IDs and protection -- Bench, Ferguson, Whipple, Crook -- I’ll gladly help them.”
That list, of course, no longer includes Bench.
But who knows? Howle's offer may just work out for both Christian and the Lions.