UNIVERSITY PARK — Bill O’Brien met with the two quarterbacks competing to become Penn State’s next starter on Thursday morning.
The reason for the meeting?
O’Brien wanted to congratulate both young signal-callers — sophomore Tyler Ferguson and true freshman Christian Hackenberg — on their progress just over a week into the team’s training camp.
“I spoke to both guys this morning and told them I couldn’t be prouder of where they’re at right now, with how they’ve worked,” the Penn State football coach said. “They’ve both had a lot of good moments and they’ve both made their share of mistakes but it’s very even right now. So we’ll let that play out a few more days.”
And while the competition between Ferguson and Hackenberg has drawn closer, O’Brien said he’s getting closer to naming which of the two will start when Penn State plays Syracuse at MetLife Stadium at 3:30 p.m. on August 31.
“I don’t know if I have an exact day yet, but I’m pretty close,” O’Brien said when asked if he knows when he’ll make a decision. “The one thing about it, too, is that whoever I name as a starter, the next guy, quite obviously, has to be ready to go and more than likely will play this year.”
Although O’Brien has expressed a desire to play one quarterback, circumstances have forced him to adopt backup plans in the past.
He remembered using two quarterbacks during his time at Maryland and Georgia Tech and during his second season with the Patriots, O’Brien watched as starter Tom Brady went down in Week 1 with a torn ACL. Matt Cassel stepped in and helped lead New England to an 11-5 record.
But O’Brien is so enthused with both Ferguson and Hackenberg, he can see both players pushing the other for playing time into the season.
“It was really kind of like 1A, 1B,” O’Brien said of his experiences coaching other talented collegiate duos. “Those guys played a lot of football for us. So let’s not put a huge amount of stock on who the starter is. That guy, look, he’ll start the game but the other guy is going to play football for us this year.”
While Ferguson entered training camp with a leg up — he split first-team reps with the departed Steven Bench during spring practice — Hackenberg has closed the gap. Both quarterbacks have made progress 13 practices into the season, O’Brien said.
Despite the complexity of his offense, O’Brien said he hasn’t had to water down anything for either player.
“We don’t need to hold back much with Christian or with Tyler,” O’Brien said. “These guys are bright guys. They study. They come back one day to the next and they’ve improved on the things they made a mistake on before. They do a nice job in our walk throughs and they ask great questions.”
Bumps and bruises
The injury report looks the same for Penn State as it did on Day 1, save for minor bumps and bruises.
Offensive tackle Adam Gress “got banged up a little bit but he’ll be fine,” O’Brien said.
The situations with tight end Brent Wilkerson and linebacker Ben Kline are a bit more serious. Wilkerson is out with a back injury and has not practiced. Kline is day-to-day, still recovering from offseason shoulder surgery. O’Brien said he expects Kline will be ready to play in the opener.
A supportive harness could be used to help Kline along, O’Brien said.
“He’s a tough kid,” O’Brien said. “You want guys like Ben Kline on your football team. He’s a tough, smart kid.”
Meanwhile, true freshman tight end Adam Breneman has shown no ill affects from surgery to repair a torn ACL and has wowed the coaching staff thus far into camp. Breneman, one of the nation’s top recruits in the 2013 class, tore his right ACL last summer and missed his senior season at Cedar Cliff. Surgery to repair torn labrums hasn’t hindered him, either.
Expect to see Breneman on the field this fall. He’ll join Matt Lehman, Kyle Carter and Jesse James as another big target for whichever quarterback is throwing to them.
“Oh yeah, Breneman will definitely play,” O’Brien said. “He’s had a good camp.”
Practicing in the cathedral
The Nittany Lions took some time Wednesday to return to their familiar confines inside Beaver Stadium.
It was the second time the team practiced in the massive stadium and O’Brien and his staff used it as another dry run to simulate a gameday dynamic.
“We had headphones, coaches in the press box, we had officials there,” O’Brien said. “We played some situational football. We scrimmaged. We moved the ball. We got in the red area. We did two-minute (offense). We did third down, fourth down situations. We did all the special teams and it was very, very beneficial.”
The team’s youngest players got a chance to show off their skills after the full team session. O’Brien said the team staged a developmental scrimmage with true freshmen and run-on players — many of them hailing from Pennsylvania.
For most, it was the first chance to play in a simulated game inside the 106,572-seat stadium.
“It’s important for our young players who have never played in that stadium to get in there, even though there’s no crowd there, to get a feel for it,” O’Brien said. “Hey man, this is not just a stadium, this is a cathedral. This is a very, very famous place in the history of college football.”
Lehman and wideout Brandon Felder had an eventful Saturday.
Both players spent the early afternoon receiving their diplomas — Lehman’s in kinesiology, Felder’s in communications — and were back behind the Lasch Building that evening for another football practice.
Lehman and Felder became the seventh and eighth current Nittany Lions to earn degrees. They joined linebacker Glenn Carson (advertising/public relations), safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong (information sciences and technology), guard John Urschel (mathematics), safety Malcolm Willis (recreation, parks and tourism management), center Ty Howle (kinesiology) and Adam Gress (telecommunications).
“To me the big thing is they can really talk to your younger players about what they did, what they went through, how they set it up,” O’Brien said. “We have a leadership group on our team and that’s where those guys really enter into the leadership of the team.”
While they have to maintain a course load to retain eligibility, most of those who have graduated are working toward second degrees.
Urschel, who has a masters in mathematics is working toward his second masters in math education. Meanwhile, Gress and Obeng-Agyapong are on pace to earn their second bachelors degrees soon. Gress will likely obtain his in journalism in December while Obeng-Agyapong is slated to achieve another degree in security risk analysis in May. Howle and Carson are enrolled in second programs as well. Howle is now studying health policy and administration while Carson is studying labor and employment relations.
Follow Travis Johnson on Twitter @bytravisjohnson