Tyler Ferguson wound up and threw a dart. His target, Christian Hackenberg, swiped the ball out of the air, swung his arm around in a wide circle to loosen it up and fired the ball back toward his teammate.
Soon after their brief warmup session, the two teammates were on to more pressing drills in just their fourth practice of Penn State’s training camp. The young quarterbacks took turns handing off, taking shotgun snaps and tossing short, intermediate and finally deep routes.
Weeks from now, only one of them will be throwing the ball as Penn State’s starter. As for which of the two players will start under center when Penn State opens its season Aug. 31 against Syracuse at MetLife Stadium?
That audition period may be longer than coach Bill O’Brien originally expected.
The second-year head coach said in July he’d ideally like to name a starting quarterback after the second week of training camp to give that player ample time to practice with the rest of the first-team offense. But both players entered camp in shape, on point and eager to learn after each quarterback was away from the team for the majority of the summer.
“I hope you didn’t mark it on your calendars,” O’Brien said at the team’s media day Thursday.
Ferguson returned home to California shortly after spring practice and Hackenberg arrived in June and didn’t take his first official snap until camp opened on Monday.
NCAA rules prohibit coaches from working with players during the offseason, meaning the two quarterbacks were on their own for most of the summer. But O’Brien has seen progress from Ferguson — who battled the departed Steven Bench during spring ball — and is enthusiastic about Hackenberg’s upside.
Ferguson’s 15 spring practices have given him a slight edge early on, O’Brien said.
“We’re really pleased with both guys. (They’re) very athletic. These guys can throw the football,” O’Brien said. “Tyler came back and he’s shown that he’s studied in the offseason. They make their share of mistakes. Tyler makes his share of mistakes, but he’s got a good three days and Christian, being here for the first time, putting the pads on and practicing football, he’s done a really nice job of studying and trying to get better every day.”
Neither quarterback was available to reporters. Instead, their only vocalizations came during the portion of practice open to the media when they called snap counts and barked orders at the line of scrimmage during team drills. All the while, quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher was not far away, offering words of encouragement for each player.
Like O’Brien, Fisher had positive reviews for his signal-callers after seeing just three practices. He’s evaluating on a practice-to-practice basis and his message to each player is simple.
“Win the day,” Fisher said. “To me that’s about consistency. That’s coming out there and running the operation, running our team, leadership, presence and knowing what to do every day.”
Fisher said he’s seen each player perform consistently on film for months. The coach has reels of tape on Hackenberg from his days at Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia. Fisher has watched hours of Ferguson playing at his last school, College of the Sequoias — a junior college in Visalia, Calif.
Both players were standouts for their previous squads.
Ferguson threw for 2,614 yards and 22 touchdowns in 10 games at College of the Sequoias. Hackenberg amassed 5,473 passing yards and 55 touchdowns in three seasons as the starter at Fork Union. But they took different paths to Penn State. Hackenberg arrived as the heralded prospect — the top quarterback recruit in the class of 2013. Ferguson’s final high school season ended in disaster when he broke his collarbone and missed the majority of his final year before a season at the JUCO level.
“We weren’t just going to roll the dice and take a guy,” Fisher said of his recruitment of Ferguson. “We were going to make sure we do our homework and watch him play and study him. And everything we saw on video was very impressive.”
Hackenberg didn’t enroll early but studied the playbook on his own before arriving on campus. While Fisher hasn’t been on many coaching staffs that named true freshmen quarterbacks as starters, he said it’s certainly not out of the question — especially with a player with Hackenberg’s skill set.
When Fisher was at Vanderbilt, the Commodores started Jay Cutler, but that was after Cutler had a redshirt season to absorb knowledge from the sideline. At Temple in 2001, Fisher helped groom then true freshman Mike McGann to take over the Owls’ offense.
While Fisher sees the measurables on tape, it is up to both Ferguson and Hackenberg to apply them in O’Brien’s pro-style offense.
The burden won’t be on them to carry all of the load or learn along with everyone else in the huddle as Matt McGloin was tasked with last season in O’Brien’s debut. Now, whichever quarterback earns the starting job has the luxury of having experienced players at nearly every position on offense around him.
Penn State returns 14 players with starting experience on offense. Eight of those are skill position players with six being potential downfield targets.
“Certainly that helps when you’ve got talented, experienced players around you,” Fisher said. “You’ve got a comfort level right there. That’s a big help, no question.”
Wideout Brandon Moseby-Felder, who returns alongside standout Allen Robinson to lead the wideout corps, spent a good portion of Thursday’s practice catching passes from both quarterbacks. He’s not ready to compare and contrast them, however.
Instead, Moseby-Felder is more concerned with taking on the role usually reserved for the quarterback — helping the newbies along. While Ferguson was back at home this summer, players organized 7-on-7 drills with Hackenberg as the primary quarterback.
“We’re trying to be out there with them as much as we can to get them familiar with our offense,” Moseby-Felder said.
Tight end Kyle Carter said he’s looking forward to helping both players develop.
“It’s exciting working with two great, young quarterbacks. Both have bright futures ahead of them,” Carter said. “It’s just nice to be part of it. Our main thing is that every time they throw the ball to us we have to make sure we catch it. We’ve got to make sure we don‘t make any stupid mistakes to make their job any harder.”