Bill O’Brien is closer to naming who will start at quarterback for Penn State when the season begins next weekend.
Shortly before his team began practice No. 19 behind the Lasch Building, O’Brien shortened his time frame for selecting a starter but reiterated both Tyler Ferguson and Christian Hackenberg will play this season.
“I’d say by the end of the week we’ll make a decision on who will start the Syracuse game,” O’Brien said. “But I would say that both guys will play this year.”
Rather than contrast them, O’Brien compared the two players competing for the spot — Ferguson, a junior college transfer with sophomore eligibility, and Hackenberg, a true freshman.
They have similar size — Ferguson is listed at 6-foot-3, 213 pounds while Hackenberg is listed at 6-foot-3, 218 pounds. O’Brien, who has worked closely with both players since camp began on Aug. 5, has observed similar physical tools as well.
“They both have the ability to throw the ball down the field, make athletic moves on the perimeter of the defense,” O’Brien said. “They’re both athletic. Even for their size, both of those guys can run. We’ve seen a lot of that. They can throw on the run. They’re more similar than they are different.”
Still, O’Brien will choose a starter in the coming days in order to give that quarterback ample time to get a command of the game plan for Syracuse at MetLife Stadium. He didn’t rule out naming a different starter for future games.
“There will be 11 guys that start the game against Syracuse but hopefully a lot of guys play in that game,” O’Brien said. “We’ve got a fairly young team at certain positions so we’d like to get a lot of guys playing time.”
For O’Brien, who has repeatedly said he would rather use one quarterback when speaking in generalities, playing two is not ideal. But Penn State is in an ideal situation with two young quarterbacks who seem to be adjusting nicely so far, he said.
O’Brien called Ferguson, 19, and Hackenberg, 18, “two of the best young quarterbacks I’ve ever coached.”
The second-year head coach hasn’t coached two of them in the past that were this good and this close.
While O’Brien was at Duke from 2005-06, Thaddeus Lewis was the young standout. At Georgia Tech during the latter stages of his time there, O’Brien worked with George Godsey, who was already an entrenched veteran. In New England, no one was replacing Tom Brady.
Even last season, his first at Penn State, O’Brien had an experienced quarterback who has already earned the respect of his teammates in Matt McGloin. O’Brien didn’t need to wait, he named McGloin the starter two months before camp started.
Despite enrolling early in January and taking part in spring practice, Ferguson missed most of the summer when he returned to California to spend time with his family. Hackenberg arrived on campus in June and took part in his first official practice on Aug. 5.
“I think it’s important for each guy to continue to earn their stripes and continue to gain the respect of their teammates,” O’Brien said. “Until I feel really good about where that’s at, I’d say both guys, it’s very close.”
O’Brien said each player will continue to split snaps with the first team offense until the coach is ready to name the starter. Even then, whichever ends up as the backup for the ensuing days will continue to get work in practice.
“It’s a totally different situation than last year,” O’Brien said. “Whoever the backup is is a young guy that needs to get his feet wet a little bit. So why not play him a series here or there just to get him into a major college football game and let him get his feet wet.”
Although junior safety Adrian Amos missed practice last week and wore a red jersey signifying his no-contact status Tuesday, O’Brien said Amos is just dealing with minor hamstring and ankle issues.
O’Brien also isn’t worried about junior wide receiver Allen Robinson who missed practice last week with a sore hamstring. Robinson and Amos are being monitored carefully so they are not overused before the season opener.
“Just the normal bumps and bruises,” O’Brien said. “Nothing too major right now. Robinson’s fine. Early in camp all these guys have hamstring issues and he’s one of our best players so we’ve just tried to do a good job of managing him on a day-to-day basis.”
Senior offensive tackle Adam Gress has missed the last few practices with a knee injury but should “be back to practice in a couple of days. O’Brien said Gress is the starting right tackle but the staff would feel comfortable starting Garry Gilliam if Gress cannot play.
Meanwhile sophomore linebacker Ben Kline continues to progress from offseason shoulder surgery. Kline, who has taken part in conditioning and non-contact portions of practices, was back in pads Tuesday but still wore a red jersey. Kline is day-to-day.
Tight end Brent Wilkerson underwent successful back surgery O’Brien said. Wilkerson is out indefinitely.
Zach Zwinak was without his red jersey before Tuesday’s practice. O’Brien said the team cleared Zwinak for full-contact practice last week. Zwinak needed surgery in the spring after injuring a hand in the Blue-White game.
Zwinak’s improved health was notable at Lift for Life when he was able to take part in heavy lifting events. He was able to take contact — and deliver some — even while wearing the red jersey.
“He’s doing well. He’s ready to go,” O’Brien said. “He had the red jersey on and he was hitting guys and the DBs were like, ‘Coach, he has the red jersey on, so shouldn’t he have that off if he’s going to hit us?’ We decided to take it off. He’s done well.”