Penn State Football

Penn State football: Position battles loom as coach Bill O'Brien, Nittany Lions begin camp

Year 2 of the Bill O’Brien Era is here and a contest to see who will run his dynamic, pro-style offense is on.

Penn State opens training camp Monday and the second-year head coach will get another chance to tweak his high-octane schemes, welcome back a seasoned cast of veterans and mold a fresh crop of rookies on both sides of the football.

Notably, who will start under center?

Expect a head-to-head battle between sophomore Tyler Ferguson and true freshman Christian Hackenberg to extend at least to the halfway point of the team’s 29 scheduled practices. O’Brien said he’d like to name a starting quarterback by then to give the winner a better chance to prepare for the season opener at MetLife Stadium against Syracuse on Aug. 31.

Ferguson, who transferred after a year playing junior college football at College of the Sequoias in California, already has 15 practices under his belt since he joined the team in time for spring ball earlier this year. Ferguson battled Steven Bench during spring practice which concluded with April’s Blue-White game. Bench transferred shortly thereafter when he was notified he would not be competing for the starting spot in training camp.

Hackenberg, a heavily recruited prospect who last played at Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia last fall, has not yet taken a snap in an organized practice.

“I’m going to basically split the reps,” O’Brien said. “I think that’s what’s best for the team and I’m going to see, hopefully very quickly, who stands out. Maybe neither one of them do and then I have to make a choice. But I would say from a knowledge standpoint, you would think that having already run the plays for 15 practices, that Ferguson would be slightly ahead. But only slightly ahead.”

Whichever signal-caller earns the starting gig will be complimented by an experienced supporting cast. Penn State returns 14 players with starting experience on offense. Six of those, offensive linemen John Urschel, Donovan Smith, Miles Dieffenbach, Adam Gress, Garry Gilliam and Ty Howle, will be counted on to protect the new guy.

Ferguson or Hackenberg will also benefit from eight experienced skill-position players. Tight ends Jesse James, Matt Lehman and Kyle Carter combined for 11 starts last season while wide receivers Allen Robinson, Brandon Moseby-Felder and Alex Kenney return to provide downfield targets. Running back Zach Zwinak — who started the last four games last season — is back along with Bill Belton who started five games.

Zwinak, who broke his left hand during the Blue-White game, is expected to be limited the first few weeks of camp for precautionary reasons, O’Brien said.

Although O’Brien expects the quarterbacks’ transitions to be easier based on the help around them, Ferguson and Hackenberg will still have to contribute heavily as opposed to simply manage the talent in the huddle.

“The way that our offense is set up, there’s a lot required of the quarterback, regardless of who it is,” O’Brien said. “Our quarterbacks, whether you’re a freshman or a fifth-year senior, you’re going to be required to do certain things. There’s a baseline of requirements. But (having proven players around them) definitely helps a young quarterback. They’re not all freshmen. You’ve got guys that made a lot of big plays in a lot of big games.”

Because returning players have starting experience doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve locked down the same jobs for this season, O’Brien said.

He expects competition where his squad is deep — along the offensive line — where Gilliam could challenge for a starting spot at tackle. A fifth-year senior with junior eligibility, Gilliam missed most of spring practice with a calf injury but has added over 40 pounds to his 6-foot-6 frame after switching from tight end.

“We’ve got Donovan Smith and Adam Gress, both of those guys have had really good offseasons,” O’Brien said of the offensive tackle spots. “I haven’t talked about Adam Gress enough. He’s had a really good offseason. He’s a great kid. And Garry and those guys will battle it out.”

Sophomores Anthony Alosi and Angelo Mangiro are expected to play more prominent roles spelling interior linement, O’Brien said. Senior Pat Zerbe will take over fullback duties vacated by Michael Zordich.

Defensively, Penn State returns eight players who started at least one game last year. Safeties Adrian Amos and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong and linebacker Glenn Carson started every game last season. Mike Hull’s one start is a deceiving statistic. Hull took an injured Michael Mauti’s spot for the final game against Wisconsin but Hull played a prominent role, especially on third downs all season.

This season, his role will be significantly expanded alongside Carson and Nyeem Wartman, who is expected to start after playing in just two games last season before a knee injury forced him to take a medical redshirt.

“He’s a strong guy, he’s athletic, he’s a good tackler.,” O’Brien said of Hull. “Pass coverage, he’s good at that. He’s got good ball skills, he’s instinctive. He’s a good blitzer. He’s improved as a blitzer.”

And Penn State has improved its depth in the secondary.

The Nittany Lions weren’t able to field a nickel defense last season, but safety Malcolm Willis said that shouldn’t be a problem this fall. Willis started 10 games at safety last season and will help mentor a young group of defensive backs that will battle for playing time.

Sophomore Trevor Williams switched to cornerback at the coaching staff’s request and along with sophomore Jordan Lucas, emerged from spring practice as the top corners on the team’s preseason depth chart.

“We think they’re going to be really good players,” O’Brien said. “Talk about team guys. Trevor Williams, I brought him in and said, ‘Hey Trevor, you’re a receiver but we really need help depthwise in the secondary.’ (Williams said:) ‘Coach, whatever’s best for the team.’”

Williams and Lucas, both over 6-feet tall, bring size to a position group that was lacking it last fall. Morris, although one of the fastest players on the squad, measured in at 5-foot-8 while 5-foot-10 Da’Quan Davis saw action in every game as a true freshman weighing in at just over 160 pounds.

Although Amos primarily played corner opposite the departed Morris, he’ll play safety this season and could see some reps at linebacker where redshirt freshmen Garry Wooten, Charles Idemudia and sophomore Ben Kline will provide depth.

The departures of Sean Stanley and Jordan Hill leave holes at defensive end and tackle, respectively, but O’Brien expects first-year defensive coordinator John Butler to turn to C.J. Olaniyan and Austin Johnson in those spots. As is customary, defensive line coach Larry Johnson will rely on a rotating cast that will likely feature returning starters Deion Barnes and DaQuan Jones along with Olaniyan, Johnson and defensive tackle Kyle Baublitz.

Penn State took a hit when defensive end Brad Bars went down with an achilles injury earlier this summer but O’Brien is confident freshman Evan Schwan is ready to push for more playing time after redshirting last season. Sophomore Anthony Zettel also will provide depth after appearing in all 12 games last season.

Alex Butterworth and Sam Ficken are back after handling punting and kicking duties, respectively, last season.

The expiration of the NCAA-imposed transfer waiver also will prevent players from leaving the program without having to sit out a season. Urschel insisted the waiver, included with other sanctions in response to the Freeh Report that concluded university officials covered up the crimes of Jerry Sandusky, hasn’t been on the minds of players.

“As soon as we started training camp we were focused on football and only football,” Urschel said of last season. “And we didn’t have any problems enjoying football. Last year, playing football was a blast. We all loved it. It was a great time and I can only hope that this year is just as much fun.”

The Nittany Lions will begin two-a-day practices on Aug. 10 — the first day they are allowed to practice in full pads.