Training camp is winding down, Week 1 is creeping up and Penn State football players are getting healthier.
The Nittany Lions are expected to have their full contingent of starters available when Penn State takes on Syracuse at MetLife Stadium at 3:30 p.m. Saturday, coach Bill O’Brien said at the first of his weekly press conferences on Tuesday.
O’Brien began the session by providing health reports for his players. It was the first time O’Brien had done so in this fashion. Previously the coach addressed each player specifically when asked.
O’Brien said last season he wasn’t as prepared to discuss certain players’ injuries as he should’ve been and will now begin each week with an injury report.
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O’Brien said Adam Gress and Ben Kline are both at full participation and are expected to be ready to play against the Orange. Gress, who was dealing with a leg injury, could start at right tackle while Kline, who has been rehabbing a surgically repaired shoulder, will add depth at linebacker, O’Brien said.
Meanwhile, Penn State will be without a handful of players, most of whom were expected to provide emergency depth.
Junior wide receiver Deshawn Baker is out and should “return at some point this season for us,” O’Brien said. Joining Baker are freshman defensive back Kasey Gaines and freshman offensive lineman and State College graduate Evan Galimberti. Gaines has a hamstring injury.
O’Brien said either Gress or Garry Gilliam will start at right tackle.
Penn State’s quarterback situation is still unclear, however.
O’Brien, who recently said he would wait until game day to reveal who will start between Tyler Ferguson and Christian Hackenberg, stuck to that assertion.
“You’ll find out who the quarterback is on the first play of the game against Syracuse,” O’Brien said. “Believe me, I’m not trying to diminish the importance of that position and what it means to this football program or what it means to our fans or anything out there. I want to do what’s best for our players and what’s best for our football team.”
The second-year coach repeated a similar answer when asked if he has informed either Ferguson or Hackenberg which of the two will start.
The youth of the two players involved — Hackenberg is 18 and Ferguson is 19 — and the fact that both of them have spent little time in Happy Valley so far has played into O’Brien’s thinking, he said. His decision to keep his starter’s identity under wraps also was made with some bit of strategy in mind.
Syracuse coach Scott Shafer said last week he would wait to reveal his starting quarterback until the first snap. The Orange will start either Terrel Hunt or Drew Allen under center.
“The team understands the direction that we’re headed within the building there at Lasch and they know where we’re going,” O’Brien said. “So that’s what’s important too. To me, it’s important, going into a first game, not really knowing what your opponent’s going to do. And I don’t really think they know what we’re going to do.”
The Orange are in a different situation from the Nittany Lions.
Syracuse’s prospective starters each play with a significantly different style and are at different ends of the eligibility spectrum. Hunt is a shifty sophomore with more running ability, while Allen is a big, pocket passer who is in his senior season after transferring from Oklahoma.
“When you look at their two quarterbacks, whether it’s Hunt or Allen, from what we know they are two different quarterbacks so you’ve got to be ready for two different style quarterbacks,” O’Brien said. “I’m not going to get into how I see the difference in their styles, but we have to do a good job on defense of recognizing who’s in the game and making sure that we’re ready for that.”
O’Brien feels his quarterbacks will be prepared. Both Ferguson and Hackenberg will likely play, he’s said. Either way, one of the two will be making his first career Division I start in a jam-packed NFL stadium. The other will get his first in-game reps, too.
“The best thing we can do to calm them down is to give them as much time as they need in the pocket,” senior guard Miles Dieffenbach said. “That’ll calm any quarterback down and that’s what we’re there to do. I think both of them trust us up front and I think we have a really good offensive line and we’ll protect all day for them.”