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Thursday, July 25, 2013
Ferguson's absence has impact on QB race

By Josh Moyer

CHICAGO -- When asked about the absence of junior college quarterback Tyler Ferguson, Bill O'Brien has usually fallen back on a familiar refrain: What's the big deal? Summer workouts aren't mandatory.

He expressed that sentiment Friday and, during Big Ten media days this week, he again brushed off a question about the kind of setback the Californian's month-long absence might be: "The last time I read the NCAA rule book, summer's voluntary."

O'Brien's absolutely right. But workouts sure are important -- and, for the quite a while now, those workouts have basically been "voluntarily mandatory." Players, especially potential starters, just don't miss them. Summer is when the team bonds, when those talks over lunch and those unwatched 7-on-7s translate to touchdowns and passing yards in the fall.

Penn State safety Malcolm Willis didn't try to pretend otherwise.

Tyler Ferguson
It's an unfortunate circumstance that Penn State quarterback Tyler Ferguson, who was the No. 1 quarterback after spring practice, is missing voluntary workouts this summer.
"If it was me, then I would have trouble picking things back up and just being away from the team," he told a smattering of reporters. "It's always -- you have to get that team chemistry down and things like that. But I'm sure he's studying and he's keeping his head where it needs to be."

Ferguson can't be faulted for leaving prematurely. Some things, like family, are just more important than football -- and a big reason for his long stay in Bakersfield, Calif., a city nine times larger than State College, Pa., is his cancer-stricken mother. Whether O'Brien acknowledges a setback or not, Ferguson's temporary departure is sure to have an impact on the quarterback race.

Four-star quarterback Christian Hackenberg, the top-rated passer of the 2013 class, is on campus. He is there tossing footballs to Allen Robinson and Brandon Moseby-Felder. He is there, eating at the Waffle Shop with his teammates. He is there, golfing with tight end Adam Breneman. He's there -- getting better, getting stronger and building that team chemistry.

Maybe Ferguson can fly back to State College and pick up right where he left off. But even that's not good enough, he'd still be a month behind in his development. Missing a month of summer workouts is a lot like dropping a student into a semester a month late -- despite the reasons, that grade's still going to be impacted negatively.

"Doing summer workouts is where you build your brotherhood and bond as a team," Michigan safety Thomas Gordon said. "It goes way beyond the football field during the summer."

Added Nebraska cornerback Ciante Evans: "They're very important because you get to work out with the team. You don't want to miss team workouts because you wouldn't miss a practice. So those team activities, you come together as a team."

Evans wrinkled his nose and looked puzzled when asked if all the Nebraska starters had stayed through the voluntary summer. "Yeah," he laughed. "All the starters."

Ferguson's chances of lining up under center come Aug. 31 aren't helped by the fact O'Brien wants to name a starter midway through camp. Once Ferguson returns, there won't be much time re-acclimate himself. He might have just two weeks to win the starting job. That's a lot to ask of a player who completed 55 percent of his passes at College of the Sequoias.

Quarterback is clearly the key to an offense that's improved everywhere else from last season. But, right now, those question marks around the position are growing faster than an offensive lineman working with strength coach Craig Fitzgerald.

Paul Jones had the head start on Steven Bench and then lost it. Then Bench had the head start on Ferguson and managed to lose the advantage. And, now, Ferguson has the head start on Hackenberg.

But, at this juncture, it sure seems like history's on pace to repeat itself.