Penn State Nittany Lions: Steven Bench
But that doesn't mean it's too late -- or too early -- to see what we learned from this past season and also look ahead to next season. So, over the next two weeks, we'll break down each position on the Nittany Lions.
Up today: Quarterbacks.
O'Brien slowly brought Hackenberg into his own, sticking to short passes and plenty of runs against Syracuse and then challenging him more as the weeks progressed. Hackenberg was ESPN's top-rated quarterback of the 2012 class so expectations soared for the young QB. He was expected to be one of, if not the, top true freshman in the Big Ten.
How they fared: Hackenberg wasn't perfect, but it's pretty difficult to say he did anything other than exceed expectations. He was the Big Ten freshman-of-the-year and finished with 2,955 yards to go along with 20 TDs and 10 picks.
He helped lead PSU to two comebacks -- against Illinois and Michigan -- and played beyond his years. He's calm, cool, collected ... and he's quickly become a point for pride in Happy Valley.
What we learned: Under Jay Paterno, quarterback was a concern nearly every season. And, if there was any doubt before, it's pretty clear now: Quarterback is not a concern anymore. O'Brien coached up Matt McGloin to the NFL and then helped a rookie quarterback to an efficient season (2:1 TD-to-INT ratio) after he spent about two months on campus before his career debut. This position is now a strength, and there's nothing anemic about this passing attack.
Grading the position: B. For a freshman, he gets an A+ -- but we're not grading on a curve here. O'Brien offered the same grade earlier in the season, although there are likely quite a few A's awaiting this position the next few seasons. Hackenberg overthrew quite a few balls and sometimes targeted Allen Robinson without scanning the field. He's a good QB, but he's not great ... yet.
Key losses: QB Tyler Ferguson. His transfer wasn't a surprise but, as long as Hackenberg stays healthy, there's obviously no reason to panic. ESPN 300 QB Michael O'Connor (Bradenton, Fla./IMG Academy) will join the team in January, and O'Brien is hoping to add another scholarship signal-caller before the 2014 season.
Position stock watch: Trending upward. Other positions might be a bit trickier to figure out, but it would be pretty difficult to find someone who thinks Hackenberg -- and, by extension, the quarterback position -- won't be improved next season. If Hackenberg plays like he did against then-No. 15 Wisconsin (21-of-30, 339 yards, 4 TDs, 0 INTs), the Nittany Lions should be just fine. He's only begun to tap his potential and, if he can improve accuracy on those long balls, PSU's offense could take a giant step forward.
Key to next season: Replacing Robinson. Robinson still hasn't officially declared early for the NFL, but there's a pretty big likelihood that he will. And, if he does, that'll be a huge blow to the offense/passing game -- and the key will be finding someone, or some group, to step up. No one will match Robinson's production, and it doesn't help that the rest of the WR corps is a bit iffy -- so the tight ends could be more important than ever. Eugene Lewis will also be asked to handle a bigger workload, and one of the incoming freshman could wind up playing a big role.
This isn't just the key to the quarterback position. It's the key to the entire offense.
The sophomore asked for his release prior to the departure of quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher and sent his release papers to about 50 schools, roughly 40 in the FBS and 10 in the FCS. He hopes to land somewhere in time for spring classes.
Ferguson enrolled at Penn State in January and overtook the lone returning quarterback, Steven Bench, during spring practice to become the No. 1 QB. Bench transferred to South Florida, but true freshman Christian Hackenberg then surpassed Ferguson on the depth chart in the preseason.
The former junior-college standout finished this season playing in five games. He went 10-of-15 for 155 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions.
Rumors circulated before the season that Ferguson intended to transfer because he was homesick for Bakersfield, Calif. He left campus for several weeks in July for family reasons but told ESPN.com that the thought of transferring back then never entered his mind.
It was only in the past two or three weeks, during talks with his father, that he believed it might be best to seek an opportunity elsewhere.
"After the Wisconsin game, we sat down with [Bill] O'Brien and he agreed that I could play somewhere else," Ferguson said. "And we both agreed Christian is a hell of a player."
Ferguson said proximity to home was not a factor in his decision to leave Penn State, nor will it be in where he'll wind up next. He weighed getting a degree from Penn State as a backup quarterback but ultimately decided to finish his education as a potential starter elsewhere.
"I just want a school that says, 'You're going to come in and compete,'" Ferguson said. "And whether that's -- and I'm just throwing this school out there as an example -- Boston College or Fresno State. If that gives me the best chance to compete and they're a good team, one of the top four teams in their conference or something like that, that'd be great."
With Ferguson's departure, Hackenberg is currently the only scholarship quarterback on the roster. However, ESPN 300 quarterback Michael O'Connor (Bradenton, Fla./IMG Academy), a four-star PSU commit, is set to enroll in January.
Three preferred walk-ons -- D.J. Crook, Austin Whipple and Jack Seymour -- are also on the roster.
Ferguson will finish out the semester in State College before flying west to California. And he said his time at Penn State, however short, was memorable.
"I don't think I could've possibly learned more football from any school than I did from coaches O'Brien and Fisher," he said. "I'm very grateful."
A week after telling reporters that juco QB Tyler Ferguson held the early edge, Nittany Lions coach Bill O'Brien called the position battle "very even" on Thursday and declined to name a favorite. He also said he was "pretty close" to naming a starter.
"I spoke to both guys this morning and said I couldn't be prouder of where they're at right now and how they worked," O'Brien said during a conference call. "They've both had a lot of good moments. They've both made their fair share of mistakes, but it's very even now. So we'll let that play out for a few days."
ESPN's coach of the year said during Big Ten media days that he hoped to name a starter midway through camp. If he sticks to that timetable, that means he would name a starting QB early next week.
The Nittany Lions are a little more than two weeks away from their season opener against Syracuse on Aug. 31.
"I don't have an exact date here, but I'm pretty close," O'Brien said. "And the thing about it, too, just so everyone's clear here: Whatever I do here, whoever I name as a starter, the next guy quite obviously has to be ready and more than likely will play this year."
O'Brien reflected back on his time in New England when Tom Brady suffered a season-ending knee injury in 2008 and Matt Cassel took over by leading the Patriots to an 11-5 season. Both PSU signal-callers have to be ready, he emphasized, and he referred to his future QBs as 1A and 1B -- although he didn't really utilize the backup last season. Steven Bench threw just eight passes despite a few blowouts.
Ferguson enrolled early after decommitting from Houston and pledging to the Nittany Lions. Hackenberg's Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy didn't allow for early graduation, so he joined the team over the summer. Ferguson missed about a month of voluntary workouts, however, due to personal reasons.
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.
NittanyNation takes a closer look at PSU's five areas of need in the 2014 class and just what they've achieved already with this group.
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NittanyNation recently caught up with the quarterback to talk about his career goals, what he's currently up to and more. He'll join the team June 22.
NittanyNation: So, tell me, what have you been doing lately to get ready for Penn State? Are you trying to relax a bit now, or are you in full-workout mode?
Jack Seymour: Well, I've been trying to get up at 6:30 to get ready for workouts. I've been lifting every day, and I'm doing boxing to cross-train -- so I've been doing 2-3 workouts a day, and I'm doing the playbook about 30 minutes each day. I've got a big whiteboard up on my room, so I've been drawing up routes and stuff. I've been working hard.
NN: I don't hear about boxing quarterbacks too often. What's the goal behind that?
JS: I've heard from some coaches that it helps with the throwing hand -- and it also helps with my heart rate too, because there's a lot of running. It's a hard workout. It's like cardio and explosiveness with my throwing hand.
I've definitely noticed a difference -- especially on the 20-yard, 18-yard and comeback routes. It's helped with arm strength, with the quick release and stuff like that.
NN: Your role is a bit more important this year since there are only two scholarship QBs. What were your thoughts when Steven Bench left?
JS: Well, first off, Bench and I were -- after I met him, I just saw what a cool guy he was. So, it sucks he left, but it did get me excited and put me in a great spot because I'll have a better opportunity for reps and to get on the field.
I mean, it's just another thing that helps me moving forward, that I'm going to have a better opportunity. I was excited in hearing that, not in the sense he left but in the sense there's more space for me because I know it would've been harder to get reps with three quarterbacks.
NN: What are your goals for this first season and for your career at PSU?
JS: I'm not thinking of setting myself for a certain position or a certain spot. I'm not going to say my goal is to get second string, and I don't want to be cocky and say I want to become a starter. But that's ultimately it. If a QB doesn't have that as a goal, I guess something's kind of wrong with you.
I just want to get as high up as I can and do my best for the team. And obviously, just as Matt McGloin did incredible things in his fifth year, I guess my goals would be similar to him. Just working my way up competing. ... So I think my expectation is to really never let an opportunity slip by, like if someone might be injured and I go in. I'm going to be prepared no matter what.
NN: You played for a small team at a school that was more accustomed to tennis championships. But, you still managed to get noticed by several FBS programs. How did you manage to catch coaches' eyes?
JS: Hard work, just on and off the field. My freshman year, I had the opportunity to transfer to a bigger school where I'd be on a bigger team and all that. And, ultimately, I decided not to because I thought that no matter where I was at, I'd make myself stand out.
I committed to the guys at Park, and I didn't want to leave them. My goal my freshman year was to be the first quarterback from there to go D-I. I think we've had 2-3 guys go D-I at other positions, and I just had a lot of help from my coaches who'd reach out to guys for me. It just worked out. I ended up getting really good film in three years, so I think I'm just making the best of what I had. I got the opportunity to scramble a lot, took advantage and made plays.
NN: For those still wondering, why did you decide to turn down several offers to walk-on to Penn State?
JS: Well, the MAC schools I had offers from, those are great schools. But, in my mind, I wanted a better education and, second off, I kind of wanted to give myself a shot at a bigger program to see how I would do. I was looking at the perfect fit with football, academics and coaches. And at Penn State, well, you can't really get anymore perfect than Penn State when it comes to that. So when that opportunity came up, I was ecstatic.
NN: How do you want to be remembered at PSU?
JS: Oh man, I 'm trying to think of something off the top of my head. I guess I want to be known as someone who can be counted on the field and off the field. I'm not going to be someone who gets in trouble. I'm going to be an honest, hard-working player who's going to give everything I have to the university and friends and family and coaches there.
The commitment of Michael O Connor (Bradenton, Fla./IMG Academy) to Penn State wasn't much of a surprise, but that doesn't prevent it from being one of the key additions to this 2014 class.
PSU needed a quarterback. After all, it's just two hits away from fielding a first-year walk-on this coming season. But the staff wanted this ESPN 150 prospect long before Steven Bench ever transferred, before the position want ever evolved into a need.
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Bench announced Thursday that he's transferring to South Florida, selecting the Bulls ahead of Mississippi State. He will be eligible to play immediately because of the loosened transfer policies the NCAA gave Penn State players after imposing major sanctions against the program last summer.
After backing up Matt McGloin in 2012, Bench competed in spring practice with junior-college transfer Tyler Ferguson. Bench and Ferguson shared snaps in Penn State's spring game, but days later Bench announced he would leave the program after head coach Bill O'Brien told him that he had slipped behind Ferguson on the depth chart. Ferguson instead will compete for the starting job with heralded incoming recruit Christian Hackenberg.
Bench tweeted Thursday morning: "I’ve decided to attend the University of South Florida and become a bull!! #DoSomething."
A native of Bainbridge, Ga., Bench will return to a Big Ten stadium this fall with South Florida, which visits Michigan State on Sept. 7.
- PSU welcomed two new commits on Friday, landing safety Marcus Allen and then linebacker Jared Wangler later on. Allen has come a long way since playing JV linebacker, while Wangler's coach said his work ethic helps separate the linebacker. Wangler also later recounted his commitment day in depth.
- Five-star CB Jabrill Peppers is down to just four schools -- and it turns out PSU is one of the remaining choices. He'll visit Penn State on May 18.
- The coach of Penn State recruit Daquan Worley called his player fast, tough and physical . Worley also talked about his commitment and said he wasn't always a lock for PSU .
- 2015 CB John Reid already has double-digit scholarship offers , but he said he's nowhere close to naming any favorites.
- ESPN 150 CB Dravon Henry hasn't seen his recruitment get any easier since he named a top four about two months ago.
- Joe Schad reports that Steven Bench is considering a transfer to NC State in addition to Mississippi State and South Florida.
- Bill O'Brien said fans should not expect a "mass exodus" anytime soon. And Adam Rittenberg writes that O'Brien is also embracing his role in PSU's outreach.
- Jared Shanker took a lighthearted look at recruiting pitches in the Big Ten, including what each team is selling and what each team is missing.
- PSU is the first major program to start recruiting 2015 QB Ryan Brand , and the rising junior is thrilled.
- 2015 LB Jerome Baker may live in Ohio, but he said he actually grew up a Penn State fan in this past week's edition of "5 Questions."
- Incoming run-on kicker Chris Gulla addressed his chance at starting and what fans can expect from him at the position.
- DT Jeremiah Clarke named his top six schools and PSU made the cut.
- Like a lot of B1G teams, PSU is after a 2015 OT who is already 6-foot-8 and 295 pounds .
- We took a closer look at Penn State's big board when it comes to DBs .
- Sophomore quarterback Steven Bench said it wasn't an easy decision, but he's set to transfer from Penn State. Brian Bennett offered instant analysis on the move, while Josh Moyer wrote that PSU shouldn't panic quite yet .
- Coverage of the quarterback situation continued elsewhere. ESPN 150 quarterback Michael O'Connor said in this week's edition of "5 Questions" that Bench's transfer piques his interest in PSU . And, in this week's mailbag, we took three questions on the QB situation -- regarding walk-ons, extra scholarships and Christian Hackenberg.
- Now that Tyler Ferguson is the lone scholarship QB on the roster -- at least until Hackenberg arrives -- it's definitely worth taking a look at this: Earlier this year, NittanyNation retraced Ferguson's junior college season and polled half of the coaches who squared off against him about his pros and cons.
- Four-star wideout Chris Godwin committed to PSU. And it's no surprise ESPN's scouts think the Nittany Lions have greatly improved their receivers.
- WR De'Andre Thompkins said in an in-depth Q&A that the addition of another wideout isn't making him shy away from his commitment.
- Troy Apke's coach talked about what makes his receiver special and said that Apke is just getting started. Thompkins' coach said his player belongs on the same level as Mario Williams , a former No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft.
- Our 2014 PSU spotlight series continued by taking a closer look at DT Ricky Walker.
- Video: Nick Scott talked about his time at the Blue-White Game and his commitment to PSU. Scott also impressed the scouts during the Nike Football Training Camp in Washington, D.C.
- DB Anthony Davis likes PSU a lot , but his recruiting process has become a little harder since his head coach left.
- 2015 RB Jerome Baker had a huge week and picked up several offers, including one from Penn State.
- PSU target Qadree Ollison is a fan of the Big Ten and talks about his recent trip to Happy Valley.
- Athlete Dareian Watkins updates his recruitment and says he hopes to visit PSU.
Every week, NittanyNation poses five questions to a recruit, player, alum or coach about PSU and other topics.
This week's subject in ESPN 150 quarterback Michael O'Connor (Bradenton, Fla./IMG Academy), the only uncommitted signal-caller who holds a Penn State offer. He's ranked as the No. 123 overall player the country, and he plans to commit somewhere by June. He'll enroll early.
NittanyNation: So, what schools are planning to see you during this evaluation period? And any new schools you're especially hoping for an offer from?
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The subject of Bench transferring wasn't broached over the weekend. His father said they chatted about school and, well, football -- what else?
The topic of those Bench family conversations shifted dramatically on Tuesday, when the sophomore quarterback sat down with Penn State coach Bill O'Brien. The Benches were somewhat light on details -- but it came down to Bench feeling he didn't have a shot at the starting job.
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In a stunning bit of spring news, Penn State announced Wednesday that sophomore quarterback Steven Bench is transferring.
It's a shocking development since Bench was competing for the starting job and entered spring practice with the upper hand on the position as the Nittany Lions' only returning scholarship quarterback. No reason was given for Bench's decision.
Soon after the announcement, Bench tweeted: "I've decided to leave Penn State and go to a school that will give me the opportunity to compete for the QB spot and reach my full potential."
"I have been meeting with all the players this week with my evaluation of where they are at related to football and academics and to discuss what they need to work on this summer," Penn State coach Bill O'Brien said in a statement released by the school. "After meeting with Steven, he informed me he wants to play elsewhere. We want what is best for Steven. I want to thank him for his contributions to the program. We wish Steven the best in the future and will assist him anyway we can."
O'Brien had said that Bench and junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson were even in the quarterback competition after spring practice concluded last week. Both players had similar stats in Penn State's spring game.
"I think both guys did some really good things," O'Brien said after the game. "I've said that all spring. I'd say, no, I'm not any closer as I sit here right now. Eventually, I'll have to make a decision.”
So what changed for Bench, who appeared in two games last year as Matt McGloin's backup? Was it clear to him that he'd fallen behind in the quarterback race? Or was he nudged out the door for some reason? (For what it's worth, Bench tweeted, "What did I do to deserve this?" earlier on Wednesday, though we've seen with college athletes and Twitter that it's often dangerous to read too much -- or anything -- into a single tweet.) A team spokesman said the move was not related to academics and was Bench's decision.
We'll wait for answers as to why Bench is leaving State College. For now, we know that Ferguson is the starting quarterback, and that the possibility of redshirting incoming freshman Christian Hackenberg has grown much slimmer. O'Brien might not have choice but to play Hackenberg right away, as the only other quarterbacks on the depth chart are walk-ons D.J. Crook and Austin Whipple. But it's going to be tough for any young quarterback to master O'Brien's system in such a short period of time.
Ferguson will be given every chance now to prove he can handle the job. Bench, meanwhile, will join Rob Bolden and Paul Jones as once-promising quarterbacks who have left Penn State in the past year.
UPDATE: It appears Bench decided to transfer after learning that Ferguson had won the job. While he told NittanyNation's Josh Moer that the decision wasn't totally based on falling to No. 2 on the depth chart, he also said the following about his meeting with O'Brien:
"It's out of my control, but I wasn't happy with it," he said. "I'm a competitor, so I'm not going to agree with that decision. But, at the same time, it's his decision and it's out of my control. I feel that it kind of left me no choice. I don't want to back anyone up. I want to play. I came here to play football."