Penn State Nittany Lions: Tyler Ferguson

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- We're nearing the end of this week's countdown, which involves ranking Penn State's most impactful recruiting classes of the past decade.

Up next is a class you should be very familiar with ...

No. 2 most impactful class: Class of 2013

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Nabil K. Mark/Centre Daily Times/Getty ImagesChristian Hackenberg's commitment ensured there would be little drop-off in PSU recruiting despite the heavy sanctions.
Top prospects: QB Christian Hackenberg, TE Adam Breneman, OG Brendan Mahon, OT Andrew Nelson, WR DaeSean Hamilton, DE Garrett Sickels, WR Richy Anderson, LB Brandon Bell

Biggest surprise: Bell. He made a lot of strides as a freshman and even made a start toward the end of the season. Bill O’Brien plugged him in for nine games in 2013, and Bell played a lot in the last three. He made 15 tackles in his final three contests -- 24 total on the year -- and even forced a fumble against Nebraska. He should end up starting the next three seasons.

Impact player: Hackenberg. Does this choice really need to be explained? He was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year, one of the better quarterbacks in the conference, and he took off running after enrolling over the summer. Penn State doesn’t often start true freshmen in season openers, but Hackenberg surpassed Tyler Ferguson pretty quickly with a calm demeanor and a penchant for learning a lot in a short time. Hackenberg could end up being Penn State’s best quarterback since Kerry Collins.

Why this class is important: This countdown isn’t just a list of the classes with the best prospects; it’s the most impactful. And when sanctions hit and the nation wondered whether Penn State would suffer a fate worse than death, top prospects such as Hackenberg and Breneman took center stage and showed that the university still could reel in the best of the best -- instead of simply settling for MAC-level recruits, as some predicted.

This class might not produce as many All-Big Ten players as the 2006 group. It might not even end up with an All-American. But this class is so important, and impactful, because of what it symbolized at the time. Happy Valley was still a destination, in part, because of the big names in this class. They offered fans hope. And they helped keep Penn State together while having a profound, ancillary effect in other areas.

You think Penn State reels in arguably the best 2014 class of receivers without Hackenberg? No chance. You can measure impact different ways, and this recruiting class is undoubtedly one of the most important in Penn State history.

More impactful recruiting classes:

No. 5: Class of 2011
No. 4: Class of 2004
No. 3: Class of 2006

Looking to the past & future: QBs

December, 18, 2013
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The season's over, Beaver Stadium's empty, and the latest Bill O'Brien-to-the-NFL rumors have already begun.

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.

REWIND

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Abby Drey/Centre Daily Times/Getty ImagesThe Penn State passing attack is in good hands thanks to Christian Hackenberg.
Expectations entering 2013 season: First, Steven Bench had the head start. Then he lost it and transferred. Then, Tyler Ferguson had the edge. Then he lost it ... and, well, recently decided to transfer. And, then, you know what happened next. Christian Hackenberg, who enrolled over the summer, managed to earn the starting job and never looked back.

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.

FAST FORWARD

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.

QB Ferguson to transfer from Penn State

December, 4, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State backup quarterback Tyler Ferguson was granted a release from his scholarship Monday and will seek a transfer elsewhere, he told ESPN.com.

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.

[+] EnlargeTyler Ferguson
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicTyler Ferguson played well in spring practice but was eventually passed by Christian Hackenberg as Penn State's No. 1 QB in preseason.
"I'm just wanting to play somewhere," Ferguson said. "I really don't have any preference where that is; I just want to play somewhere."

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."

Hackenberg named B1G freshman of year

December, 3, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- There wasn't much anticipation for the Big Ten freshman of the year award because, after the season-long performance by Christian Hackenberg, the choice was pretty clear.

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsPenn State signal-caller Christian Hackenberg took home Big Ten freshman of the year honors.
Hackenberg officially won the award Tuesday night -- the second straight freshman-of-the-year award for PSU (Deion Barnes in 2012) -- but fans and media called this weeks ago.

Hackenberg earned five Big Ten freshman of the week awards, the most by a player since Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase in 2010, and he left little doubt as to the yearly award winner. He made visible progress every week, from the first time he won the freshman of the week award in the season opener to the last time he won that weekly award in the season finale.

Hackenberg finished the season with 2,955 yards and twice as many touchdowns (20) as interceptions (10). He completed 58.9 percent of his passes, rushed for another four scores, and led PSU to key comebacks against Michigan and Illinois.

"One of the things that has struck me about Christian since the day I met him ... is his demeanor," coach Bill O'Brien said during the season. "He's a calm guy. He's got a quiet confidence about him."

The teenager who never strayed from Penn State during unprecedented sanctions was hailed as the savior of this program before he ever set foot on campus. He enrolled over the summer, overtook Tyler Ferguson as the starter, and never looked back on his way to exceeding monstrous expectations and becoming the Big Ten's freshman of the year.

Hackenberg earned the award over Wisconsin cornerback Sojourn Shelton, Ohio State athlete Dontre Wilson and OSU defensive lineman Joey Bosa.

Shelton was likely the runner-up as he accounted for nearly half of his team's interceptions (four of nine) and boasted 31 tackles. He also led the Badgers with seven pass breakups and 11 deflections. Wilson ended the regular season with 869 all-purpose yards (226 rushing, 215 receiving, 428 returning), and Bosa wound up with 10.5 tackles-for-loss and 5.5 sacks.

But none of those three had quite the impact of Hackenberg, who helped PSU clinch a winning season by upsetting then-No. 15 Wisconsin. It was the first time PSU defeated a top-15 team on the road since 2008, when it upset No. 9 Ohio State.

Hackenberg had his best game in the finale, passing for 339 yards, four touchdowns and no picks. That all but cemented his status as the conference's freshman of the year.

 
Christian HackenbergAP Photo/Gene J. PuskarChristian Hackenberg, the top-rated quarterback in the 2013 recruiting class, will start the opener at Penn State.

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Four months ago, Christian Hackenberg was kicking up sand near the dugout as part of the Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy baseball team.

He was finding free time, between baseball and classwork, to break out flash cards and study the Penn State playbook -- names of plays and formations on one side and blank on the other, so he could scribble what they looked like. He'd catch himself daydreaming about running through that Beaver Stadium tunnel and launching touchdown passes behind a cheering crowd.

Now? All that studying, dreaming and summer training has culminated in what he's waited to achieve since Feb. 29, 2012, the day he committed to the Nittany Lions: According to sources, he is the starting quarterback at Penn State.

Hackenberg's father had initially weighed the value of a redshirt, but that was before the senior high school season of ESPN's top-rated passer. And a lot has changed in Happy Valley since then. Sophomore Steven Bench, who some expected to be a short-term Band-Aid, transferred to South Florida upon learning he wouldn't receive first-team reps in the preseason. Then juco quarterback Tyler Ferguson missed about a month of voluntary workouts for personal reasons.

Ferguson still held the edge early in camp. But Hackenberg, perhaps the biggest-name quarterback to ever sign a Penn State letter of intent, quickly caught up and impressed the coaching staff. A week into camp, head coach Bill O'Brien said the race became "very even." Less than three weeks later, Hackenberg pulled ahead. He'll be the second PSU true freshman in the last 100 years to be the starting quarterback.

"Christian has come in here and really done a nice job," O'Brien said early on at camp. "He's attentive. He must be staying up late at night studying the playbook because he's come from Day 1 to Day 2 to Day 3 and improved. And he asks great questions in the meetings."

Hackenberg's strong arm dazzled onlookers at last year's Elite 11 and the Under Armour All-America Game, and the baby-faced quarterback already shows more ability to stretch the field than his predecessor, Matt McGloin. During part of an open practice two weeks ago, some reporters muttered "woah" when Hackenberg zipped a pass against his body to the opposite sideline -- right at the receiver's numbers.

Between his arm, accuracy and size -- he is 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds -- Hackenberg's potential and raw ability have never really come into question. Talent is oozing from the aw-shucks kid whose father attended high school in Pennsylvania.

Recruiting analysts, opposing players, college coaches and former quarterbacks have thrown almost as much praise Hackenberg's way as they did to O'Brien after an emotional, 8-4 first season. Said Super Bowl-winning quarterback Trent Dilfer: "Christian is a kid you build a program around."

But potential and high accolades don't always translate to success -- at least not immediately. Former No. 1-rated QB Matt Stafford struggled as a freshman at Georgia and threw 13 interceptions and seven touchdowns. Notre Dame's Jimmy Clausen threw seven scores to six interceptions. USC's Matt Barkley had a 15:14 ratio of TDs to interceptions in his first season. ESPN rated each the No. 1 quarterback in his respective class, and all are in the NFL.

So what does that mean for Hackenberg? That future greatness does not necessarily equate to immediate success. Opposing high school coaches have said Hackenberg struggled diagnosing disguised coverages, and the schemes and talent of Big Ten defenses will obviously lie in stark contrast to those Hackenberg saw in high school.

McGloin didn't have the strongest arm but he was a great decision-maker, throwing 24 touchdowns and five interceptions in 2012. Hackenberg is not expected to top those numbers this year, but he is expected to show promise.

The Nittany Lions have had their fair share of busts and underachieving quarterbacks over the years -- Rob Bolden, Paul Jones, Anthony Morelli and Kevin Newsome, to name a few -- but this Lions group also has something different nowadays, namely O'Brien and quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher.

O'Brien molded McGloin, a former walk-on, into a player the Big Ten blog thought deserved consideration for the Davey O'Brien Award. What can he do with the best true freshman quarterback prospect in the nation, one who turned down teams such as Alabama, Florida and Georgia?

We'll start to see at 3:30 p.m. Saturday.
Who'll start Saturday -- Christian Hackenberg or Tyler Ferguson?

Whatever the answer is, the quarterback will face the same challenge on Saturday by making his first career start. We can't peer into the future to see what the end result will be. (Hey, as Bill O'Brien likes to say, we're no genies.)

But we can look back to see how the last five Penn State quarterbacks fared in their first career starts. Here they are:

Matt McGloin, redshirt sophomore
vs. Michigan on Oct. 30, 2010
Outcome: PSU 41-31
Stats: 17-of-28 for 250 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions

Synopsis: After Rob Bolden suffered a head injury against Minnesota the week before, McGloin became the next man up. He was the first former walk-on to ever start under Joe Paterno.

After holding on to a 14-10 lead late in the second quarter, McGloin led PSU on two touchdown drives to give the Lions a 28-10 advantage by halftime. Said Paterno after the game: "That's about as well as we can play."

[+] EnlargeRob Bolden
Randy Litzinger/Icon SMIRob Bolden made history in 2010 as the first true freshman quarterback to start an opener for Penn State under coach Joe Paterno.
Rob Bolden, true freshman
vs. Youngstown State on Sept. 4, 2010
Outcome: PSU 44-14
Stats: 20-of-29 for 239 yards, two touchdowns, one interception

Synopsis: He was the first true freshman in a century to start an opener for Penn State, and he fared relatively well against lesser competition.

PSU started off slow and led just 16-7 at halftime, but Bolden was able to get some breathing room when Chaz Powell returned the second-half kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown. Bolden didn't get much help from the running game -- Evan Royster had 40 yards on 11 carries -- but PSU dominated after the touchdown return.

Daryll Clark, redshirt junior
vs. Coastal Carolina on Aug. 30, 2008
Outcome: PSU 66-10
Stats: 11-of-14 for 146 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions

Synopsis: Penn State performed as expected against an FCS cupcake and didn't even really need to pass. PSU rushed for 334 yards and led 38-0 by halftime.

Pat Devlin and Paul Cianciolo played later in the game because, well, there was really no reason for Clark to risk injury. Clark said this afterward: "When you first start, you want everything to go right. I don't think I got touched today."

Anthony Morelli, junior
vs. Akron on Sept. 2, 2006
Outcome: PSU 34-16
Stats: 16-of-32 for 206 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions

Synopsis: Morelli started off hot and drove the Lions to a score on their first drive, on a 42-yard touchdown pass to Deon Butler. He was 7-of-10 passing for 110 yards and two scores on just his first three drives -- and he was the first PSU quarterback since joining the Big Ten to throw three TDs in his first career start.

Said Akron coach J.D. Brookhart: "That kid can throw from one half to the other, 20 yards deep. You won't see a better arm this year."

Michael Robinson, redshirt sophomore
vs. Wisconsin on Oct. 4, 2003
Outcome: Wisconsin 30-23
Stats: 22-of-43 for 379 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions; nine carries for 19 yards

Synopsis: Robinson stepped up when Zack Mills went down the week before with a sprained left knee, and he performed admirably. Although PSU didn't win, Robinson guided PSU on touchdown drives of 74, 80 and 70 yards. And, at the time, only one other PSU quarterback (Mills) had thrown for more yards in a game.

Robinson said this to the Philadelphia Inquirer: "Before the game, I kind of thought they would blitz me a little more, because that's what you usually do to a guy making his first start. You kind of want to get in his head a little bit. They played back and basically told me, 'Look, if you're going to beat us, you're going to have to throw the ball.' And I think we did a pretty good job."
The games are finally here, and every Thursday during the season at this time, we'll bring you 10 items to track around the Big Ten.

Let's get to it …


1. Quarterback mysteries solved: We might not get all the answers in Week 1 about the Big Ten's many quarterback competitions, but a few clues should emerge. Three Big Ten teams -- Wisconsin, Penn State and Indiana -- have yet to announce starting quarterbacks heading into the openers. Expect sophomore Joel Stave to lead the Badgers and freshman Christian Hackenberg to take the first snap for Penn State. Indiana's quarterback race has been extremely even, and coach Kevin Wilson isn't afraid to let the starter decision go down to the wire.

2. Coaching debuts: Purdue's Darrell Hazell and Wisconsin's Gary Andersen both have enjoyed honeymoon periods at their respective schools, but they both know the mood can change once the games begin. Hazell faces an uphill climb as Purdue plays the Big Ten's toughest schedule, beginning Saturday on the road against a Cincinnati team that won 10 games last season. Andersen embarks on the unique challenge of blending his philosophy with a veteran team that has won the past three Big Ten championships. Wisconsin will have no trouble with Massachusetts, but keep an eye on how the Badgers' new 3-4 defense performs.

[+] EnlargeJordan Lynch
AP Photo/Alan DiazIowa again starts the season facing Northern Illinois and QB Jordan Lynch.
3. Pivotal game at Kinnick: Iowa's victory in the 2012 opener against a Northern Illinois team that went on to the Orange Bowl proved to be one of few highlights in a highly disappointing season. The Hawkeyes once again kick things off against an NIU squad led by Heisman Trophy candidate Jordan Lynch, who wants to avenge last year's setback. It's hard to call a season opener a must-win, but Iowa needs to generate some positive momentum early before a very challenging Big Ten schedule.

4. Speed trap in Berkeley: Still glowing from a 10-win season in 2012, Northwestern faces several unique challenges in its opener Saturday night at Cal. The Wildcats must contain the "Bear Raid" offense orchestrated by new Cal coach Sonny Dykes. The Bears are a mystery team with a ton of youth led by a freshman quarterback (Jared Goff). Northwestern also must contend with a late kickoff and moved its practices this week from the afternoon to the evening. The Wildcats are even taking naps to prepare.

5. Dontre's inferno: Aside from Christian Hackenberg, no Big Ten incoming freshman has generated more buzz in camp than Ohio State's multipurpose speedster Dontre Wilson. The onetime Oregon commit could be a transformative player for Urban Meyer's offense, filling the so-called Percy position at wide receiver/running back. Wilson should get some opportunities for explosive plays as Ohio State opens the season Saturday against Buffalo.

6. Juco hello: The Big Ten doesn't bring in as many junior college transfers as other leagues, but several juco arrivals could be impact players this season. Nebraska fans are anxious to see if Randy Gregory can be the pass -rushing force they've been waiting for. Wisconsin's Tanner McEvoy fell out of the mix at quarterback but will see time at other positions like wide receiver. Illinois wide receiver Martize Barr provides a much-needed weapon in the pass game for Nathan Scheelhaase. Minnesota linebackers Damien Wilson and De'Vondre Campbell could solidify the defensive midsection. It'll also be interesting whether quarterback Tyler Ferguson logs some field time for Penn State.

7. Oh, Henry: Purdue senior Rob Henry will make his first start at quarterback since the 2010 season (yes, you read that right) on Saturday against Cincinnati. An ACL injury sustained in late August prevented Henry from starting in 2011, and the versatile Boiler wore several hats for the offense in 2012. After beating out Danny Etling and Austin Appleby in camp, Henry guides coordinator John Shoop's pro-style offense into Nippert Stadium, where Purdue aims for a win that would provide "instant gratification," according to Hazell.

8. To the Max: Senior Andrew Maxwell emerged from Michigan State's quarterback morass to claim the starting job, at least for now. But after struggling for much of his first season as the starter, Maxwell needs a strong start Friday night against Western Michigan. Head coach Mark Dantonio is committed to playing multiple quarterbacks early in the season, so Connor Cook should see time against the Broncos. Maxwell must prove he's the top option by showing better command and rhythm with his oft-criticized receiving corps.

9. Let's be Frank: Few Michigan players not named Devin Gardner have generated more positive ink in the offseason than defensive end Frank Clark. The 6-foot-2, 273-pound junior had a strong finish to the 2012 season and could be the pass-rusher Michigan needs to turn a corner defensively this fall. Then again, we've seen certain Michigan defenders hyped up (cough, Will Campbell, cough) and never do much. It'll be interesting to see if Clark sets the tone for a big year Saturday against Central Michigan.

10. APB for playmakers: Other than Penn State and Iowa, the Big Ten actually returns a decent amount of experience at quarterback for the 2013 season. But the league lacks offensive playmakers, especially at wide receiver. Teams like Ohio State, Minnesota, Michigan State and Illinois are hoping to surround their quarterbacks with more options. It will be interesting to see who establishes himself in Week 1 as a go-to option.

PSU position preview: Quarterback

August, 29, 2013
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As part of an ongoing series, NittanyNation will preview a different position leading up to the season opener against Syracuse on Saturday. Today is the last installment: Quarterback.

Projected starter: Christian Hackenberg (2012 HS stats: 156-of-291 for 2,144 yards; 24 touchdowns, nine interceptions)

Key losses: Matt McGloin (2012 stats: 270-of-446 for 3,266 yards; 24 touchdowns, five interceptions)

Next in line: No, Bill O'Brien still hasn't publicly announced a starter -- but that appears to be Hackenberg, with juco signal-caller Tyler Ferguson as the backup. Ferguson will still see time at points this year, so last year's McGloin-Steven Bench split shouldn't be repeated.

D.J. Crook is listed as the third-string quarterback, while Austin Whipple is likely No. 4. Freshman walk-on Jack Seymour, who turned down MAC scholarship offers, is No. 5.

What to expect: Let's start off with what NOT to expect -- and that's a repeat of last season's 24:5 TD-to-INT ratio. Hackenberg is one of those players, his high school coach said, who comes along once or twice in a career. But that doesn't necessarily equate to immediate success.

Even NFL quarterback Matt Stafford, whom ESPN rated the No. 1 QB back in his class, threw nearly twice as many picks as touchdowns in his first season. So there's no easy way to place expectations on Hackenberg here. For every Stafford, there's a Chad Henne -- somebody who breaks out as a true freshman and ties some school passing records.

Hackenberg boasts all the tools for success -- throwing power, accuracy, mobility, size -- but he needs to improve upon reading defenses. All freshmen do. This year may be a wild card, but the future is bright for Hackenberg. Penn State's just hoping that future comes sooner rather than later.

Recruiting trail: ESPN 300 quarterback Michael O'Connor (Bradenton, Fla./IMG Academy) will enroll early, and he'll bring some much-needed depth to the position. He's a quality player who, if needed, could contribute right away.

O'Brien likes to go after the best players available, and that was O'Connor. He wasn't a "need" pick. O'Brien offered him a scholarship before Bench even transferred, a few weeks after he wowed assistant coach Charlie Fisher by calling out Penn State plays he saw on film. O'Connor is a quick study and, if everything goes as planned, could become a two-year starter following Hackenberg.

Best-case scenario: Hackenberg fares well in his first few starts during the nonconference season. There are some bumps but, overall, he keeps Penn State in games and earns the respect of fans and his teammates with his play. The Lions' offense breaks out with more big plays than ever thanks to Hackenberg's arm, and he earns a spot on the freshman All-American team. He peaks near the end of the season, guides PSU to an improved record and has fans clamoring about a title run in 2016.

Worst-case scenario: The true freshman's adjustment to the college game is a slow one, as he makes poor decisions that consistently lead to turnovers. O'Brien is forced to use Ferguson a bit more than anticipated, and a controversy looms. Hackenberg shows flashes of potential, giving fans hope, but he also shows he's just not yet ready to be a full-time starter. Penn State wins fewer than eight games as a result.

Top position question: Just how good can Hackenberg be? Well, he's bound for the NFL. That's … not something you usually say about an 18-year-old kid who's never taken a college snap. But every one of ESPN's top-rated quarterback recruits made it to the NFL upon graduation, and only one of the three younger quarterbacks still playing doesn't appear to have an NFL future. (Sorry, Phillip Sims.)

Russell Wilson played in the same high school league as Hackenberg, and most coaches there said Wilson is the better QB. Still, it's close. Expectations are big enough here that Hackenberg would be a disappointment if he didn't make it to the NFL.

How good can he be? He could be the best since Kerry Collins. But that's all a game of "what ifs" right now. Obviously, his potential is high -- but we should get a glimpse Saturday of just what he's capable of.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Bill O'Brien said Tuesday he will not announce a starting quarterback before the season opener against Syracuse.

"You'll find out who the quarterback is on the first play against Syracuse," he said during his weekly news conference.

The Penn State head coach said early last week that he would announce by the end of that week whether true freshman Christian Hackenberg or junior college QB Tyler Ferguson earned the start. But, by Thursday, he had reconsidered.

He said Tuesday that the two players' youth both contributed toward his change of heart.

"You've got an 18- and 19-year-old guy here. That's part of it," he said. "They just got here."

Ferguson enrolled in January but missed about a month of voluntary workouts due to personal reasons. Hackenberg arrived over the summer because his high school, Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy, didn't allow for early graduation.

O'Brien's comments don't necessarily mean he doesn't know who the starter will be, however. When asked whether the team or staff already knew the starter, O'Brien declined to comment. He simply restated his position that fans and the media would learn of his decision Saturday.

O'Brien initially said Ferguson held the early edge in camp. But, by Week 2, he said the race was too close to call.

Penn State will face Syracuse at 3:30 p.m. ET on Saturday.

Notes on PSU's newest depth chart

August, 26, 2013
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Penn State's depth chart was released on Monday and, much to no one's surprise, a starting quarterback was not named. An "OR" appears next to the names of Tyler Ferguson and Christian Hackenberg.

Still, there were a few notable changes on the depth chart and in the game notes:
  • Adam Gress was nursing an injury last week, and he was not listed as the definite starter at right tackle. He's still battling with TE-turned-OT Garry Gilliam. Bill O'Brien will likely update Gress' progress on Tuesday.
  • Von Walker, a run-on whom O'Brien complimented last week, is listed as competing for the No. 2 kickoff return spot with Akeel Lynch. Walker is an athlete whom PSU hopes to utilize as a slotback. This might be the biggest surprise on the depth chart. You can read more about Walker here.
  • D.J. Crook is listed as the third-string quarterback. He was competing with Austin Whipple and Jack Seymour for the No. 3 spot. He was listed as the third-stringer on the post-spring depth chart as well.
  • Bill Belton is still listed as the No. 2 tailback, ahead of Lynch ... but that likely doesn't mean much. Both will see carries.
  • There's an "OR" listed next to Malcolm Willis' name, signifying he's still competing with Ryan Keiser at safety. Willis is obviously expected to be the starter -- barring injury. O'Brien will undoubtedly be asked about that on Tuesday.
  • Middle linebacker Glenn Carson is still listed as the snapper at punter, despite picking up a run-on whose specialty is snapping and having Howle snapping on field goals.

QB decision might not come this week

August, 22, 2013
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Bill O'Brien didn't lend any clarity to the Penn State quarterback battle Thursday afternoon, instead saying that he might not name a starter this week after all.

He twice said Tuesday he would name a starter by the end of the week. When asked if he knew whether he'd have a starter in place by Friday or Sunday, O'Brien said he wasn't certain.

"I don't know," he said. "It might not come until next week. It might come the first play of the game on offense."

True freshman Christian Hackenberg and junior college signal-caller Tyler Ferguson are vying for the starting job. O'Brien said Ferguson had the early edge in the first week of the camp, but later said Hackenberg had caught up by Week 2. He's recently called the race "very close" and said he was close to a decision.

"We're all into this clarification stuff," O'Brien said. "It's my job to run the football team. I'm always going to do what's best for the football team. As long as I'm the head football coach there, I'll always do that.

"That has nothing to do with indecisiveness or doing this or doing that. All I care about is that the guys in the team meeting room know where we're headed -- and our guys on the football team have a very clear direction of where we're headed on both sides of the ball."
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Bill O'Brien remains "very close" to naming a starting quarterback, and he echoed earlier statements on Mike & Mike by saying a decision between Tyler Ferguson and Christian Hackenberg will come by the end of the week.

"These are two of the best young quarterbacks I've ever coached," O'Brien said Tuesday afternoon from Penn State's practice field. "Tyler is 19 years old and Christian is 18, and I'd say by the end of the week we'll make a decision on who will start the Syracuse game. But I would say both guys will play this year."

O'Brien isn't opposed to plugging in the backup for a handful of plays in the opener either. Although 2012 starter Matt McGloin threw all but eight passes for the Nittany Lions, the head coach said this year's plans would be different.

"The guy who's the starter is going to play the majority of the snaps, but I think it's important when you have two young guys -- it's a totally different situation from last year -- is that whoever the backup is needs to get his feet wet a little bit," O'Brien said. "So why not play him a series or two?"

Ferguson missed about a month of voluntary workouts, but the head coach said the juco QB still boasted the edge during the first week of camp. By the second week, however, Hackenberg had tied up the race. And now, in the third week, O'Brien still said the position battle is too close to call.

The second-year head coach wants to see each quarterback grab more reps these next few days, have the opportunity to throw equally to all the receivers and see how they fare against different looks. He declined to name what distinguishes the two signal-callers, but he said fans and the media should have their answer in the near future.

"It's important for each guy to continue to earn their stripes and continue to gain the respect of his teammates," O'Brien said. "Until I feel really good about where that's at, I'd say it's very close.

"I will name somebody. I'll tell you guys."

PSU Training Days: Selecting a QB

August, 17, 2013
8/17/13
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"May the best man win."

That's all offensive guard John Urschel had to say when asked about Penn State's quarterback race. And it's a tight one right now between first-year signal-callers Tyler Ferguson and Christian Hackenberg.

That's the big battle this preseason, the competition that all eyes are on right now. Head coach Bill O'Brien is "pretty close" to naming a starter, and it's a decision all of Happy Valley is eager to hear.

Early in training camp, when the freshmen practice at 7:30 p.m., even the upperclassmen returned to the field to watch Hackenberg throw some footballs.

"The biggest storyline of this team, I would say, got to be our quarterback situation," assistant coach Stan Hixon said.

ESPN took a closer look at the QB battle and how O'Brien is preparing the two as part of "ESPN All Access: Penn State Training Days." The behind-the-scenes program will culminate in a one-hour special at 7 p.m. Tuesday on ESPN. And a five-part series consisting of 30-minute specials will also air on ESPNU starting 6 p.m. Wednesday.

Clips such as this will preview the program and will run up until Tuesday.

Hackenberg catches up in PSU QB race

August, 15, 2013
8/15/13
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- True freshman Christian Hackenberg has closed the gap in the Penn State quarterback race.

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.

5 lessons learned: PSU's media day

August, 9, 2013
8/09/13
11:30
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State's media day might be over, but there's still plenty to reflect on.

Here's a look at five lessons learned from a day spent talking to coaches and players:

1. Tyler Ferguson currently boasts the early edge at quarterback. That wasn't a huge surprise, considering Christian Hackenberg enrolled over the summer while Ferguson started school in January. But Hackenberg has picked up things quickly, and there's no telling where the race might be in another week or two.

But, as luck would have it, that's exactly when Bill O'Brien hopes -- hopes -- to name the starter. The head coach isn't a fan of waiting until the night before the season opener because he wants the starter to get more reps with the first team. At this juncture, most of the media believes Hackenberg will start ... but O'Brien said that Ferguson holds the slight lead right now.

2. Linebacker is the biggest concern when it comes to depth. Penn State might be known as Linebacker U, but it's not very big on quantity this season. When asked about depth on defense -- since the DTs don't have the greatest numbers either -- O'Brien didn't hesitate in expressing his concern over the linebacker unit.

Nyeem Wartman will start as a redshirt freshman and the top backup, Ben Kline, is still coming off a shoulder injury and didn't participate in Thursday's practice. One more injury at this spot could spell doom for this defense. Safeties such as Adrian Amos and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong could come in relief of Wartman on passing downs, but there's only so many tweaks this staff can make to shore up the depth here.

3. Special teams are a point of focus. The Nittany Lions finished among the bottom of the country in just about every special teams category last season -- No. 103 in net punting, No. 90 in punt returns, No. 112 in kick returns, etc. O'Brien said the team is working hard on improving those numbers.

Sam Ficken remains the starting kicker, but he should be pushed by preferred walk-on Chris Gulla. That true freshman has also practiced punting a lot, so he should also compete with Alex Butterworth. And, as far as kick returners, those duties remain between eight candidates -- including Richy Anderson, Alex Kenney, Bill Belton, Trevor Williams, Akeel Lynch and Eugene Lewis.

4. Newest injuries don't affect depth that much. True freshman wideout DaeSean Hamilton, a four-star wideout from Virginia, is out for the season with a wrist injury suffered from high school. But Hamilton was a redshirt candidate before the announcement, and the corps there is pretty deep. PSU shouldn't miss a beat at wideout.

Redshirt freshman Brent Wilkerson also suffered a back injury and is "out for a while," although O'Brien declined to elaborate. Regardless, tight end is the deepest position on the roster -- and there are at least four other tight ends who could see time here. Kyle Carter and Jesse James remain the starters, but Matt Lehman is a solid backup and Adam Breneman could see time as a true freshman.

5. WR Allen Robinson is just getting started. Robinson broke the longstanding school-record for receptions last season, but assistant coach Stan Hixon said Robinson has just scratched the surface of his potential. The All-Big Ten wideout improved his strength, speed and hounded teammates over the summer for some extra 7-on-7 drills.

Robinson acknowledged he might not top last year's numbers -- 77 catches, 1,013 yards, 11 TDs -- but that doesn't mean he's not a better wideout. He has been timed at 4.6 seconds in the 40-yard dash, and he has worked hard on winning more one-on-one battles this offseason. He's a good basketball player with a strong vertical leap, and he could be the big-play threat this offense desperately needs. He's the best player on this offense -- and he has gotten better. Much better.

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