STATE COLLEGE — This part wasn’t new. Penn State players walked out onto the Beaver Stadium grass on Thursday morning for the team’s media day. And as usual, the team had signs for each position — “LB” and “OL” and so forth — to congregate for questions.
Naturally, there was a sign missing this year. “QB” was nowhere to be found.
Penn State only made “returning players” from 2012 available to speak on Thursday, and none of the five quarterbacks on the roster for preseason camp fit that description.
Despite that, Bill O’Brien still threw out a bone on his too-close-to-call quarterback race. Though it’s still very early in the competition, Tyler Ferguson has maintained a slight edge on Christian Hackenberg for the starting job.
“I would say after three days that Tyler is a little bit ahead, because he has knowledge of the offense,” O’Brien said. “So sure, he’s a little bit ahead. He takes most of the reps with the first team right now.”
That doesn’t mean that a decision on a starter is imminent. O’Brien actually backed off a bit from his earlier pronouncements that he would name a starter after the first two weeks of camp.
“Ehh. Maybe,” O’Brien said. “I’m going to do what’s best for the football team. I hope you didn’t mark it on your calendar so you’re all outside my office in two weeks, a week from now, whatever. Just hold your horses.”
With players talented but still very raw, it’s going to be a tough choice.
O’Brien was quick to praise both signal-callers and said he was impressed with how prepared both have been to battle for the starting job.
Ferguson, of course, had the advantage of a full winter workout session and spring practice, getting direct instruction from O’Brien and quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher.
Hackenberg’s first of tutelage didn’t come until this past Monday when camp opened.
For Ferguson, it was important to show the coaching staff that he had progressed with his understanding of the playbook since spring ball ended. It was especially key for him to show that he did not miss a beat despite spending most of July back home in California dealing with family issues.
“Tyler came back and he’s shown that he’s studied in the offseason since spring practice,” O’Brien said. “They make their share of mistakes, Tyler makes his share of mistakes, but he’s had a good three days.
“And Christian, for just being here for the first time putting the pads on and practicing football, he’s done a really nice job of studying and trying to get better every day.
“Again, it’s only three days, but we’re certainly pleased with where they’re at right now.”
When Penn State took the practice field Thursday afternoon, Ferguson opened by taking center exchanges with first-teamer Ty Howle and spent much of his time with the first-team offense during the 45 minutes open to the media.
Just as many eyes were on Hackenberg during that stretch. Hackenberg’s pedigree as one of the top quarterback recruits in the nation — and the No. 1 pocket passer on some lists — attracts plenty of attention.
Now that he’s on campus, however, those rankings mean exactly nothing.
“We’ve got to get past the recruiting stuff,” O’Brien said. “We’ve got to get past all of that. These are two very talented quarterbacks at Penn State right now.”
Hackenberg’s biggest hurdle to winning the job is that he has a very short window to win over the coaching staff’s trust for the opener against Syracuse, which is just three weeks from tomorrow.
But he’s off to a good start and has not fallen off the pace set by Ferguson.
“For a true freshman to come in here and do the things that he’s done in the first three practices is really good to see,” O’Brien said. “He’s attentive. He must be staying up late at night studying the playbook because he’s come from day one to day two to day three and improved and he asks great questions in the meetings.”
Whoever wins the job, the expectations will be high right out of the gate as the Nittany Lions return all but a handful of players from last year’s successful offense.
There may not be a seasoned quarterback on the roster to provide an example. Or speak for the group at media day.
“No,” O’Brien said. “They’ve got a seasoned coach they can learn from.”