Penn State’s veteran players had already been awake before dawn. They had their first practice of training camp in the morning to start a full day.
Yet when the evening came, many found themselves drawn right back out to the practice field. This time to watch.
True freshmen get their own introductory session at the end of Day 1. And plenty of eyes were there to see No. 14 in the red no-contact jersey.
Just like the fanbase, Penn State players were eager to see Christian Hackenberg in action.
He’ll be playing on Saturdays. So will sophomore Tyler Ferguson.
Whether it’s “Hack” or “Fergie” — as their teammates have already dubbed them — taking the majority of snaps in Saturday’s opener is still a bit of a mystery.
By the end of this last week of camp, Bill O’Brien was understandably tired of answering questions about which one will be the starter. But that’s about the only subject the Penn State coach doesn’t enjoy when it comes to his rookie signal-callers.
“One thing that’s really exciting about working with young quarterbacks is that you get a chance to really mold that quarterback,” O’Brien said. “You get a chance to really teach that quarterback.”
Sure. But what all goes into molding a quarterback?
“There’s a million things,” O’Brien said. “A million things.”
Here are just a few of them.
“Hopefully,” O’Brien said, “you’ve already recruited a guy that knows already how to act. Be the first one to a meeting. Be early. Take notes. Be a great locker room guy. Don’t ever miss a class. Don’t ever get in trouble off the field. What can you do extra in the weight room? What can you do extra on the field? … What are you doing extra to help?”
The recruiting process for Hackenberg and Ferguson was wildly different.
Hackenberg, rated by some services as the top pro-style quarterback prospect in the entire country, was the first member of Penn State’s 2013 class. Ferguson wasn’t firmly on the coaches’ radar until the middle of the season, when it was obvious the Nittany Lions would need another scholarship quarterback after Paul Jones left the team.
Looking for someone with some playing experience, the coaching staff went to the junior college ranks, initially settling on the well-regarded Jake Waters from Iowa. But when he picked Kansas State instead, Penn State quickly offered his spot to Ferguson, a California native, who was getting set to sign with Houston.
The offer from O’Brien changed all of that. And despite having never set foot in Pennsylvania, Ferguson signed with the Lions.
“That,” senior guard John Urschel said, “is a serious move. He accepted a scholarship from Penn State sight-unseen. Hadn’t made a single visit. Packs up his bags, travels all the way across the country and comes to Penn State.
“I don’t know if I could have done that. His family’s back home. His girlfriend’s back home. He’s at a school he’s never been to before. Doesn’t even know anyone on the East Coast. So it really says something about him.”
“Then you go into the meeting room. OK, I teach you this on Monday. When you come back here on Tuesday, do you know it? ‘Yeah, I know it, Coach, but I have two questions.’ And they’re great questions. And that starts a conversation of football. So you know that this guy’s into it. He’s putting the time in, he’s asking great questions. You’re watching tape and he’d say, ‘No, I’d rather run it over here than run it over there.’ And you’re like, ‘Boom. This guy’s getting it.’ “
Hackenberg, meanwhile, had remained firmly committed to O’Brien and Penn State even after the NCAA brought the hammer down in July. After a few days of deliberation, he visited State College with others in the recruiting class and told O’Brien he was still coming.
But Ferguson arrived on campus first, having spent one season as the starter at College of the Sequoias in central California. That meant he had the benefit of going through spring practice and getting a jump start on learning O’Brien’s complex offense.
He picked it up quickly enough that he edged out Steven Bench, who had spent nearly a full year on campus, for the lead after spring practice. Bench transferred to South Florida, making it a two-man race.
Hackenberg, who got to Happy Valley in June, had some catching up to do.
O’Brien had little doubt he could do it. The coach was still trying to win a Super Bowl with the New England Patriots when he first saw Hackenberg’s high school film early in 2012.
“I watched a lot of quarterbacks from the ‘13 recruiting class,” O’Brien said. “And he stood out to me right away as probably one of the top two or three — I’m talking about in the country — that, in my eyes, I thought was really good.
“I could tell that he was a good decision-maker. … I could tell mechanically he was solid. I felt that he was accurate. I could tell on film that he was a bigger guy, which I liked. He could see over the trees. I liked the fact that he went to Fork Union Military Academy, because I felt like he was going to be a disciplined kid.”
“Then you go to practice. These guys love to practice. The great quarterbacks that I’ve been around, when they walk on the practice field, the whole team knows that they’re there. … That’s part of being a great quarterback. And then obviously going out to practice and performing well. And not settling for anything less than the best at practice. Striving for perfection, knowing that you’re never going to get there. It’s an imperfect game.”
Originally, O’Brien had things planned out on a tidy schedule. Four weeks of practices before the opener against Syracuse.
Take two to hold the competition for the job. Name a starter. Give him the last two to work with the first team and develop some chemistry in time for the game. Makes sense.
It didn’t exactly work out that way. After the first week, Hackenberg managed to close the gap with Ferguson. Suddenly, O’Brien was talking about using both in some capacity. Not a full rotation — Penn State fans still shudder at the frustrating McGloin-Bolden merry-go-round from 2011 — but enough that both could lead the team if needed.
That much would be a change for O’Brien, who had made it very clear in the past that he preferred to stick with one quarterback. In 2012, Bench rarely saw the field in relief of McGloin, even in lopsided blowouts.
But this isn’t 2012. There’s no fifth-year senior to carry the entire load.
What O’Brien does have is two bright minds. Ferguson’s year at junior college came about because he broke his collarbone during his senior year of high school, not because of any academic issues.
He also has two guys who have tried their hardest to fit into the fabric of the team.
“They’re both cool guys,” Urschel said. “I like ‘em. Hack’s a lot more intense, I’d say. In general, in his life. Fergie’s a West Coast guy. So off the field, just hanging out, Fergie’s a very laid-back kid. A lot more relaxed.
“But both are very talented quarterbacks from what I’ve seen. Not that I’m some great quarterbacks coach. But I think they’re both good QBs, and I think Coach O’Brien has a lot to work with. And if I know Coach O’Brien, he’ll have both of them ready come September.”
“And then obviously on gameday, going out there and doing it. Not turning it over, playing good football. … Complete the ball. Get into the right runs. Be a great guy in the locker room. A great guy off the field. That’s an example of what you’re looking for in a college quarterback.
“And at the end of the day, the guy just wins.”