STATE COLLEGE – The candidates for the Penn State starting quarterback job will get a chance to create separation in the competition when the Nittany Lions wrap up spring practice Saturday.
Steven Bench and Tyler Ferguson are the main competitors to take over for last year’s record-setting starter, Matt McGloin, who hopes to get a shot in the NFL.
The snaps have been split evenly between Bench and Ferguson. They were running about even during drills.
The Blue-White intrasquad scrimmage will be the last shot that Bench and Ferguson will have to impress until preseason camp in August.
“Any time you have practices left, there’s always enough time for one guy to separate himself,” O’Brien said last week. “I think they both do some things well and there’s some things that both of them need to improve upon.”
They might need to really electrify the coaching staff to get O’Brien to change his mind about whether to hold off on naming a starter until August, after incoming freshman Christian Hackenberg joins the fray.
For now, it’s Bench and Ferguson with a chance to seize momentum going into the summer.
“I’m not really going to get into their strengths and weaknesses,” tight end Kyle Carter said. “They’re both taking control of the huddle, getting us into the right formations and they’re both improving.”
Whoever gets the job may have an easier learning curve because most of last year’s offense is back. They all have a valuable year of experience in the spiced-up passing game that O’Brien installed after coming over from the New England Patriots in January 2012.
But don’t expect O’Brien to show much diversity in the play-calling. He’ll use a toned-down playbook and focus more on good tempo.
The biggest asset is wideout Allen Robinson, last year’s breakout star who led the Big Ten in receiving yards (1,013) and receiving touchdowns (11).
“Really, the new guy for us is just the quarterback,” Robinson said. “We’re just trying to keep those guys comfortable and rally around those guys. If we have things in practice that don’t go so well, we just try to rally around them and make them feel comfortable.”
This spring, O’Brien is also limiting full contact in practice to just once a week as a precautionary measure to preserve his team’s health. Penn State is in the midst of a two-year process of whittling down its scholarship roster by 20 to 65 in 2014 due to NCAA sanctions.
Otherwise, it’s been a relatively drama-free spring practice.
On defense, the Nittany Lions are transitioning to new coordinator John Butler, who was promoted from secondary coach. He replaced Ted Roof, who took the same job at Georgia Tech following one season in Happy Valley.
“The only thing that might be different is a couple of the defenses we install might have different names,” safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong said. “But for the most part everything’s been the same.”
Finding a replacement for tackle Jordan Hill, an NFL draft prospect, is a priority. O’Brien will be looking at walk-ons to fill backup depth at linebacker, which has lost standouts Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges.
The progress of Nyeem Wartman, who impressed for a brief time on special teams last year before an injury, will be of particular interest as he looks to snag a starting outside spot opposite Mike Hull, a Canon-McMillan graduate.
O’Brien is also looking for a replacement for departed starting cornerback Stephon Morris. But there is depth in the secondary, even with Obeng-Agyapong held out from full contact while recovering from right shoulder surgery.
Two former receivers have moved to the defensive backfield, and two scholarship freshmen cornerbacks joined the club early this spring.
As a result, the Nittany Lions have been practicing more nickel defense this spring after barely using it last season.