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Quarterbacks Bench, Ferguson took unlikely paths to Penn State

| Thursday, April 18, 2013, 11:46 p.m.
Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien talks with quarterback Steven Bench (12) before facing Navy on Sept. 15, 2012, at Beaver Stadium in University Park.
Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
Penn State quarterback Steven Bench (12) watches from the sideline against Temple on Sept. 22, 2012, at Beaver Stadium in University Park.
Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
Penn State quarterback Steven Bench (12) warms up before facing Navy on Sept. 15, 2012, at Beaver Stadium in University Park.
Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
Penn State quarterback Steven Bench (12) warms up before facing Navy on Sept. 15, 2012, at Beaver Stadium in University Park.

He transferred to a senior-laden team for his final season of high school football. And Steven Bench apparently handled the situation with the kind of maturity that made him the ideal player to run Cairo (Ga.) High School's offense in 2011.

“He just kind of took control of the offense from day one, learned the terminology,” Cairo coach Tom Fallaw said. “He's a real smart kid, knows football real well and he really just controlled the offense without trying to do too much.”

Bench is hoping recent history somewhat repeats itself.

The rising sophomore is battling junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson for the right to lead a veteran offense that returns a 1,000-yard rusher, a 1,000-yard receiver and three starters along the line.

Nothing will be resolved at quarterback even after coach Bill O'Brien and his staff evaluate spring practice, which concludes Saturday with the Blue-White game. The reason: O'Brien will wait until fall to name a successor to Matt McGloin so he can take a long look at incoming freshman Christian Hackenberg.

Hackenberg, a five-star recruit, is scheduled to enroll at Penn State in late June for summer session, and he will be given a chance to compete for the starting job in August.

“It's not the easiest offense in the world to pick up,” O'Brien said. “We have to do a fantastic job of teaching it well and making sure our players, especially the quarterbacks, understand the emphasis of each play, the concept of what we're trying to get done.”

Bench picked up enough of the offense last fall to emerge as the No. 2 quarterback behind McGloin. That hasn't necessarily given him the edge at quarterback this spring.

Bench and Ferguson, who played last season at the College of Sequoias in northern California, have been splitting time with the first-team offense. And the Blue-White game will give each a chance to impress O'Brien.

Neither Bench nor Ferguson has been made available to the media, but each traveled a long and hardly linear path to Penn State.

Bench, the son of a football coach, verbally committed to Rice but changed his mind not long after leading Cairo to an 11-3 record and a spot in the Class 3A state semifinals. Fallaw sent tape to Penn State, and O'Brien liked what he saw and offered Bench a scholarship.

Bench stayed with Penn State even after the NCAA slammed the football program with sanctions in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. The NCAA allowed players to transfer without penalty, giving Bench (6-foot-2, 205 pounds) an escape hatch if he didn't want to compete against Hackenberg, but he opted to stay.

“I don't think he's afraid of anything,” Fallaw said. “He's going to get in there and compete no matter what the situation is.”

National recruiting analyst Tom Lemming said Bench's senior season created some buzz and attracted the attention of bigger schools.

Ferguson, meanwhile, garnered little attention while playing high school football in Bakersfield, Calif.

Lemming did not have the 6-3, 199-pound Ferguson listed among his top 30 quarterbacks in California in 2011. Allen Wallace, publisher of SuperPrep Magazine, did not have Ferguson rated among the top 150 seniors in California, Arizona and Nevada in 2011.

“We're talking about a guy who is a classic sleeper supreme,” Wallace said.

Ferguson's attempt to raise his profile was derailed when he broke his collarbone midway through his senior season. He went to the College of Sequoias, and last season he set school single-season records for completions (199) and passing yards (2,614).

He gave a verbal commitment to Houston, but O'Brien, desperate to add depth at quarterback, targeted Ferguson in December. Penn State had a tie to the junior college since former Nittany Lions star Irv Pankey is the College of Sequoias' offensive line coach.

Ferguson switched his commitment to Penn State and enrolled in early January.

“Being a tall kid, he's very patient in the pocket, strong arm, very coachable kid,” said Pankey, who played offensive tackle for more than a decade in the NFL and now teaches and coaches. “He fits right in with the Penn State tradition.”

Scott Brown is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at sbrown@tribweb.com or via Twitter @ ScottBrown_Trib.

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