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Penn State starting QB remains mystery

| Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2013, 11:18 p.m.
Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
Penn State quarterbacks Tyler Ferguson (5) and Christian Hackenberg (14) drop back to pass during the afternoon practice session following Media Day festivities Thursday, Aug. 8, 2013, at the practice fields near Holuba Hall in University Park.
Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
Penn State freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg warms up during the afternoon practice session following Media Day festivities Thursday, Aug. 8, 2013, at Beaver Stadium in University Park.

UNIVERSITY PARK — Penn State coach Bill O'Brien played the part of ticket salesman for the Nittany Lions' season opener Saturday against Syracuse in East Rutherford, N.J., openly campaigning for a sellout.

Perhaps the art of suspense will add to his pitch.

Before taking any questions at his weekly news conference Tuesday, O'Brien preemptively addressed the primary inquiry on the minds of media, fans and observers.

“As of right now, you'll find out who the (starting) quarterback is on the first play of the game against Syracuse,” he said.

Unless word leaks between now and the 3:30 p.m. kickoff Saturday at MetLife Stadium, the blue-and-white world will have to wait to find out whether freshman Christian Hackenberg or sophomore junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson won the competition for the coveted gig directing O'Brien's offense.

O'Brien refused to acknowledge that he has made the decision. The second-year coach has leaned on “doing what's best for our football team” as the only explanation for the lack of transparency.

“Believe me, I'm not trying to diminish the importance of that position and what it means to this football program and what it means to our fans,” O'Brien said. “But I want to do what's best for our players and what's best for our football team, and so that's what I'm going to do.”

If O'Brien is aiming for a competitive advantage, Syracuse coach Scott Shafer repeatedly debunked the theory that his defensive staff was spending any extra preparation time because they don't know who will start.

“I don't think it poses a big concern with regards to those two,” Shafer said. “It would be different if you had a guy who was more of a true option, zone-read type of guy and the other was a true drop-back passing kind of guy. But those kids have similar skill sets, so I don't think it changes our approach going into it.”

O'Brien has hinted he could use both Ferguson and Hackenberg during games this season. Hackenberg was a heralded recruit — one of the country's most coveted — out of Fort Union (Va.) Military Academy.

Ferguson enrolled at Penn State in January after a record-setting season at College of the Sequoias in Visalia, Calif. He beat out Steven Bench during spring drills. Bench ultimately lost a preseason quarterback competition after transferring to USF.

Faced with a quarterback quandary before his debut season as coach, O'Brien took the opposite approach — he named Matt McGloin the starter over Paul Jones and Rob Bolden well before the start of camp.

But O'Brien said this situation is different because McGloin was a fifth-year senior and Bolden and Jones had been on campus for much longer than Hackenberg (18 years old) or Ferguson (19) has at this point.

Either Hackenberg or Ferguson will be given the right to lead an offense that has an abundance of talent and experience at virtually every other position. He'll earn an opportunity to perform in a scheme that McGloin flourished in last season — setting or tying Penn State season records in completions, passing yards and touchdown passes — after a pedestrian first three years to his college career.

“The best thing we can do is try to calm them down and give them as much time as possible in the pocket,” guard Miles Dieffenbach said. “Any quarterback, that's what they want, and that's what we're there to do. I think they can trust we have a really good offensive line and we'll protect all day for them.”

Chris Adamski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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