READING — The edge, for now, belongs to Tyler Ferguson.
With Steven Bench set to depart Penn State shortly and Christian Hackenberg still nearly two months away from arriving, Ferguson has a chance to get to work with his teammates on his own.
In the latest quarterback battle in Happy Valley, any little detail could make the difference as to who starts in the Nittany Lions’ opener on Aug. 31 against Syracuse.
“You would obviously say that Tyler would be a little bit ahead of (Hackenberg) right now going into training camp,” coach Bill O’Brien said Tuesday at Penn State’s Berks campus, the opening stop of his second Coaches Caravan tour. “But the job will be between those two guys.”
Right now the plan is to get both Ferguson and Hackenberg an extended look with the offense this summer.
“I would say that they would get pretty much equal reps,” O’Brien said. “If you pin me down on that, I’d probably tell you that at the end of the day maybe Tyler gets a few more reps than Christian. But I would say for the most part, statistically speaking, it will be equal reps.”
This two-horse race was put in motion last week when Bench elected to transfer at the end of the semester. That decision came after a meeting with O’Brien in the days following the Blue-White Game.
O’Brien said he sat down individually with Bench — as he does with all of his players after the end of spring practice — and told the rising sophomore that his time running the offense would decrease when preseason camp opens in August.
“I told him what I thought was the truth,” O’Brien said. “He would still get reps here at Penn State. No starter has been named. … I told him maybe you wouldn’t get quite as many reps as other guys, but you’ll still get reps.
“I wish he stayed. He’s a really good teammate and a really good kid. Had nothing to do with discipline or academics.”
O’Brien said throughout spring ball that Ferguson, a junior college transfer from California, and Bench, last year’s top backup, were neck-and-neck.
But it would be untenable for the Lions to try and get all three quarterbacks time with the first-team offense once camp began. O’Brien said it wasn’t an obvious choice that Bench was the one who would see his reps cut down.
“I didn’t see that there was this huge separation,” O’Brien said. “I’m not going to sit here and get into all the different things that Tyler and Steven did during the spring. I just felt that at this point in time I wanted to evaluate these guys honestly, tell them the truth.
“There’s no room for gray area. We don’t have time for it. We only have time for the truth.”
Stanko leaves squad
Along with Bench, another member of the 2012 recruiting class will not be playing for the Lions this fall.
O’Brien said offensive lineman Anthony Stanko, who redshirted in 2012, has left the team but will remain at Penn State on scholarship.
“That’s his right to do,” O’Brien said. “As we sit here right now, other than Steven and Anthony Stanko, the roster is what it is.
“We will play this year with probably 67 scholarship players. And really, we have three guys on campus (Stanko, Dakota Royer and Luke Graham) that aren’t on the football team but have chosen to stay at Penn State on full football scholarships. So really it’s 64 scholarship players.”
Blue-White changes coming?
With that lack of depth in mind — Penn State will officially be down to a 65-scholarship limit next season because of NCAA sanctions — O’Brien is considering changing the format of the Blue-White Game.
An apparently significant wrist injury to top tailback Zach Zwinak has the coach concerned about protecting his players more during the spring. Zwinak was hurt on his second touch of the full-speed scrimmage on April 20.
“We cannot get our best players hurt in the Blue-White Game,” O’Brien said. “That’s when you get labeled a dumb coach.”
Without going into details on the injury — “It’s not life-threatening,” O’Brien deadpanned — O’Brien said Zwinak may enter camp as a non-contact player but should be “ready to go about halfway through training camp.”
“That’s going to be interesting going forward with the Blue-White Game,” O’Brien said. “The Blue-White Game is fantastic for our fans and for that weekend for Penn State. But I think we’re going to have to make some decisions going forward, especially in the era (of sanctions) that we’re in now.
“I think you’ve gotta think of ways to have a 15th practice, which is what that is, and make it a great experience for your fans. … So maybe it won’t be a game.”
Like he did last year on the Coaches Caravan, O’Brien gave a speech to a luncheon crowd of about 250 people in the gym at Penn State Berks.
Afterward, he and men’s basketball coach Patrick Chambers took questions from the crowd. One of the topics that came up was the often-discussed possibility of a Penn State game being played in Ireland.
“There’s a very good chance,” O’Brien said. “Nothing’s set in stone, but we’re heading in the right direction.”