If Bill O’Brien is stressed about the upcoming season, he didn’t show it this afternoon in front of hundreds of reporters in Chicago at the 42nd annual Big Ten Media Days.
For Penn State’s head coach, his second Big Ten Media days appearance was far different from a year ago when the Nittany Lions contingent arrived on the heels of the NCAA sanctions.
“It’s definitely different,” said O’Brien at the podium inside the Hilton hotel. “Last year we arrived a few days after the penalties were announced, so we’re obviously in a better mood this year.”
It’s not just a successful year navigating the sanctions that has O’Brien more comfortable though. Getting his feet wet and a year of learning as a head coach come into play as well.
“It’s only been a year, but you’re more comfortable with the players, with the staff, knowing each other, knowing the chemistry,” he said.
Aside from those brief remarks, O’Brien declined to elaborate on the sanctions today and a possible reduction of them after saying last week he hoped the NCAA could meet them halfway.
“I said my peace last week,” O’Brien said. “Those questions are really for President Erickson.”
On the field, unlike this time last year, O’Brien will entertain a summer quarterback competition between two players who have never played a live snap of major college football. It’s a far cry from coaching Super Bowl champion and future Hall of Famer Tom Brady in New England, but the Nittany Lions head man is looking forward to watching it play out.
“One exciting thing is you get to mold a young quarterback,” O’Brien said. “It’s challenging but it’s also exciting.”
Practice is set to begin Monday August 5 and O’Brien would like to have a starter — either true freshman Christian Hackenberg and JUCO transfer Tyler Ferguson — named midway through camp.
“I think you have to make a decision halfway through training camp to give that guy, whoever that guy will be,” O’Brien said. “(I need to give) Tyler or Christian enough time to prepare for an excellent Syracuse team that throws a lot at you defensively.”
“Probably halfway through, we’ll have enough valuation of our practice film and all the different things that go into being the starting quarterback at Penn State, not only on the practice field but in the meeting room, and we’ll make a good decision.”
There are 26 days between the start of practice and the opener at MetLife Stadium. Expect O’Brien to make a decision before August 20.
There is a catch, though. In order for a competition to take place, both players must be present, and right now, Ferguson is home in California as his mother undergoes chemotherapy. If he were to not return, it would create a scary situation where Hackenberg would be the only scholarship quarterback on the roster with walk-ons Austin Whipple and D.J. Crook backing him up.
O’Brien continues to reiterate that Ferguson’s current absence is not a concern.
“He’ll be back. Summer’s voluntary. Right? The last time I read the NCAA rule book, summer’s voluntary,” O’Brien quipped. “He’s not there. He’s at home. He’s got some personal things that he’s dealing with at home. To me, again, he’ll come in. He’ll be here for training camp. What time, what day, all those things, I mean, I don’t know. I am sure he’ll be in the first team meeting and he’ll be ready to compete with Christian for that job.”
Despite Ferguson having more time on campus, initial first-team reps will be split evenly “because neither one of them has played in a game.”
“Again, it’s an exciting time for us,” O’Brien said. “It’s not a time we look at as: Woe is me. It’s more of a time exactly the opposite of that.”
A few additional team notes:
- Sophomore tight end Kyle Carter (wrist) will be ready for training camp.
- Junior running back Zach Zwinak suffered a wrist injury during the Blue-White game and may be initially held out of contract drills.
- O’Brien mentioned plans to be creative at the linebacker position which could include safeties Adrian Amos and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong seeing some action there.
- O’Brien had high praise for senior linebacker Glenn Carson: “He’s what being a Penn State football player is all about. Great student, tough kid.”