By Joe Juliano
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - The Penn State quarterback sweepstakes entered its final week with no apparent resolution. Coach Bill O’Brien decided that he wouldn’t tell anyone before the kickoff of Saturday’s season opener against Syracuse.
But after refusing to say earlier in the week whether he had come to a decision, he admitted Thursday night on his radio show that he had made one, and that he had told the principals and the team.
Late Friday, word hit the street, in the form of an ESPN.com report, that true freshman Christian Hackenberg would be taking the first snap on offense for the Nittany Lions at what should be a steamy MetLife Stadium.
A five-star recruit out of Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy and one of the nation’s finest high school quarterbacks last year, the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Hackenberg edged out sophomore Tyler Ferguson, a junior college transfer, during the monthlong competition.
O’Brien had said he wanted to name a starter halfway through preseason camp. But the general wisdom was that the longer the contest played out, with O’Brien deferring the decision several times, the better Hackenberg’s chances were.
O’Brien said that the starter will see most of the snaps Saturday but that the No. 2 quarterback will play some.
The coach had steadfastly talked of the two quarterbacks as a pair, declining to single out one or the other for a certain quality.
“They’re two pretty comparable guys when it comes to that position,“ O’Brien said earlier in the week. “Both guys are smart, so whether it’s in the meeting room or out on the field, they’re able to digest and execute what we’re trying to do.“
Both teams are utilizing first-time starters at quarterback on Saturday.
Scott Shafer, Syracuse’s first-year coach, has two candidates with different styles. Sophomore Terrel Hunt can throw on the run while senior Drew Allen, a transfer from Oklahoma, is an effective drop-back passer, standing tall in the pocket at 6-foot-5. So that could be a dilemma for the Penn State defense.
“You really don’t understand or know what you’re going to get,“ senior safety Malcolm Willis said. “We have to be ready for anything, to be quite frank.“
Willis, who is second among active Nittany Lions with 17 career starts, is a figure in one of two other position battles that have carried on throughout training camp. He and junior Ryan Keiser are competing for one of the safety positions.
At offensive right tackle, redshirt junior Garry Gilliam, who moved over from tight end in the spring, has been challenging senior Adam Gress. Gress was slowed by a recent knee injury but O’Brien said he practiced this week.
Gilliam, who sat out 11/2 seasons after suffering a gruesome knee injury at Iowa in 2010, asked O’Brien if he could move to tackle during his end-of-the-season interview. He talked about how tight end is a strength of the Lions and said he felt he could help at tackle.
“My playing time wasn’t as much as I wanted it to be,“ Gilliam said. “We weren’t as deep at tackle.“