UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Tyler Ferguson is an inch taller than Steven Bench, but he looks much taller. His legs, though, are noticeably skinnier. On his helmet, Ferguson has been sporting a piece of masking tape with his name scrawled on it in marker. Bench has no such tape.
The rest of the quarterbacks' differences are hard to decipher. In those red no-contact jerseys, white helmets and white pants they wear at practice, they look an awful lot alike. And they are alike. One, Bench, is an inexperienced sophomore from a place really far from Pennsylvania (Georgia). The other, Ferguson, is a slightly less experienced sophomore from a place really far from Pennsylvania (California). Who has the edge?
Publicly that's also hard to tell. Coach Bill O'Brien hasn't been made available to discuss the quarterback situation since the first day of practice. Bench and Ferguson, or walk-ons D.J. Crook and Austin Whipple for that matter, haven't been made available either. Of all the spring quarterback battles Penn State has seen (and it has seen a lot of them lately), Bench and Ferguson offer a particularly mysterious angle.
"No idea," defensive end Deion Barnes said about their play. Pressed to clarify, Barnes replied, "no idea." Linebacker Glenn Carson said about the same.
Another variable adds confusion to this quarterback competition. Said variable is incoming freshman Christian Hackenberg. He's the highest rated of any of the Penn State quarterbacks, and he won't arrive until summer school. O'Brien said he has no plans to redshirt Hackenberg if he deserves to play and probably won't officially name his starter until fall camp.
This strategy is in contrast to what happened a year ago. By June, O'Brien promised to name a starter, and he did. Matt McGloin was his man, and he stayed with him throughout McGloin's senior season.
Bench played in two games, notably against Virginia. With McGloin sidelined for a few series, Bench threw for 12 yards on 2-for-7 passing and rushed for 20 yards. He's the son of a football coach.
"His strength is he's been around football his whole life and you would really hope that would show," said Bench's Cairo (Ga.) High School coach, Tom Fallaw.
Ferguson threw for 2,614 yards and 22 touchdowns in 10 games for College of the Sequoias last season. He was a consensus top-five junior college quarterback and became Penn State's first choice after another junior college quarterback, Jake Waters, committed to Kansas State. Ferguson accumulated his stats and high ranking with a rather porous offensive line. In one game, according to The Bakersfield Californian, Ferguson was sacked nine times.
The public view of Ferguson and Bench at Penn State has been mostly limited to short periods of spring practices. Last week, while practicing a play, Ferguson fumbled the ball shortly after the snap. O'Brien yelled at him, "Have you ever played QB before?"
The scene helps to represent the challenge. O'Brien's offense is complex. McGloin said that at first he had difficulty just being able to say the play-call in the huddle. He had to study on his own at home, reading and reciting the plays to himself, before he got comfortable with the offense.
For his part, O'Brien seeks consistency from his quarterbacks concerning their knowledge and physical abilities. McGloin won the role last spring, O'Brien said, because he was the most prepared in meetings, knew the offense, completed 65-70 percent of his passes, cut down on his interceptions and ran situational plays well.
If not quite excitement or confidence, O'Brien did express approval of Bench's and Ferguson's desire to improve before spring practice started. He said they were athletic and could throw the ball but needed to work on their decision-making.
"It's fun when you're working with the type of guys we're working with right now," O'Brien said. "We have a very smart room, a hungry room. They are young, they listen, they ask great questions. They really want to be coached, so it's going to be really fun to go out on the field and watch these guys practice."
O'Brien said Bench and Ferguson did have some differences. He just didn't name any. Asked about them, he instead expounded on a few more reasons why the two unknowns trying to become the Penn State quarterback are almost the same.
NOTE -- Top Penn State recruit Zayd Issah won't be on the Penn State team this fall, according to a spokesperson from the athletic department. Issah was charged with multiple felonies and misdemeanors last month for his alleged involvement in a counterfeiting conspiracy. "We want what's best for Zayd. We don't think Zayd is a bad kid at all. We think he's a young guy that's made a couple questionable decisions," O'Brien told The Associated Press. "His next move will be determined by him. ... He will not be here next year to play football at Penn State, but eventually he could end up at Penn State down the road." Issah, who played at Central Dauphin High School, was expected to compete at linebacker for Penn State this year. His preliminary hearing is scheduled for May 9 in Dauphin County District Court.
Mark Dent: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @mdent05. First Published April 5, 2013 4:00 AM