STATE COLLEGE - The quarterback race at Penn State begins today, though there won't be a winner by the time spring practice ends in a month.
Coach Bill O'Brien said Sunday that Steven Bench and Tyler Fergson will split the reps in spring ball as the Nittany Lions begin the search for the replacement for record-setting starter Matt McGloin.
Consider the spring the chance to make an early good impression on O'Brien.
"We will not name a starter at the end the spring," O'Brien said before an awards banquet for the National Football Foundation's Central Pennsylvania chapter. "Some time during (August) training camp, whenever I decide, we'll name the starter ... It will be a little different than how it was last year."
The winner will follow McGloin, the former walk-on who helped guide Penn State to a better-than-expected 8-4 record in his one and only season overseeing the complicated, pro-style system.
But the new quarterback's learning curve should be aided by the returns of receivers Allen Robinson (Big Ten-best 1,013 yards, 11 TDs) and Brandon Moseby-Felder, and a deep corps of tight ends including Kyle Carter, Matt Lehman and Jesse James. Bruising 1,000-yard rusher Zach Zwinak is back, too.
"You have to be aware that you have a brand new quarterback ... whatever you do scheme-wise," O'Brien said. "But I wouldn't say it's starting all over again, because you have all these veteran players."
It's quite the contrast from a year ago, going into O'Brien's first spring as a rookie head coach. Coaches were learning about players, and vice versa. A new strength and conditioning program was installed, and a new scheme instituted on offense.
Now the returnees know their roles, and what's expected from O'Brien.
"When you look at our veteran players, the guys that played a lot for us last year, I'm anticipating them hitting the ground running tomorrow - not looking to their right or their left" for direction, O'Brien said. "We think one year in the program has really helped us in that respect."
The most dramatic change is in the quarterback room, which features a whole new cast of candidates.
A year ago March, it was McGloin, Rob Bolden and Paul Jones who were vying to master O'Brien's offense and get the starting nod.
McGloin was named the starter shortly after spring ball ended. Bolden transferred over the summer, and Jones followed him out the door in September.
Now all three are gone, leaving Bench - who was just 2 of 8 for 12 yards in two games last season as a freshman - as the veteran.
"Our quarterback room, as we sit here today, is completely different than our quarterback room at this point last year," O'Brien said. "They're young, they're hungry ... It's really fun to coach these guys and watch how they learn and how they communicate."
Penn State also added walk-on freshmen quarterbacks Austin Whipple and D.J. Crook, who are already enrolled and on the spring roster.
The wild-card might be prized recruit Christian Hackenberg. One of the top prospects of O'Brien's first full recruiting class, Hackenberg won't arrive in Happy Valley until the summer.
That could put him at a disadvantage in picking up the new schemes. O'Brien said he's been impressed with Hackenberg's football knowledge and memory in conversations with the incoming freshman, though he would need to evaluate Hackenberg once he gets into the practice rotation.
Asked to name the top attributes needed in a quarterback, O'Brien first said his signal-caller had to have a "very, very good grasp of the offense ... at the very least two weeks before" the season opener against Syracuse on Aug. 31. In that timeline, that would leave Hackenberg with barely two solid weeks of preseason practice to compete for the job.
NOTES: O'Brien said incoming freshman TE Adam Breneman, who has already enrolled in school, should be a full participant in spring ball. Breneman, another top prospect from the 2013 recruiting class, sat out his senior season in high school with a right knee injury.