Two of Penn State’s most important positions will feature new faces on the practice field this spring — and probably not a lot of solid answers when the workouts conclude next month.
Meanwhile, two primary candidates at linebacker and quarterback will be left out of the action, so to speak.
That would be Dallastown’s Ben Kline and Virginia’s Christian Hackenberg, who both will miss the current competition for very different reasons.
No matter, each must now wait until the summer to begin catching up and proving themselves in person.
Kline is a redshirt sophomore linebacker, who has been no more than a special teams’ player and backup defender until now.
But with the graduation losses of Mike Mauti and Gerald Hodges, these spring workouts were supposed to be the ideal opportunity for someone like Kline to gain an advantage in earning a starting spot.
Instead, he will miss the next month while recovering from offseason shoulder surgery.
“We don’t have a lot of depth at linebacker, that’s for sure,” coach Bill O’Brien said Monday, as snow was falling outside and his team was preparing to work out inside on opening day.
O’Brien will count on returning starter and senior Glenn Carson in the middle and junior Mike Hull on the outside. But that third linebacking position? That should be a battle between Kline and redshirt freshman Nyeem Wartman, who started off quickly last season before being sidelined by a knee injury.
On Monday, O’Brien praised Wartman for his instincts at the position and said he believes the second-year player “has a bright future.”
On offense, it’s the quarterbacks, though, who probably will be even more closely watched over the next month by fans and even coaches.
And the missing piece of the competition, for now, is Hackenberg, arguably the nation’s top high school QB prospect. He’s finishing his senior year at the Fork Union Military Academy. (His family originally is from the area around Tamaqua, Pa.).
While sophomore Steven Bench and junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson will see the bulk of practice reps over the next month, which will culminate in the Blue-White Game on April 20, Hackenberg will still be given a shot at the starting job, O’Brien said.
Hackenberg won’t be on campus until June and preseason practice does not begin until early August — less than a month before the season opener against Syracuse.
He “certainly will be in the mix,” O’Brien said, who emphasized that he will play the best player at every position, regardless of age or experience.
“Christian can’t do anything about the fact that he can’t be here until June. … He’ll come in and we’ll teach him the offense,” O’Brien said. “We don’t look at anybody and say, ‘We’re definitely going to redshirt you.’”
So for the next month, the focus will be on Bench, who played in only one game of meaningful snaps last year, and Ferguson, who just arrived on campus in January from California.
“It’s fun when you’re working with the type of guys we’re working with now,” O’Brien said of his quarterbacks. “It’s a smart (meeting) room, a hungry room. They listen, they ask great questions and they really want to be coached.
“Steven knows it a little bit better than Tyler right now because he’s been in here for a year. … (But) now, it depends on how they make decisions and how accurately they throw the ball.”
The Lions also will be breaking in new key players on the offensive and defensive lines, which includes potential starter Kyle Baublitz of Central High.
The spring will help O’Brien and his assistants figure some of that out, as well as who will take over the leadership of the team.
Gone are vocal seniors Mauti, Matt McGloin and Mike Zordich, as well as Hodges.
“I wouldn’t say (leadership is) a concern,” O’Brien said. “It’s more that every year is different. We definitely have a group of guys from last year who played a lo t of football for us.”
At least early on, the Nittany Lions will count on Carson, senior guard John Urschel and junior defensive back Adrian Amos.