STATE COLLEGE — Bill O’Brien rattled off the number without having to think about it.
A main focus for the Penn State coach this spring is to develop a starting quarterback, and he has been certain to make it a fair fight between sophomores Steven Bench and Tyler Ferguson.
“Both guys have exactly 168 reps in 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 (drills),” O’Brien said Wednesday before the Nittany Lions practiced at Holuba Hall.
And no, he didn’t tip his hand as to which 168 have been better.
“I can’t say that one guy has really stood out above the other guy,” O’Brien said. “They’ve both had their moments. I’ve been very impressed with how hard each guy has worked. You think about it, they’re both young — 18-19 years old — many of the guys they’re playing with have been in the system longer than them. So it’s a little bit different than last year, where everybody was new.
“So these guys have had to catch up to the veteran guys, and I think they’ve done a good job. Both guys have had some tough moments, both guys have had some good moments, and we’re just looking to be more consistent over the next five or six practices.”
Both won’t be out in front of the public until the Blue-White Game on April 20. In a brief portion of Wednesday’s practice open to reporters, Bench had a slight edge while running O’Brien’s hurry-up “NASCAR” package in situational drills, simulating end-of-game scenarios from different points on the field.
Bench threw the lone touchdown during the drill, finding Allen Robinson in between defenders in the middle of the end zone.
But he also nearly ended the drive just before that. Another ball intended for Robinson should have been intercepted by safety Ryan Keiser, who got both hands on the pass but couldn’t hold on.
Ferguson’s best throw was to former WVC standout Eugene Lewis, who came open on the right sideline and made the grab for a big gain to move the offense across midfield.
O’Brien has been careful not to single out one quarterback over the other during interviews. An answer to a question about Ferguson’s comfort level after moving from California to Centre County in the middle of the winter included Bench, who came to Penn State from Georgia last summer.
“You have to give Tyler a lot of credit, just like you have to give Steven Bench a lot of credit,” O’Brien said. “Tyler’s 3,000 miles away, Bench is 1,000 miles away. They’re a long way from home, and not many guys would do that.
“So you have to give them both credit for doing that, for making the choice to come to Penn State and trying to be the quarterback. I have respect for both of these kids.”
A big opportunity
As for Lewis, he has impressed teammates with his work this spring after redshirting in 2012.
This fall, there will be a chance for a wideout or two to step up behind starters Robinson and Brandon Moseby-Felder. Earlier this spring, the coaching staff moved two receivers who arrived at Penn State with Lewis last June — Trevor Williams and Malik Golden — to the secondary.
Lewis happens to have a strong advocate in Robinson, who said the former Wyoming Valley West quarterback and receiver has made great progress in his nine months on campus.
“He’s come a long way,” Robinson said. “He’s definitely become a better route-runner. Great hands, great jumping ability. So he can definitely help us downfield as far as deep balls and stuff. And in the short game, he’s a good runner with the ball. I think he’ll help us out a lot.”
A familiar face
On top of it all, Lewis also had an old coach in attendance on Wednesday.
Current Berwick boss and former Valley West coach George Curry was on the sidelines inside Holuba Hall as the Lions were pushed indoors because of thunderstorms. Curry’s last year with the Spartans was Lewis’ freshman season in 2008.
Curry brought up a group of his players — including grandson C.J., the Bulldogs’ starting quarterback — to watch the practice.
The state’s all-time winningest high school football coach has had a long relationship with Penn State, often having Lions signal-callers appear at his annual quarterbacks camp in the summer.