Column: Adapt and advance

Penn State football fans have had better lunch hours than the one they had Thursday.

Is Steven Bench the next man up for Penn State at quarterback?

Jake Waters surprised many -- and delighted fans in the "other" Manhattan -- by picking Kansas State instead of the Nittany Lions. Before most fans had a chance to air their grievances via the message board, word came from the West Coast that another junior-college quarterback, Tyler Ferguson, had committed to Houston.

Suddenly, a program that had been riding a steep crest of momentum during the past several weeks -- eight wins in 10 games to close the 2012 season, a weekend of official visits that yielded four commitments and possibly set the stage for more -- had gotten under the wave and been slammed into the shoreline. Waters marked one of the few big defeats on the recruiting trail for Bill O'Brien and his staff since the season began, really since he joined the program in January. Worse, it was at the most important position on the field, one where depth issues were and, at least for the time being, remain a primary concern.

Just as quarterbacks have to have short memories on the field, though, coaches must have short memories on the recruiting trail. The "next man up" mantra O'Brien and his players had so often uttered during the 2012 season applies to prospective players as well. Not long after Waters had made his announcement, Penn State had offered Ferguson, of The College of the Sequoias (Calif.), who immediately reconsidered his decision to become a Cougar.

Should Ferguson come on board, as many expect he will, O'Brien will have three bodies at quarterback to work with this spring -- Ferguson, sophomore Steven Bench and run-on Austin Whipple, who will also enroll in January. They'll be joined this summer (knock, knock) by Christian Hackenberg, who has been committed to Penn State since late February.

Credit O'Brien and his staff for pulling together a solid 2012 recruiting class in a short amount of time last winter and assembling what became one of the Big Ten's best squads with a roster that had some serious depth issues, but what they've done with the current quarterback situation (again, should Ferguson pull the trigger) might be even more impressive.

Pat Devlin's transfer put the previous Penn State staff in somewhat of a bind. The Nittany Lions went into 2010 with the option of a true freshman (Rob Bolden), a redshirt sophomore with serious passing issues (Kevin Newsome) and a former walk-on with hardly any game experience (Matt McGloin). They juggled Bolden and McGloin at the position for the next two seasons with limited success.

By the time O'Brien began his first season, Bolden and Newsome were gone, and soon to follow them out the door was Paul Jones, leaving the team with McGloin, Bench and walk-on Shane McGregor.

And all O'Brien did -- with the help of quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher and a ton of hard work and diligence by McGloin -- was produce a player who threw for more yards and more touchdowns than any other Big Ten quarterback.

Think of what he can do with Bench, who had his ups and downs during his rookie season but already has better wheels than McGloin ever did, and just as strong of an arm. Or with Ferguson, a 6-foot-5, 210-pounder who completed 60 percent of his passes this past season. Or with Hackenberg, the nation's second-ranked pro-style quarterback prospect.

In a very short amount of time, the quarterback position has dramatically changed at Penn State, from the guy who takes the snap every play and lets his line, backs and defense do the heavy lifting to the guy who dictates the pace and flow of the game. Much is demanded from O'Brien's quarterbacks, especially from the mental side of things, and he won't have the luxury of having a fifth-year senior with two years of game experience in the lineup, as he did this past fall.

What he will have is talent and, just as importantly, options. It might not have been the specific option that he and his staff initially wanted, and there are going to be more losses on the recruiting front ahead as long as the sanctions are in place, but Penn State's new coach has already proven that he is, first and foremost, able to adapt.

If he can find another quarterback with the same ability in this new batch, more big things could be ahead for the Nittany Lion offense.

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