“Right now, there is no separation,” O'Brien said on a conference call with reporters Wednesday afternoon, a few hours before the Nittany Lions were due to start the eighth of their 15 sessions this spring.
In the running for the top quarterback spot are veterans Matt McGloin and Rob Bolden, who both have significant starting experience but weak career statistics. Also in the mix is redshirt sophomore Paul Jones, who has yet to step on the field as a collegian after redshirting in 2010 and then missing the 2011 campaign due to academic issues.
In his first spring practice after replacing Joe Paterno, O'Brien instituted a “clean-slate” policy in which all positions were thrown open. And most eyes in these parts have been on quarterback, which has been a problem area for PSU since All-Ten Pick Daryll Clark graduated following the 2009 season.
O'Brien praised all three contenders for working hard through seven practices and added, “They've definitely progressed.”
Just not enough for any of the three to pull away from the pack.
“I want to see guys' decision-making get better,” O'Brien said. “I want to see their accuracy get better. I want to see them, obviously, grasp the offense better than they are right now.”
Learning the offense is the most important factor. O'Brien came to Penn State after serving as offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots, and has said his attack at PSU will be based on what he did with the Pats. With O'Brien as coordinator, New England ran one of the most complicated and innovative offenses in the NFL.
It helped, of course, that future Hall of Famer Tom Brady was under center for that team.
For the Nittany Lion quarterbacks -- none of whom have been available to the media this spring -- the new offense has translated into a steep learning curve. There is a thick playbook with different terminology. Other offensive players say it is much more complex than anything Penn State did in the past.
“They've gotten a lot thrown at them,” fullback Michael Zordich said of the QBs. “You can tell that their heads are in the (play)books right now, which is good to see. We're having fun out there watching them compete.”
“They're competing,” O'Brien added. “And I really enjoy being around them. They're good kids, they're smart.”
O'Brien, who will be calling the offensive plays for Penn State, said the running game is ahead of where he expected it to be at this point of the spring.
As for the air attack?
He admitted the Lions are, “A little behind when it comes to throwing the football -- and catching it and getting open.”
An key part of tightening up the passing game will be to zero in on a starting quarterback. Ideally, O'Brien will narrow the field to at least two by the end of spring practice. Drills culminate with the annual Blue-White Game at Beaver Stadium April 21.
O'Brien will head into preseason practice with a three-headed quarterback if need be. But he'd prefer not to do that.
“Hopefully, in the next eight practices guys will separate themselves,” O'Brien said.