With the Penn State Nittany Lions football team sitting at 7-3 on their bye week, I wanted to take time to reflect on the past three years, as well as anticipate the future, of what is known as the Hackenberg Era in State College, Pennsylvania. A Hackenberg era that has seen its fair share of ups and downs; so many, in fact, that if you were to make a line graph of those highs and lows, it could easy resemble that of a heart-rate monitor feed; but I digress.
On February 29th, 2012, 107,000-strong were ecstatic to hear the news of Christian Hackenberg committing to play quarterback at the Pennsylvania State University. A 6-foot-4-inch 5-start quarterback out of Fork Union Military Academy with all of the early tools to be the best Big Ten quarterback since Purdue’s Heisman finalist, Drew Brees; strong arm, good feet, disciplined… What could go wrong? Even Mel Kiper Jr., the NFL’s #1 go-to draft analyst, saw Hackenberg as a future #1 pick.
The whirlwind that was the year 2012 for Penn State fans started with the hiring of a new coach in former New England Patriots offensive coordinator, Bill O’Brien, and continued with various sanctions including: a $60 million fine, 40 scholarship losses over the next 4 years, a four-year bowl-ban, every win from 1998-2011 vacated, all players are free to transfer without ineligibility, and a five-year probation period following the Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse scandal. A lot that would, you’d think, push a 5-star recruit with all the potential in the world away to a program with a positive short-term future; but it didn’t, and that is something I will always respect out of Christian Hackenberg and the plethora of players who stuck around.
Like most coaches do, Bill O’Brien served as the closest thing to a father-figure that only Christian’s biological-father, Erick, could surpass. They had a connection that even I, at 16, could see, and it was special. O’Brien wasn’t afraid to harp at his young project; he understood the potential that was brewing inside of this 18-year old kid, and he wanted to get that fire roaring in order to let it overflow.
In that first-year, Hackenberg posted his best numbers to date (although the 2015 season is looking promising) with nearly 3,000 yards passing, 20 touchdowns to 10 interceptions and 21 sacks. Hackenberg led Penn State to a 7-5 record, 4-4 in the Big Ten while breaking 11 school freshman game or season passing records including most passing yards in a game (340), season touchdown passes (20),and 300-yard passing games (4); sub-par numbers for the hype around him, but respectable as a freshman with a fairly new coach.
Then the snowball started rolling, and it just wouldn’t stop. Bill O’Brien decided returning to the NFL was the best decision for his family, and who could blame him? He headed to the Houston Texans to be their new head coach, leaving Penn State to search for a replacement who could keep Hackenberg on track for stardom.
In comes James Franklin, a Pennsylvania-native, former Kansas State and Maryland Quarterback Coach as well as Vanderbilt’s head coach; Hackenberg’s second collegiate coach in as many years, and some Penn State players’ third head coach in three or four years. Adjustments, once again, needed to be made and all present and future players needed to buy into a whole new system. “…we rallied around each other at first because there was a little bit of a wall, because that’s how we handled everything. We went to the locker room first before we trusted anyone else, that’s just how it was.” Hackenberg said during an interview with Campus Insiders when asked about the hiring of James Franklin.
2014 was the year that he had the chance to prove his worth, but ended up bringing out more skepticism into his potential, which lead to more pressure. A 12 to 15 touchdown-to-interception ratio in the midst of 44 sacks brought about more questions than it did answers. In only two of his twelve regular season games did he throw for more touchdowns than interceptions (vs. Akron, vs. Illinois). Although proving himself in a 4 touchdown Pinstripe-Bowl victory over Boston College, Hackenberg left 2014 with more questions than answers and multiple frustration-fueled blowups on the sideline led pro-scouts to question his leadership. Some of the biggest questions ones being: Can he last two more years getting hit as much as he does? What is his true draft stock?
Any quarterback will tell you it’s difficult to produce the numbers you want when you’re being sacked almost four times a game on average; were some a result of holding the ball too long? Sure. But you could make the case that the 2014 offensive line, which featured two converted defensive tackles, as well as two tackles who dealt with injuries all year, led to Hackenberg’s forgettable campaign. Hackenberg’s strength is the deep ball as he is not the most mobile quarterback, and when receivers don’t have time to get downfield, forced decisions are made leading to errant throws.
Must I remind you Penn State fans about this two-man rush?
The make-or-break season for Christian Hackenberg started off the same way as before: 10 sacks leading to barely 100 yards through the air, an interception and no touchdowns in an embarrassing 27-10 loss to in-state rival Temple. Although knocked-down, Hackenberg showed how much his maturity as a leader has grown, he stepped up and has led this Penn State team to 7 wins in their last 9 games, posting a 13 touchdown to 2 interception ratio which included a streak of six games without an interception – something Hackenberg hasn’t been able to do more than two games at a time in his college career.
The not-yet-finished 2015 season has many questions left to be answered, but Hackenberg’s pace of single digit interceptions is a promising sign of his skill-set progressing from the raw-form that has shown throughout his college career. One season will not make his career, just as well as one season did not break his career.
The way he’s been hit this year leads me to believe this is Christian Hackenberg’s last year suiting up in the blue and white in Happy Valley that we are so used to seeing him in; that’s the best decision he could make. Finish a career with the best statistical season to date and not risk a future injury hurt his stock that he has worked on bringing back up.
Now, the NFL. What could happen, and what should happen…
Mel Kiper Jr.’s top Quarterbacks of 2015
Personally, I believe Christian Hackenberg will produce the best NFL career he can by riding pine for a few years. Some of the best, young, quarterbacks in the league came out of college, sat behind an experienced NFL quarterback and just learned. Although he has the skill set, I don’t think Christian Hackenberg is ready to be elite in the NFL. Tom Brady did it behind Drew Bledsoe, Aaron Rodgers did it behind Brett Favre, Ben Roethlisberger did it behind Tommy Maddox, Jim Plunkett did it behind Dan Pastorini, and even Roger Staubach backed up Craig Morton in 1971 before leading the team to a Super Bowl victory.
Now, the only questions are where SHOULD he go, and where WILL he go?
I see Christian Hackenberg ending up in Houston, ultimately reuniting with Bill O’Brien. He knows the way he works, it’ll be an easier transition, and O’Brien knows his potential that most scouts who haven’t spent time with him don’t know. Although Brian Hoyer may not be the best quarterback to sit behind, he does have the experience of how things work in the NFL. A young-star in DeAndre Hopkins could be a prime target for Hackenberg’s love for the deep ball. Of course, this is all assuming Bill O’Brien is still in Houston by the end of the season.
Realistically speaking, I see Hack becoming a late third/early fourth round pick to a team like the Washington Redskins or the Cleveland Browns. Both are in need of a quarterback, and both have proven to take chances on, through no fault of their own, over-hyped collegiate quarterbacks only to force them into a position that is destined to fail; see Robert Griffin III and Johnny Manziel.
Hackenberg’s career could go two-ways: Matt Leinart/Tim Tebow/Mark Sanchez with a lot of hype, only to stall out, or Jimmy Garoppolo – who I think will be great once Tom Brady is done -, holding a clipboard, learning the game and being patient to set himself up for success.
For his sake, I hope it’s the latter.