Lions Have Steady Hand at QB

Star sophomore passer Hackenberg a calming force in a Penn State's offense that is seeing plenty of changes.

The coaching staff is new. The receiving corps has been revamped. The offensive line, already under construction, is banged up.

But Penn State has a quarterback. Of that there is no doubt. And the Nittany Lions can only hope that that makes up for a multitude of ills.

Christian Hackenberg, coming off a season that saw him named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year, has spent spring practice learning the vagaries of the offense installed by new head coach James Franklin and his lieutenants, offensive coordinator John Donovan and quarterbacks coach Ricky Rahne.

Hackenberg has also been brushing up on his footwork -- he believes that can only improve his accuracy -- and familiarizing himself with a group of receivers now minus Allen Robinson, who caught a school-record 97 balls last season, when PSU went 7-5.

Hard to believe, but Hackenberg has yet to spend a full year in the program. Winter conditioning has left him bigger -- he now carries about 235 pounds on his 6-foot-4 frame, some 10 more than last year -- and faster, having shaved his 40 time from 4.84 in high school to a personal best of 4.73. And there is some expectation that he will be better, now that he has 12 collegiate games under his belt.

“I think I've just improved,” he said during a conference call with reporters Thursday afternoon. “The game's slowed down a lot for me. That's helped. Of course there's understanding coverages and picking up this new offense and understanding what means what -- how to really master it. I think my experience last year has allowed me to make a relatively easy transition to this new one.”

So the idea, he added, is just to “stay on track.”

“That's really the only way I can say it,” he said. “I'm not trying to look ahead and make ridiculous expectations, but I just want to stay on track and do my job within the offense. I know if I do my job and everyone else takes care of their job, then we're going to be a pretty successful team. I guess that would be my focus right now, looking forward.”

He said he had few expectations coming into last year, though he was in a minority on that score. All he wanted to do was “come in here and work as hard as I could, and let everything play out.”

It played out with him starting every game and completing 58.9 percent of his passes, for 2,955 yards and 20 touchdowns, with 10 interceptions. The yardage total was third-most in the Big Ten, and third-most in Penn State history. The TD total was second-most in the conference.

In all Hackenberg set one school record and 10 PSU freshman records. He also led the memorable touchdown drive in the closing seconds of regulation against Michigan, a game the Lions went on to win in four overtimes, and threw for 339 yards and four touchdowns in the season-ending victory at Wisconsin.

“How it played out is great,” he said. “But this is a new year, it's a new team and I'm excited for what this team has in store for us this season.”

He said he has developed “a strong relationship” with Franklin, and has embraced the brisk pace of spring drills.

“I think we have to do that,” the QB said. “Now we have a new staff, we have new things to learn, a new system on both sides of the ball, so I think that going full speed and really just competing and seeing what we can do with it is the best thing to do.”

There has been a lot of hitting, notably in a drill known as the Lion's Den, but the new staff has also introduced some unexpected wrinkles. It is not uncommon, for instance, for the QBs to be sent off to engage in a push-up contest.

“There is a regimen to it,” he said, “but you really never know what's around the corner when it comes to practice, or what they have for competition and whatnot, so it's fun. … It's always just something right around the corner that you really just don't expect.”

He said there is not a huge difference between the offense he ran last year under Bill O'Brien and the one he will orchestrate this year, that the “base particulars of it are very similar” in that both are pro-style attacks. But he must learn some new terminology and figure out how everything fits together.

That he has a spring in which to do that, something he did not have heading into last year, should help immeasurably.

“There's not as much pressure on you of having to get it down,” he said. “You can take more time on some things to understand them better. I think that's been advantageous in terms of picking up the offense.”

In addition to Robinson, the Lions' second-leading receiver a year ago, Brandon Felder, is also gone. They combined for 125 catches, while PSU's returning wideouts had 35 between them. Hackenberg was predictably upbeat about that group, noting that redshirt sophomore-to-be Geno Lewis (18 catches in '13) has established himself as a veteran presence and that sophomore Richy Anderson (13 receptions last season) has had a particularly strong spring.

Then he was asked about freshman DeAndre Thompkins, a guy who by all accounts has turned heads.

“He looks more comfortable with every practice that comes by,” Hackenberg said, before adding that like any freshman Thompkins has had to adjust to the speed and complexity of the college game.

“But,” the QB said, “he's doing a great job. He's got a lot of tools, and I think it's just a matter of time. He's just got to keep working and putting his head down and going to work at practice and in the weight room every day.”

In general Hackenberg said the new wideouts have “developed quickly” and that he welcomes the opportunity to “really spread the ball around.”

The tight ends, a veteran group, will figure prominently in the offensive mix as well. Jesse James caught 25 balls last fall, while Kyle Carter had 18 grabs and Adam Breneman added 15. Breneman is reportedly nursing an injury that will sideline him the rest of the spring, but redshirt sophomore Brent Wilkerson, who missed last year with a back injury, is still around. And highly touted freshman Mike Gesicki will be enrolling in the summer.

“They're a bunch of fantastic players and some of our most experienced receivers,” Hackenberg said, “so we're going to try to get the ball in their hands and let them play.”

Then there's the offensive line. Already short on experience, that group has reportedly lost guard Miles Dieffenbach to a serious knee injury. Hackenberg tried to sound a hopeful note, saying the group is “starting to mesh” and that he is “very comfortable” with the newcomers. And when asked how he can help the line develop he said he could do so by “just being there for them.”

He added that tackle Donovan Smith, the only returning starter with Dieffenbach shelved, has emerged as a leader, as have center Angelo Mangiro and guard Anthony Alosi, both redshirt juniors.

“I just have to be confident in them, which I am,” Hackenberg said. “I'm very confident in them. I know how those guys work, on and off the field, and their progression is better than I thought it would (be), and it's impressive.”

There is much to be determined. But at least the Lions have a quarterback. Of that there is no doubt.

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