‘Veteran’ Hackenberg Key to PSU’s Success

The 19-year-old sophomore quarterback is one of the few known commodities in Penn State’s evolving offense.

He is a 19-year-old sophomore, but quarterback Christian Hackenberg is something of a graybeard at Penn State, one of the few known quantities on an offense that continues to evolve.

“I think that's something that's funny,” he said on a conference call with reporters Wednesday, “because last year everyone was sort of being patient with me. Now it's sort of the other way around.”

He called the offense “a work in progress,” even though the Lions are off to a 4-0 start with a game against Northwestern (1-2) looming Saturday in Beaver Stadium.

“We are a very young football team, especially on the offensive side of the ball,” he said, “and we're still trying to get everything together.”

There are six new starters -- four linemen and both receivers. There is also a new coaching staff, and while Hackenberg insists that he must continue to develop right alongside everybody else, his adjustment period has been somewhat streamlined.

As he said, “I'm as comfortable as I've ever been within an offense.”

The numbers bear him out. To date he has completed 60.7 percent of his passes for 1,261 yards, most in the Big Ten and 13th-most in the major-college ranks, as well as four touchdowns. His interception total -- five -- is not what he would like it to be, but he has clearly settled in, clearly picked up right where he left off last season, when he was the conference's Freshman of the Year.

He said spring practice and summer drills were invaluable for him, in that he was afforded the opportunity to work with the offense's new pieces -- notably starting wideouts Geno Lewis and DaeSean Hamilton -- as well as huddle with John Donovan and Ricky Rahne, the new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, respectively, and “sort of just be able to pick their minds and get on the same page.”

Hackenberg's own hard-driving nature also continues to serve him well, both on the field and in the film room.

“I like to be my own biggest critic -- just be as hard as I can on myself,” he said. “And I think that goes back to even high school.”

He said his coach at Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy, Micky Sullivan, and his dad, Erick (a former college quarterback), were “as hard on me as anyone has ever been.”

“I think that sort of rubbed off on me,” the younger Hackenberg said. “Now Coach Rahne's as hard on me as I am on myself. Good having guys like that around you, so you can be critical of yourself.”

“I like to be my own biggest critic — just be as hard as I can on myself. And I think that goes back to even high school.”

Hackenberg certainly comes off as a student of the game, saying he closely watches not only such NFL QBs as Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Tom Brady, but also the Chicago Bears' star-crossed Jay Cutler.

“He's a really good football player,” Hackenberg said. “He's had a sort of up-and-down career, but I really like watching him play. He throws the ball very well. He makes a lot of plays, moving around, outside of the pocket.”

And if there are times Cutler's mechanics and decision-making are not ideal, Hackenberg said, he is often able to make plays anyway.

“I like watching guys like that,” Hackenberg said, “guys who go out and operate, and execute the offense and manage the game.”

He was at one point on Wednesday asked to dissect his own performance in last Saturday's 48-7 rout of Massachusetts, a game in which he missed on eight of his first 12 throws en route to a so-so 12-for-23, 179-yard day, and he was both dispassionate and clear-eyed about it.

“I think a little bit of it was me not loading up and following through,” he said. “I was a little straight on my back leg, and my feet weren't really set toward my throw a couple of times. That's going to lead to inaccuracy.”

His struggles didn't really matter, seeing as the Lions churned out 228 yards and five touchdowns on the ground against the overmatched Minutemen. PSU ran for one more yard than it had managed in its first three games combined, and remains 105th among 125 major-college teams in rushing offense, at 113.8 yards per game.

Should the Lions' success in that phase of the game continue, Hackenberg said, “Obviously it just adds another dimension that people have got to prepare for.”

It also gives the team the sort of balance it is going to need over the long haul.

“You can't really go into any game feeling like you have to do everything offensively,” he said. “You've got to be able to trust that your teammates are going to do their job. I think we do a very good job of that, even at practice -- understanding when we've got to execute plays and which guy needs to step up to make that play. That just makes it a lot easier for us on Saturdays.”

Hackenberg himself was part of the ground attack, at one point scrambling for 17 yards. And if 10 sacks are subtracted from his current rushing line, he has 14 carries for 81 yards -- a new dimension to his game.

“For me it's doing whatever we need to do to continue to move the sticks and keep the offense moving in the right direction and avoid negative plays,” he said. “I feel a lot more comfortable doing that this year than I did last year -- being able to pick up those yards and put the team in better situations on second and third down.”

At the same time he understands the need for discretion -- that there are times to slide or get out of bounds, times when there is no choice but to take on tacklers.

“I think it's based upon the situation,” he said. “If it's third-and-three and you get six, rather than take the hit, just get down, you've got the first down. But when it's fourth-and-five and you've got some contact at four, you've got to put the shoulder down and finish the run -- get the extra two you can get, falling forward.”

His team continues to trundle forward as well. And he remains very much at the forefront.

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