Penn State coach James Franklin on Christian Hackenberg
On a conference call with reporters Wednesday, the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year said he is focused squarely on moving forward. The Nittany Lions (4-2, 1-2) face No. 13 Ohio State (5-1, 2-0) at Beaver Stadium Saturday night in what will be the 19th start of the 19-year-old's career.
This season has brought an entirely new coaching staff, a new offense and a rebuilt offensive line that has struggled to protect the young gunslinger. While Hackenberg leads the Big Ten in passing yards per game (272.8), he is on pace to throw fewer touchdowns (he has five now) and more interceptions (he has seven now) than in 2013.
It's a new year, a new team, a new set of goals, a new set of expectations, Hackenberg said. You've gotta be able to flip that switch and focus in on what these (coaches) are asking you to do and be able to execute that to the best of your ability and to their expectations, and that's all I'm trying to do every day. Every day -- day in, day out, practice, game, film room -- that's my goal, that's my focus.
That said, Hackenberg admitted the transition to the new offense was not easy. As a high school star, he committed to former PSU coach Bill O'Brien in February of 2012 and stuck with that pledge even when the Lions were slammed with NCAA sanctions the following July. He signed in February of 2013 and enrolled about four months later.
It proved to be a wise decision, as Hackenberg flourished as a freshman starter in O'Brien's pro style offense. He threw for 2,955 yards, 20 scores and 10 picks, shattering records left and right.
Then a little more than a month after the season, O'Brien left to take the head coaching job with the NFL's Houston Texans. Penn State hired away up-and-comer James Franklin from Vanderbilt to replace him.
Hackenberg has said he never seriously considered transferring. But Tuesday, he addressed the difficulties of changing coaches, especially because he had been so close to O'Brien. O'Brien was also offensive coordinator and called all of the plays at PSU.
It was tough, because you sort of bought in and I was committed for so long to one guy and a system and played in it and had some success and was happy to see the direction it was going, Hackenberg said. When that changed, it's tough, at 18 years old, to deal with that.
But I've had a lot of great guys around me throughout this process, he added. And it's not only tough for me, it's been tough for everyone. Everyone's had to deal with that change. I think that's the best part about these (coaches), they work extremely hard to make it as much of a non-issue as possible. I think they've done a great job.
“All these guys are doing their job the best they can do based upon what they’re asked to do. If everyone does that, you can be pretty successful within a system.”
In fairness to Franklin and new offensive coordinator John Donovan, the rebuilt and struggling offensive line has made it difficult for Penn State to establish any sort of offensive identity. The Lions rank No. 118 in the NCAA in rushing yards per game and No. 116 in sacks allowed.
Hackenberg has been sacked 20 times and has taken just as many hard hits. As a team, PSU ranks next to last in the Big Ten in scoring (21.2 ppg), which is more than a touchdown less than last season.
With all that in mind, Hackenberg said he can't be concerned with trying to match the numbers he posted as a freshman.
It's different in terms of my expectation within the offense, he said. I'm just gonna continue to do what this coaching staff is asking me to do to the best of my ability, and that's all you really can do as a player.
All these guys are doing their job the best they can do based upon what they're asked to do, he added. If everyone does that, you can be pretty successful within a system. So I think it's just more consistency and getting everyone on the same page.
During the conference call, Hackenberg was asked multiple times --directly and indirectly -- how he can improve. He was generally vague, other than saying everyone has to continue to work in our areas.
But when asked directly about forcing a ball into coverage on a key interception in a loss to Michigan, he replied: It's just playing within myself and trusting what I can do. It's tough. I was just trying to make a play there. I thought we needed something to happen. I've got to limit those mistakes, limit that pressure and feeling within myself. That's just how I am.
Another part of the growing process is looking forward, and not backward.
No matter how good that scene in the rearview mirror appears.
It goes back to trying to be the best teammate I can be and doing my job the best I can do it, Hackenberg said. That's the biggest thing, is making sure you stay focused on whatever is asked of you this year. You can't really worry about what was asked of you last year because it's a totally different situation. You have to play within yourself this year and do everything these coaches are asking you to do.