Coach on Hack: “We’re in a Really Good Place”

Penn State’s Franklin says he is seeing eye to eye with his young quarterback after a face-to-face meeting earlier this week.

JAMES FRANKLIN ON CHRISTIAN HACKENBERG

The face of Penn State's team is not a happy one.

The frustrations of sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg bubbled to the surface during Saturday's 20-19 loss to Maryland, the Nittany Lions' fourth straight defeat. The cameras caught him having animated sideline conversations with offensive coordinator John Donovan (shown with Hackenberg above). There were also times when Hackenberg was seen barking into the phone to an assistant stationed in the press box, likely quarterbacks coach Ricky Rahne.

Moreover, Hackenberg was quoted in a recent SI.com story making an unfavorable comparison between the offense run by first-year head coach James Franklin and that of his predecessor, Bill O'Brien, now the coach of the NFL's Houston Texans.

Franklin, whose team is 4-4 heading into Saturday's game at Indiana, said during his weekly news conference Tuesday that he met with Hackenberg one day earlier, and that the quarterback's game-day demeanor continues to be “a discussion point.”

“I do think, right now, because of what's been going on, the results of the games, that's being a little bit blown out of proportion,” Franklin said.

He pointed out that Hackenberg is “animated in general” and “passionate about this team and just finding ways to win.” The coach also reminded one and all that Hackenberg is 19 -- he doesn't turn 20 until February -- and still making the transition to a new system and staff.

“But I do think there's some things that we've seen that need to be better,” Franklin said. “We've discussed that and Christian has admitted that as well.”

Hackenberg, the brim of his blue baseball cap pulled low on his head, dismissed his sideline actions on Saturday as being heat-of-the-moment stuff when he met with reporters after the game, in which he went 18-for-42 for 177 yards, with a touchdown and an interception. He also lost two fumbles.

“Both those guys I have a ton of respect for, and both those guys I'm extremely close with,” he said of Donovan and Rahne. “I trust both those guys with my life. I love working with both of them. … We're all about being competitive and wanting to do better.”

Franklin said he had “a really good meeting” with Hackenberg on Monday, one in which they discussed a variety of topics.

“I think we're in a really good place,” Franklin said.

Hackenberg, the Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2013, has thrown for a conference-leading 2,038 yards while completing 57.5 percent of his passes this season. But he is just 10th in the conference in passing efficiency, having thrown seven touchdown passes -- just three in his last six games -- compared to 10 interceptions.

That matches his pick total for last season, when he fired 20 TD passes. His completion percentage, 58.9 in '13, is down slightly. His yards per attempt have gone from 7.54 last season to 6.41 this fall.

“I trust both those guys with my life. I love working with both of them. … We’re all about being competitive and wanting to do better.”

Part of the problem is those around him. The Lions, with four new starters on their offensive line this season (not to mention an injury to the lone holdover, tackle Donovan Smith, that kept him out of the Maryland game), have struggled in all phases of the game.

Hackenberg has been sacked 30 times to date, eight more than all last season and 10 fewer than the school record. And there has been no semblance of a running game to take the heat off him. The Lions are averaging 77.1 yards per game on the ground, fourth-worst among 125 major-college teams.

Then there is the matter of the new offense.

“Coach Franklin's system is more of a college system,” Hackenberg recently told SI.com's Tim Layden. “Coach O'Brien's system was upper-level, as pro as they get. I had free reign at the line of scrimmage.”

Franklin said he had neither heard about nor read that quote until he was apprised of it during Tuesday's Big Ten conference call.

“I think he probably did have a little bit more flexibility,” he said. “They also had a different situation. You watch the film last year with (departed wide receiver) Allen Robinson, and there was a lot of different things, and I think that probably grew and changed as the year went on, as they had success in that system.”

When asked earlier in the call about coaching players who had been recruited by others, Franklin, who spent his three previous years as the boss at Vanderbilt, admitted it is “a challenge.” It is one thing, he noted, to work with guys with whom you have had a chance to build a relationship during the recruiting process, quite another to start anew with another coach's recruits.

“When you come in, you're trying to get to know, basically, 105 guys overnight, rather than gradually doing it,” he said. “I think for the most part, we've handled it well.”

But again, he said, it is a challenge, especially when the program's recent upheaval is taken into account, with the Jerry Sandusky scandal, the NCAA sanctions and frequent changes at the top. Franklin is PSU's fifth head coach since 2011, counting interim bosses.

The challenge within the challenge is getting on the same page with a talented, headstrong young quarterback.

“I think it's been good,” Franklin said, when asked about the evolution of his relationship with Hackenberg, “but I think whenever you play early, whenever you play when you've had a lot of success young, and you learn a way of doing things and you have success with it, it's hard to now stop and try to do it a different way.”

Speaking of which, Franklin promised to introduce “a few new wrinkles” in an attempt to awaken his slumbering offense against the Hoosiers.

“We're going to be a little bit more creative than we've been in the past,” he said, “to try to manufacture first downs and try to manufacture some points.”

And maybe in the process the face of the team will become a happier one.


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