There were plenty of smiles in Penn State's Lasch Building Saturday, as the Nittany Lions opened their doors to 30 families who have been impacted by pediatric cancer. The kids on hand at the annual event had a chance to meet the PSU players, tour the facility and just enjoy themselves.
At least when it came to the adults involved, nobody seemed to be grinning more than quarterback Christian Hackenberg.
Perhaps it was the amazing perspective provided by the young cancer patients. Perhaps it was the passage of time. Perhaps it was because, well, it really was a fun day. Or perhaps it was a combination of all of the above.
Whatever the case, Hackenberg seemed a million miles removed from an understandably frustrating sophomore season. In front of a room full of people, he hassled roommate Garrett Sickels about being messy.
While showing young cancer survivor Elijah Schultz from Mechanicsburg, Pa., around the facility, they broke into the office of QBs coach Ricky Rahne. Later, the dynamic duo pigged out on ice cream and claimed first dibs on the PlayStation in the player's lounge.
I really appreciate where I come from, Hackenberg said afterward. Having three younger brothers, seeing Elijah, you really appreciate what you have. I'm thankful to be able to give back.
When talking about football, the same guy who drew criticism from fans last season for being too emotional on the sideline could not have been more introspective. The same QB who absorbed more sacks (44) than any other TEAM in the Big Ten talked about the season as a great learning experience.
One of those things I kind of realized throughout the year -- but more so now -- is it was such an up and down season, Hackenberg said. It was hot and cold, especially on our side of the ball. I just feel like it's one of those things where it's nothing that we can't correct and nothing we can't fix.
That's what makes it so exciting about being able to go into this spring now. Having experienced that and gotten it out of the way, it was the first year in a new system, really young players. There's a lot of things that go into it.
It was also his first season under new offensive coordinator John Donovan. And, while Hackenberg admits the transition from Bill O'Brien's offense was not easy, he believes he is getting more in sync with Donovan by the day.
I think he and I are continuing to build that relationship, Hackenberg said. It was kind of tough last year, because everybody was just getting to know everybody. We really were just trying to figure things out and what to expect.
So I feel like this offseason will give me a great opportunity to get to know kind of what's going through his mind more, the QB added. Especially after doing it for a (season) last year, I kind of got a pretty good feel for it toward the end of the year. Now, with this offseason, it's gonna open up a lot more doors for us next year -- in terms of what we can do and how we can game-plan and how we execute.
Hackenberg turned 20 on Valentine's Day. Considering he is still not old enough to buy a beer, it was kind of funny to hear him talk about true freshman early enrollee quarterback Tommy Stevens as a kid.
Of course, in 2014, Hackenberg became the first true sophomore to be named a team captain for the Nittany Lions. So he has been forced to be older than his years, which is OK by him.
I think it was great to have that experience at such a young age, he said. Not a lot of people get to experience that until it can really come back to bite them. So it was good to experience that at such a young age and learn from it and grow from it.
It was also good to end the season on a positive note. With such spotty protection during the regular season, Hackenberg completed only 54 percent of his passes for eight touchdowns and 15 interceptions.
But the time off before the Pinstripe Bowl against Boston College allowed the offensive line to gel. It also gave Hackenberg a chance to step back and get to know the new offense a little better.
He won MVP honors after hitting on 34 of 50 passes for 371 yards and four touchdowns in the 31-30 win.
Being able to end the way we did and carry that into this off-season, it makes us more excited for spring ball and about what's to come, Hackenberg said. All the bad aside, what's to come is pretty exciting.