Quarterback Christian Hackenberg wrapped up his collegiate career recently, when he declared for the 2016 NFL Draft shortly after Penn State’s 24-17 TaxSlayer Bowl loss to Georgia.
Despite leaving Happy Valley with a season of eligibility remaining, Hackenberg holds Nittany Lion career records for passing yards (8,457), touchdowns (48), 300-yard passing games (nine), 200-yard passing games (21), attempts (1,235), completions (693) and total offense (8,215).
Hackenberg also owns the Penn State record for passing yards in a game (454; 2014), passing yards in consecutive games (773; 2014), pass attempts in a game (55; 2013), season completions (270; 2014) and pass attempts in a season (484; 2014).
Given that his career is so fresh in the collective mind of the Nittany Nation, it is kind of tricky to put it all into perspective.
But think about it.
Hackenberg is still only 20 years old, and just six months older than 2015 backup Trace McSorley. He arrived on campus in the summer of 2013, or less than 30 months ago.
Want to REALLY think about it?
Below, you will find Penn State career passing leaders No. 2 through No. 10, and we tell you exactly where each stood after three seasons on campus (including redshirts).
Some were well on their way to strong careers. Others had yet to register significant playing time.
But none of them were in the same universe as Hackenberg when it came to production through season No. 3 on campus. In fact, no two of them combined were within 800 yards of Hackenberg at the similar stages of their careers.
The PSU career passing leaders below are listed from No. 2 through No. 10 (with active seasons and career passing yards listed in parenthesis).
2. Zack Mills (2001-04, 7,212)
AFTER THREE SEASONS: Mills finished his redshirt sophomore season (2002) with 17 career starts (all 13 in 2002, four in 2001). He had completed 315 of 563 passes (55.9 percent) for 4,086 yards, 26 touchdowns and 22 interceptions. He had also rushed for 388 yards and six scores. At the time, his 2,417 passing yards in 2002 were the third most in school history.
THE REMAINDER OF HIS CAREER: Unfortunately for Mills, it was pretty much downhill from his stellar 2002 season. Battered and bruised, and having lost most of his key offensive talent from ’02 (including Larry Johnson and Bryant Johnson), Mills threw for 1,404 yards, six TDs and five picks in ’03, and 1,722, nine scores and 12 interceptions in ’04. To this day, it is fair to wonder why Joe Paterno and staff did not turn to the more mobile Michael Robinson (who had a breakout year in 2005) as the full-time QB earlier.
THE BOTTOM LINE AFTER THREE SEASONS: After playing well to that point, we’re not sure anyone could have predicted the sort of fall-off Mills would have.
3. Matt McGloin (2009-12, 6,358)
AFTER THREE SEASONS: A former walk-on, McGloin completed his redshirt sophomore season (2010) in … well … disastrous fashion. After wrestling the starting job away from shell-shocked freshman Rob Bolden late in the year, McGloin threw five interceptions in a 37-24 Outback Bowl loss to Florida (see photo above). He headed into the 2011 season with 118 completions on 217 attempts (54.4 percent) for 1,548 yards, 14 TDs and nine picks. But the bowl implosion — not to mention a stable of former four- and five-star QB recruits also on the roster — seemed to spell trouble for McGloin’s future.
THE REMAINDER OF HIS CAREER: As it turned out, there was nothing wrong with McGloin that a little help from a former NFL coach couldn’t cure. He split time with Bolden again in 2011, throwing for 1,571 yards, eight scores and eight interceptions. All hell broke loose when the Sandusky scandal unfolded toward the end of that season, leading to the coaching change that brought Bill O’Brien on board. O’Brien named McGloin his starter after spring practice (ahead of Bolden), and during his senior year McGloin shredded opposing defenses and the PSU record book to the tune of 3,266 yards, 24 TDs and just five interceptions.
THE BOTTOM LINE AFTER THREE SEASONS: Nearly everyone had written off McGloin as not having the physical ability to succeed at the major college level. He proved us all wrong, and continues to do so and then some as a valued backup with the NFL’s Oakland Raiders.
4. Tony Sacca (1988-91, 5,869)
AFTER THREE SEASONS: Sacca is the only member of this list whose career kind of mirrored Hackenberg’s through three seasons. He did not redshirt as a rookie (in 1988). And he was the team’s leading passer in each of his first three years, coming out of his junior campaign (1990) with 232 completions on 532 attempts (43.6 percent) for 3,381 yards, 19 TDs and 20 picks. He already ranked fifth on PSU’s career passing list.
THE REMAINDER OF HIS CAREER: Sacca had an outstanding senior season, hitting on 169 of 292 passes for a school-record 2,488 yards, 21 scores and five interceptions. PSU went 11-2 and finished the season ranked No.3.
THE BOTTOM LINE AFTER THREE SEASONS: Sacca had shown flashes of promise to that point of his career, but really came into his own during his senior campaign.
5. Daryll Clark (2006-09, 5,742)
AFTER THREE SEASONS: Clark really did not make much of an impact on the program until the final game of his redshirt sophomore season (2007). In the Alamo Bowl against Texas A&M, the PSU staff surprised the Aggies by using Clark as a wildcat QB, as he carried six times for 50 yards and a score. To that point of his career, he had completed 20 of 36 passes for 147 yards, all of them as a reserve.
THE REMAINDER OF HIS CAREER: Clark beat out Pat Devlin for the starting job in 2008 and went on to post two outstanding seasons, including leading the Lions to a Big Ten title and the Rose Bowl in ’08. In 2009, after Devlin had transferred, Clark became the first Lion to throw for more than 3,000 yards in a season (he finished with 3,003). In his final two years, Clark combined for 424 completions on 702 attempts (60.1 percent) for 5,595 yards, 43 TDs and 16 picks. He won first-team All-Big Ten notice both years.
THE BOTTOM LINE AFTER THREE SEASONS: Clark seemed like a nice change-of-pace QB, but most had Devlin pegged as the future star of the position. Another guy who proved a lot of folks wrong.
6. Chuck Fusina (1975-78, 5,382)
AFTER THREE YEARS: Another QB who did not redshirt, Fusina came out of his junior season (1977) being hailed by Paterno as “without question the best quarterback we have had since I have been at Penn State (dating back to 1950).” He earned the starting job by the middle of his true sophomore season and after three years was already second in career passing yards at PSU with 3,523. His 2,221 passing yards in ’77 were a school record at the time.
THE REMAINDER OF HIS CAREER: Fusina won first-team All-America honors in 1978 after leading the Lions to a Sugar Bowl appearance against Alabama for the national championship (they lost). He finished his career 371 for 665 (55.7 percent) for a record 5,382 yards, 37 scores and 32 picks. He career passing record stood until Sacca broke it in 1991.
THE BOTTOM LINE AFTER THREE SEASONS: Everybody — including his usually cautious head coach — had a feeling big things were in store for Fusina.
7. Kerry Collins (1991-94, 5,304)
AFTER THREE SEASONS: Collins’ redshirt sophomore season (1992) began on a bad note when a broken finger supposedly sustained during a summer volleyball game knocked him out of action until the seventh game of the year. It ended on a bad note, too, when he and the team struggled in a 24-3 Blockbuster Bowl loss to Stanford. Despite starting the final five games of ’02, Collins entered his redshirt junior season (1993) with only 67 completions on 143 attempts (46.8 percent) for 1,020 yards, five TDs and three interceptions.
THE REMAINDER OF HIS CAREER: Collins replaced an ineffective John Sacca in the third game of the 1993 season (at Iowa). Sacca left the program that week. Collins’ career took off. Collins led the Lions to five straight wins to close out ’93 (including a gritty comeback at Michigan State) that propelled the Lions into their great undefeated 1994 season. In ’94, Collins hit on 176 of 264 passes (66.7 percent) for 2,679 yards, 21 TDs and seven picks. Remember, this was on a team that rushed for 2,760 yards, too. Most impressively, Collins averaged 10.15 yards per ATTEMPT and his 172.86 pass efficiency remains more than 20 points higher than any other Lion has achieved. Collins was an All-American and went No. 5 overall in the 1995 NFL Draft.
THE BOTTOM LINE AFTER THREE SEASONS: Folks were beginning to wonder if Collins would ever live up to what seemed to be vast potential. But he stayed patient in the face of injury (and the staff giving John Sacca every edge), and in the end it paid off.
8. Anthony Morelli (2004-07, 5,275)
AFTER THREE SEASONS: Morelli spent two seasons as a seldom-used reserve before claiming the starting job as a true junior (2006). The former five-star high school prospect’s numbers during his first year as the No. 1 QB were good, but not great. He connected on 208 of 386 passes (53.8 percent) for 12 TDs and nine interceptions. Most frustrating to PSU fans was the fact that he struggled in the team’s four losses (to Notre Dame, Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin), with a combined one TD and five picks in those games (including a pair of pick-sixes that blew open what had been a one-score game in Columbus).
THE REMAINDER OF HIS CAREER: Individually, Morelli’s senior season was better, as he completed 234 of 402 passes (58.2 percent) for 2,651 yards, 19 TDs and 10 interceptions. But the Lions once again went 9-4, including defeats to Michigan (when PSU was ranked No. 10 and the Wolverines were unranked) and Ohio State for the second straight year.
THE BOTTOM LINE AFTER THREE SEASONS: What you saw was pretty much what you were going to get the rest of the way. Morelli was a good quarterback who never really stepped up on the big stage.
9. Todd Blackledge (1980-82, 4,812)
AFTER THREE YEARS: Blackledge had a medical redshirt as a true freshman in 1979, so after his third year in the program (1981) he had only played two seasons. But a lot happened in those two campaigns. In 1980, he battled classmate and future NFL star Jeff Hostetler for the No. 1 job, but did not get the starting nod until the fourth week of the season. Blackledge never gave it up after that, as Hostetler would eventually transfer to West Virginia. Through the 1981 season, Blackledge had hit on 180 of 366 passes (49.2 percent) for 19 scores and 27 picks. But he had been clutch in some big games, including the wild comeback win at Pitt to close the 1981 regular season, and a pair of Fiesta Bowl wins (over Ohio State in ’80 and USC in ’81).
THE REMAINDER OF HIS CAREER: Speaking of clutch, Blackledge’s best season (by far) was 1982, when he led the Lions to their first national championship. He connected on 161 of 292 passes for 2,218 yards, a school record 22 TD passes and 14 interceptions. Blackledge was MVP of State’s 27-24 Sugar Bowl victory over Georgia, a game in which he threw for 228 yards and the deciding touchdown. He declared for the 1983 NFL Draft and was taken seventh overall (by the Kansas City Chiefs).
THE BOTTOM LINE AFTER THREE SEASONS: The only thing holding him back was a penchant for throwing interceptions.
10. Wally Richardson (1992, 1994-96, 4,419)
AFTER THREE SEASONS: Richardson was forced into action as a true freshman due to injuries (1992), but the staff was very careful with him (he attempted only 45 passes, completing 24). He took a redshirt as a sophomore (1993) then saw little action as Collins’ primary backup as a redshirt sophomore (1994). So after three seasons in the program Richardson had a grand total of 40 completions on 78 attempts (51.3 percent) for 498 yards, two TDs and no picks.
THE REMAINDER OF HIS CAREER: “Wally Ball” took over at Penn State in 1995, as Richardson capitalized on a strong returning O-line and receiving corps to pass for 2,218 yards and 22 scores (against 14 interceptions). There was dramatic turnover in talent up front and at the skill positions in ’96, and it showed in Richardson’s performance. He passed for only 1,732 yards and seven TDs (to go along with eight picks). But the Lions went 11-2 that year, beating Texas in the Fiesta Bowl to finish No. 7 nationally. In Richardson’s two seasons as a starter, PSU was a combined 20-5 overall and did not lose a non-Big Ten game.
THE BOTTOM LINE AFTER THREE SEASONS: Though Richardson was very much in the QB mix during his first three seasons on campus — even pulling off the trick of being ready as the primary backup (after Sacca left) AND redshirting in ’93 — nobody knew quite what to expect when he entered the ’95 campaign as the clear-cut starter. He did not disappoint.