The Nittany Lions freshman quarterback is a star-in-waiting.
It all seems so obvious now, as if everyone could see the hand of destiny at work. But the truth is, when Christian Hackenberg showed up as a sophomore at Fork Union Military Academy, a private boarding school in Fork Union, Va., no one really knew what he could do, and no one expected him to claim the starting quarterback position in his first season.
Fork Union didn’t exactly need a savior. It already had a fine quarterback in Richard Quittenton, who had lifted the Blue Devils into the state playoffs the year before. All the coaching staff asked of Hackenberg was that he learn the offense while Quittenton — a Canadian native who is now at the University of Toronto — ran the show. They taught him to operate the hurry-up offense in the hope that he might be able to earn some playing time by focusing on a specific niche.
“It was a sped-up spread,” Fork Union coach Micky Sullivan says. “You just throw it — boom, boom, boom.”
As the season went on, those booms got bigger and more frequent. “Christian took that as his piece of the offense and got really good at it,” Sullivan says. “We realized as we progressed that maybe he gives us a better chance to win. And he grew as a leader going into the huddle as a sophomore. He accepted that mantle and grew with it.”
Fork Union went on to win the Virginia Independent Schools Division I title that year, and Hackenberg ended up growing into one of the top high school quarterbacks in the country. After throwing for 5,509 yards and 56 touchdowns, he became a consensus 5-star prospect and was ESPN.com’s No. 1 pro-style quarterback in the Class of 2013.
When he signed with Penn State this past February after a whirlwind recruitment — the school hadn’t started seriously pursuing him until after Bill O’Brien and his staff took over in January 2012 — it was seen as a huge coup for the Nittany Lions. This is a program, after all, that is looking to remain competitive in the face of severe NCAA sanctions. Hackenberg’s signing sent a signal to other elite recruits that under O’Brien’s leadership, Penn State remains an attractive place to play football.
“I liked a lot of other schools,” Hackenberg says, “but I loved Penn State. It’s where I felt most comfortable and where I felt I could maximize my potential athletically and academically.”
But Hackenberg’s signing was more than just a symbolic victory for the Lions. With Matt McGloin gone after leading the Big Ten in passing yardage last season, Penn State needs one of its quarterback prospects to step forward in practice. Steven Bench, the only quarterback on the roster who had taken a snap, left the program after spring practice. Junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson, who enrolled last January, doesn’t have much experience running what O’Brien has described as “not the simplest system in the world.” So with no established favorite to overcome and O’Brien harboring few if any preconceptions about what he can or can’t do, Hackenberg will have an opportunity to compete for the starting spot in preseason camp.
“Certainly he’ll be in the mix,” O’Brien says. “At every single position, we are going to play the best players. … Christian will come in and we’ll teach him the offense and give him some reps and see how he does.”
After watching him seize the starting position at Fork Union, Sullivan expects Hackenberg to do just fine. “Knowing Christian,” he says, “I can’t imagine that he’s thinking in his head, ‘I’m gonna go to Penn State and redshirt.’ He’s thinking in his head, ‘What do I have to do? How quick can I get in there to learn as much as I can learn so that I can be ready to compete for the starting job?’”
Hackenberg, who is originally from Tamaqua, Pa., and whose father played quarterback at Division III Susquehanna about 60 miles east of University Park, committed to Penn State five months before the NCAA took action last July. He stayed committed even though the sanctions ensure that he will play in, at most, two bowl games during his career. And he continued to sit tight in January when O’Brien’s name came up in connection with NFL coaching vacancies in Cleveland and Philadelphia.
The drama surrounding Penn State made for an interesting recruitment, as Alabama, Miami and Florida, among others, were interested in seeing just how firm his verbal commitment really was. “It was a chore,” recruiting coordinator Charles London concedes. “There were some other schools coming after him. (His decision) is a testament to the relationship he built with our staff here.”
It’s also a testament to how quickly perceptions change. Under Joe Paterno, Penn State wasn’t known for developing quarterbacks. The only Nittany Lion quarterback to succeed in the NFL in the past decade has been Michael Robinson, and that’s been because Robinson was capable of playing running back when he entered the league in 2006. In seven pro seasons, he’s attempted only two passes.
The last Penn State quarterback to make it big in the NFL as a passer was Kerry Collins, who led the Lions to an undefeated season in 1994 and parlayed his success into a 17-year pro career. But after he left, the offense slipped, yielding a series of quarterbacks who never made any impact at the pro level.
Hurt by its inability to develop pro prospects at the position, Penn State struck out with coveted in-state quarterbacks like Chad Henne and Terrelle Pryor. And when it did land a blue-chipper — Anthony Morelli, Rob Bolden and Paul Jones all had either four or five stars from the recruiting services — things never seemed to work out.
Enter O’Brien. The Lions’ new coach came in with a résumé full of NFL experience and a relationship with Tom Brady that gave him instant credibility with recruits.
Once the new staff was in place, the pursuit of Hackenberg began. And now that it’s over, the Lions believe they may have found their quarterback of the future.
Is he the quarterback of the immediate future? O’Brien is leaving his options open. “When you play quarterback at Penn State, you have to really learn how to balance the classroom with being the best-prepared quarterback you can be, working in the weight room, studying the playbook, studying the game plan, your opponent, then obviously going to class, which is No. 1 and will always be No. 1 at Penn State,” he says.
“We think Christian is a guy who is going to come in here and do all those things.”
Written by Matt Herb for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2013 Big Ten Preview Edition. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2013 Big Ten season.
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