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Cooler Heads Prevail? Penn State Needs Rebound Season from Christian Hackenberg

Christian Hackenberg

Christian Hackenberg

The frustration had been building, and when Christian Hackenberg bounced a short pass to Bill Belton on 3rd-and-10 in the third quarter of Penn State’s Big Ten opener against Northwestern, it finally boiled over.

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Belton jabbed a finger at Hackenberg’s chest as the offense retreated to the sideline. The two players exchanged words, Hackenberg stalked off and legions of lip-reading Penn State fans watching at home tried to figure out what they’d just seen. Was it, as Hackenberg said afterward, “just the emotions of the game,” a game the Nittany Lions went on to lose, 29–6? Or was it something more, a window into the Lions’ mindset as they coped with the ongoing fallout from an array of NCAA sanctions, the loss of several key offensive players to graduation and another top-to-bottom coaching overhaul, the program’s second in a two-year span?

Whatever it was, Hackenberg was at the center of it. He had enjoyed a magnificent debut season, winning Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors in 2013. But his sophomore season was an endurance test, marred by incompletions, interceptions, confrontations and, most of all, sacks. The conciliatory tweets that he and Belton traded the night of the Northwestern game had a nothing-to-see-here-folks tone to them, but when that episode was followed by a heated exchange between Hackenberg and offensive coordinator John Donovan during a 20–19 loss to Maryland, it was easy to draw a different conclusion.

Looking back, Hackenberg concedes that last season “was tough mentally on me.” But the tensions that flared up last fall have long since cooled, and he insists that the difficulties he went through have only toughened him up. If that sounds like revisionist history, well, Hackenberg concedes that, too. “You look at those experiences, and some will say, ‘That kid has no reason but to say that it was a terrible experience.’ But for me, I loved it. It was one of those things that pushed me to the brink where I’ve never really been pushed before at this level.”

Hackenberg says the challenges Penn State faced last season strengthened his relationship with the coaching staff, and the feeling appears to be mutual, as coach James Franklin has defended his quarterback throughout the offseason.

“Last year, Christian spent most of his time solving problems, running from problems, taking a lot of criticism, which I’m really, really defensive about,” Franklin says. “To be honest with you, looking back at it, I’m a little angry that he faced some of the criticism he did. I don’t know if it was fair, just or realistic.”

That criticism was rooted in a couple of preconceptions that gained currency after Franklin’s hiring but have since received some pushback.

The first was that Hackenberg didn’t fit the system Franklin and Donovan wanted to run. He had been recruited by Bill O’Brien in the hope that he could be developed into a great drop-back passer a la Tom Brady, whom O’Brien had coached as an offensive assistant with the New England Patriots. As his freshman season drew to a close — he passed for 339 yards and four touchdowns in a 31–24 road upset of 14th-ranked Wisconsin — those hopes seemed to be coming true.

But when O’Brien left for the Houston Texans a month later, Penn State replaced him with Vanderbilt’s Franklin, and the quick take was that the Lions’ new coach preferred a dual-threat QB. The Commodores’ starting quarterback for most of the 2013 season had been Austyn Carta-Samuels, whose reputation, to the extent that he had one at a Northeastern school located far from SEC country, was as a run-pass guy. Same went for his predecessor, Jordan Rodgers, who was the Commodores’ second-leading rusher in 2011 with 420 yards. With Franklin in charge at Penn State, it seemed logical to assume that those players personified the new QB template. 

But look deeper into Franklin’s résumé, and the picture becomes cloudier. Carta-Samuels may have developed a reputation as a runner before transferring from Wyoming, but he completed 68.7 percent of his passes for 2,268 yards as a senior at Vanderbilt. Likewise, Rodgers was primarily a passer as a senior, completing just under 60 percent of his attempts for 2,539 yards. Franklin had also worked with Danny O’Brien at Maryland and Josh Freeman at Kansas State, two quarterbacks known more for their arms than their legs.

At Penn State, he’s already gotten a verbal commitment from Jake Zembiec of Rochester, N.Y., one of the top drop-back passers in the Class of 2016. If Zembiec sees himself as a good fit with the Lions, it’s because the quarterback’s job in Franklin’s ideal offense is to “get us into the best play and distribute the ball to our playmakers, and every once in a while pull the ball down and take a six-yard sack and turn it into a six-yard gain.”

That’s Hackenberg’s game, too. So why did he struggle so much last year if the system was able to accommodate his strengths? Maybe because of another preconception that proved to be off-base: that the Lions had enough manpower to overcome the loss of five offensive starters to graduation and injury. They didn’t. Not by a long shot.

Allen Robinson had left a huge void after accounting for 40 percent of Penn State’s receptions in 2013, and with the second-leading pass catcher in school history off to the NFL, Penn State turned to sophomore Geno Lewis and freshmen DaeSean Hamilton, Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall. After a strong start, the young wideouts faded in Big Ten play, failing to get much if any separation against defenses that were focused on stopping the pass. 

Even more troublesome was the performance of the offensive line. Only one of Penn State’s first-teamers had ever started a college game prior to opening day, and two of its top three guards had been playing on the defensive line only a few months earlier. The result: a Big Ten-worst 44 sacks and countless pressures and knockdowns.

In the end, Hackenberg’s completion rate went from 58.9 percent as a freshman to 55.8 last fall. His touchdown-to-interception ratio went from 20-to-10 to 12-to-15. He did throw for 2,977 yards, 22 more than he’d thrown for the year before, but he also attempted 92 more passes than he had in 2013.

The offense’s overall decline contributed to a four-game Big Ten losing streak, and there were times when the frustration showed. One of the reasons that Donovan was on the sideline for part of the season rather than in the booth was because he felt he needed to be a real presence for Hackenberg rather than just a voice in a headset. Sometimes, even that didn’t work.

“He’s just a competitive guy who gets his juices flowing,” Donovan says. “He can get frustrated at times. (The coaching staff) gets it. There are certain ways you have to handle yourself because you know the camera’s on you and the team’s looking at you. You can’t always show frustration. There are times where you have to be who you are and show your emotions, but there are times where you have to understand that you’ve got to keep it in check and handle (the emotions), too. He’s learning that, and he will just keep getting better.”

Hackenberg ended the season with one of his best games, passing for 371 yards, four TDs and no interceptions in a 31–30 overtime victory over Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl. The line gave up only two sacks, and his young receivers also came up big, as Hamilton, Lewis and Godwin caught seven passes apiece. It may have been the last game of the 2014 season, but for Hackenberg, who looked rejuvenated after a taking a month to recover from all the punishment he’d absorbed, the Pinstripe Bowl may in some ways have been the first game of the 2015 season.

“I think this year we’re so much more comfortable with what we’re doing and understanding the expectations,” he says. “We’re going be able to focus on us now and not on outside factors, whatever they may have been in the past, making sure that we’re the best team we can be. If that happens, all the rest will take care of itself.”

By Matt Herb,