Most everyone in the football universe knew who Christian Hackenberg was before he took a single collegiate snap. To many who were close to the recruiting setting, Hackenberg was the best quarterback recruit to come out in years. Arm, size, composure and mental ability; he had it all. From day one, it was pretty clear as to how special he just might be.
In his first appearance vs Syracuse (essentially a start for Hackenberg, the incumbent Tyler Ferguson only threw one pass that game), the true freshman threw for nearly 300 yards, completed roughly 70% of his passes and found the end zone twice. He also finished the game with two interceptions, but for a true freshman in his first game, the positive plays easily outweighed the bad.
Over the course of his freshman campaign, Hackenberg had his fair share of ups and downs, largely due in part to his aggressive nature, but he consistently displayed a number of traits and skills that I’ve never seen from a freshman, let alone most seniors.
Before diving into Hackenberg’s freshman season, keep in mind that Penn State’s offense was very pro-style under then head coach Bill O’Brien. A lot of the offense was run from under the center and it looked a somewhat watered down version of what O’Brien concocted for Tom Brady in New England.
Exceptionally impressive for his age, Hackenberg had an incredible mental advantage over his opponent. He understood where and when route breaks correlated with specific coverages, where his check-down options were and, for the most part, when a play was dead. There was a heightened sense of preparedness when watching Hackenberg; it was evident that he knew exactly what he was doing on any given play.
On a similar note, the freshman displayed a veteran-like sense and handling of pass rushing pressure. He could identify a rusher, make a calm move in the pocket (with his eyes up, nonetheless) and deliver an accurate pass on time. Hackenberg also had to create throwing platforms for himself and did so quite well. In contrast, there was a hint of unease when standing and observing the pocket at times, but that could easily be brushed under the rug as “freshman jitters,” especially considering it was something he improved on during his sophomore year. For the most part, Hackenberg evoked poise and command as a pocket passer.
Though, Hackenberg proved he was a precise mobile passer, as well. O’Brien’s offense called for a fair amount of play-action bootlegs and Hackenberg executed beautifully. It sounds meticulous, but Hackenberg sold play-action very well, and he still does. He also exploded out of the fake and got his depth, then worked quickly back up the field. Again, it sounds meticulous, but he did these things in such an effective manner that I have rarely seen at the collegiate level. For reference, I can not recall anyone in the past three years who has done it was masterfully as Hackenberg other than Teddy Bridgewater.
Refinement aside, Hackenberg put all of his tools on constant display. His arm, the most lethal of his physical talents, was and still is a bit of a loose cannon, but at the same time, it is a great asset that allowed the freshman to make a number of “pro level” throws. Short outs, digs and deep corners are all great indicators of sheer arm talent (as well as timing, another skill of Hackenberg’s) and he had no issue making these throws.
Though, Hackenberg also flashed the ability to take some heat off of his throws and add some touch to them. There were an equal amount of throws that he completely whiffed on because he failed to do that, but adding/taking off velocity is something a young player such as himself can work on. All throughout his freshman year, Hackenberg made throws vs man coverage that were absurd. Between his timing and arm talent, he maximized the effectiveness of many tough routes/throws.
In relation to that, just how much Hackenberg was responsible for in that offense as an 18 year old may have gone overlooked a tad. He often had go to 2nd and 3rd reads against man coverage, forcing him to make a quick decision and throw with little room for error. Take the Michigan game, for example. Late in the game, Hackenberg was forced to drop back and throw down the field against a defense knowing damn well that that is what he had to do. The result? Hackenberg threw down the field and let his receivers make plays, tying the game with a throw to Allen Robinson, who made a miraculous catch. Hackenberg then went on to win the game for Penn State with a touchdown pass in the 4th overtime period.
Now, let me slow down a bit. Hackenberg was not perfect by any means. Most notably, he showed frequent release issues (letting go off the ball late in his motion), a lack of weight transfer when throwing deep and the tendency to land harshly at the top of his drop, leading to disruption in his coordinated movement. Those faults, along with the few others sporadically mentioned beforehand, lead to a good deal of avoidable incompletions or even interceptions.
In its entirety, Hackenberg’s freshman season was largely a success. He had his flaws, no doubt, but he showed a lot of things that many first round picks do not ever display in their entire collegiate career. Due to this, the expectations for him going into the 2014 season were absurd. Though, so many, including myself, failed to fairly account for the changes around him.
Hackenberg lost the receiver who accounted for roughly 40% of his passing yards to the NFL Draft, his head coach took the Houston Texans head coaching job and almost his entire offensive line had to be replaced in 2014. On top of that, Hackenberg had to learn and execute an entirely new offense, an offense that functions much more heavily out of the shotgun and took power away from the quarterback.
“Whereas most would say Christian Hackenberg’s lackluster season is a direct result of him regressing, that’s not necessarily the case. While Hackenberg didn’t play up to his potential in the 2014 season, he still flashed brilliance when given the time a Quarterback needs.
If I were to hit on the main points as to why he struggled this year there are a few that shine in my mind. Firstly, as most prominently, the coaching change. Originally playing within Bill O’brien’s Pro-Style offense you saw Christian in his natural habitat; he ran a ton of play-action, had dropbacks, rollouts, and a coach that catered around what he did best. Take that, then look at the offense that Penn State operated under this year. They wanted him to run an offense that isn’t really fit for him at all, and didn’t even think to remold it to his strengths until the final game of the season.
It is a Quarterback’s job to elevate the talent around him. You can argue whether or not Hack did that this year, but it was almost impossible for him to do so with the circus show going on around him. Let me lay this out for you, if I may.
- WRs: Allen Robinson, Brandon Felder, and Richie Anderson all left the team for separate reasons (Draft, Graduation, Transfer respectively) but each loss had a huge effect on Hackenberg.
Everybody knows about how much the loss of A-Rob hurt Hackenberg and the rest of the offense. He was Christian’s favorite target, safety target, main target…whatever you want to say about A-Rob you could say. If Hackenberg had nowhere else to go he could just toss it up to A-Rob and he had a pretty good shot at coming down with it. That guy wasn’t on the team this year. This year Hackenberg’s top two targets were 1) Daesean Hamilton, a rFr coming off a medical redshirt season who struggled to separate due to injury and had a hard time contested winning balls. He played well all things considered, but he’s an ideal #2 CFB WR when healthy. and 2) Geno Lewis. A deep threat who dropped a ton of passes and disappeared for a large part of the back end of the season. The tight ends were largely inept, too.
Hackenberg had a ton of first year and unreliable contributors to throw to this year; they struggled to separate from their opponents so Hack had to force balls into microscopic holes, if there even was a hole. Without talent, the talent can’t be elevated.
However, the biggest player issue in regards to Hackenberg was the line. Firstly, the team only returned one healthy starter, Donovan Smith, who played ok. the whole season. The rest of the line was a jumbled mess of first year starters who consistently got moved around to due injuries and depth issues.
There’s 1-2 guys in College Football that I could have seen doing all that much better. It was an impossible situation for a Sophomore who was already given wildly unrealistic expectations regardless of the talent around him.“
I’m not sure if first year head coach James Franklin thinks he is still dealing with an incompetent Ausytn Carta-Samuels type quarterback like he did at Vanderbilt or if he’s just stubborn, but Franklin’s offense takes power out of Hackenberg’s hands too often. Now, it’s not as if the offense restricts him a ton, but Penn State threw an ugly amount of screen passes in 2014 considering Hackenberg’s ability to thrive elsewhere. Aside from the Ohio State game, screens should have been such a minor concept of the offense.
A tighter leash on what he was allowed to do coupled with 5 revolving doors as an offensive line and little running support are the perfect recipe for Hackenberg to crash and burn. But he didn’t. Hackenberg overachieved on that Penn State team and lead multiple game-tying/game-winning drives, one almost coming against future national champions Ohio State. Though, it seems everyone looked at his end-of-the-year state line and said “oh shit, he must be terrible now” and that is laughably wrong.
First and foremost, the team around him is frustrating. The offensive line is terrible and there’s no point debating that it is anything other than that. The running backs can’t block well either. Geno Lewis and Daesean Hamilton are generally good receivers and Kyle Carter has shown he can be a fairly reliable tight end, but the skill players still made infuriating little mistakes that lead to incompletions.
Here, this throw can be caught regardless of the receiver’s adjustment. There’s no way that the defensive back can catch this. Though, in this case, the receiver needs to take a step or two back to the ball and cut off the throw to ensure the catch. He only needed one yard.
On this play, Jesse James is being the awful player that he is. Hackenberg puts this throw in the only spot that makes the play work… and James can’t reel it in. Not only does he simply fail to catch the pass, but the pass would’ve been easier to catch if he wasn’t the least explosive tight end in the history of this sport.
Team be damned, the common thing to say is that Hackenberg regressed, but really, he improved in a couple areas.
Hackenberg was already a composed and poised player as a freshman, but he took it to the next level as a sophomore. Whether it was keeping a passing play alive after avoiding pressure, converting on a long third down or constructing a game-tying/game-winning drive, Hackenberg played with a clear mind and did what needed to be done.
Especially take notice of what Hackenberg did on that second GIF. He knows he has 1-on-1 coverage on the outside, so he holds the centerfield safety at the beginning of the play, then finishes the play with a well placed throw that lead to a touchdown. *flames emoji*
Backpacking from the display on that play, Hackenberg became a quicker thinker than he was before. He was already making clean, quick reads, but throughout his sophomore year, Hackenberg’s transitioning from one read to the next was brisk and smooth. Seldom did he pause and think too long about his first read. For him, it was either immediately open or it wasn’t, and if it wasn’t he moved to the next read (and possibly another) to make a throw.
In fairness, Hackenberg went through lapses of failing to see defenders. Vs UCF, linebackers got the best of him underneath and deep-half safeties were problematic for Hackenberg vs Akron. But nonetheless, these issues were few and far between, especially striking for a player his age.
And as would be expected, Hackenberg’s sophomore year was full of “NFL throws” against tight coverage. There are a good percentage of NFL starting quarterbacks that can not consistently make these types of throws, but Hackenberg does.
Say what you will about his stat line or his team’s mediocre record, but Hackenberg is a special player. His arm talent is top notch, his poise and composure is unrivaled, he has evident mental prowess and he displayed improvement from year one to year two. I’m legitimately not sure what more people really want from him.
Have fun over-correcting on him because of #numbers. Christian Hackenberg is an absurdly talented player.