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Penn State Football: Franklin’s New Staff Gets A Big Bonus In Hackenberg

by on January 20, 2014 1:30 AM

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series examining Penn State’s quarterback and the new coaches for that position. Today: Incumbent quarterback Christian Hackenberg. Friday: The new staff’s track record.


James Franklin will get a $300,000 “retention” reward in addition to his $4 million base salary if he’s employed by Penn State on Dec. 31, 2014.

But Penn State’s new head coach knows – as do most Nittany Lion fans -- what the real bonus of his new job is:

Christian Hackenberg.

It always helps to have a star quarterback your first day on the job. Nonetheless, in his introductory press conference last Saturday, Franklin spoke 6,718 words over the course of 48 minutes and 55 seconds, but he didn’t mention Penn State’s charismatic incumbent quarterback by name. Not once.

Franklin did offer this. And only this:

“I don’t care whether it’s Little League, high school, college or the NFL, if you have a quarterback, you’ve got a chance,” said Franklin. “We feel very, very good about the quarterback we have in our program right now.”

And Franklin should. Other than the head coach himself, there may be no one more integral to Franklin’s inaugural season success than the eldest of four sons of Erick and Nicole Hackenberg of Palmyra, Va.

In part, that’s because until last weekend's arrival of freshman IMGer Michael O’Connor, there was no other other scholarship QB on Penn State’s 2014 roster. But in larger part it is because Hackenberg is the one bona fide All-America candidate on the Nittany Lions’ 2014 roster.

Hackenberg was the Big Ten’s 2013 Freshman of the Year, throwing for nearly 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns, while leading Penn State to a pair of victories against Top 20 teams and engineering a pair of come-from-behind fourth-quarter comebacks that led to two overtime victories. He was Big Ten Freshman of the Week five times and was named to three freshman All-America teams. He threw for at least 200 yards nine times and at least 300 four times.

And The Kid kept on getting better and better. After a disastrous two-interception first quarter against Ohio State, Hackenberg looked like Bill O’Brien’s Brady Jr. most of the rest of the way. Over his final 155 throws of the 2013 season, Hack completed 94 passes (60.6%), but even more impressively threw nine TD passes and just two picks. Two.

And he’s big. At 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, he’s Linebacker U-sized. (In the old days, Joe Paterno might’ve tried to Jimkelly him – talk about moving him to LB; that’s one reason why Kelly went to The U.) Hack’s also Big, as a team leader despite his rookie status, and he’s also the BMOC, as he’s not only easily recognizable on a 46,000-student campus, but he’s a laid-back popular kind of guy, too.

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O’Brien, who both coached and argued with Tom Brady in New England, knew what he had in Hackenberg. Back in September 2012, the first-year Penn State coach allowed how he counted Hackenberg his private recruit, his daily 1B priority to the 1A of running his current team. Then, when Hack came to campus and started team workouts in August 2013, O’Brien very often superseded “official” QB coach Charlie Fisher on the practice field – markedly different than how Matt McGloin was coached in 2012, when Fisher often took the lead.

(This is the same Charlie Fisher that coached at Vanderbilt in 2002-2010, including a stint as Jay Cutler’s coach, up until Franklin became Vandy’s head coach in 2011. And the same Charlie Fisher who O’Brien fired a day after the 2013 season ended. Thirty days later, O’Brien fired Penn State, so NMW Hack probably would’ve had a new QB coach in 2014.)

Last fall, OB and Hack held private tutorials every Thursday afternoon inside Lasch, studying video and game plans for up to two hours. What followed were a dozen weekly exams, overseen by on-site proctors numbering 1,016,511 (PSU’s total 2013 home and away attendance). Hackenberg, an “A” student inside the classroom, passed with flying colors outside the classroom as well.

“He’s had a remarkable year,” O’Brien said at season’s end. “To come here as an 18-year-old freshman with such high expectations and to be able to learn this offense and do the things we have asked him to do, I think he got better every game. He’s got a chance to have a very special career at Penn State.”

But O’Brien will now only see it from afar. A new set of coaches is in the fold. They know what they’re getting in Hackenberg. But what is he getting from them?

Led by Franklin, three members of Penn State's new coaching staff will have a hand in shaping Hackenberg’s very promising future. If his three-year tenure at Vanderbilt is an indication, Franklin – a former college quarterback himself, at the D-II level -- will be heavily involved. With veteran and well-regarded D-coordinator Bob Shoop running the defense, at Vandy Franklin typically spent about two-thirds of his time with the offense, a decent chunk of that with the quarterbacks.

Where Franklin is especially hands-on with the signal-callers is in the meeting room, just as O’Brien was. That will be especially important this year, as Franklin rolls out his new offense. (The third offense in four years for vets like Zack Zwinak, Bill Belton and Miles Dieffenbach.) It also means Hackenberg, and all the Penn State players, will have to learn new terminology and sets. The onus will be primarily on Hackenberg, who must know not only his position, but everyone else’s on offense – as well as each week’s opposing defense.

Hackenberg’s task is made tougher by the departure of his top target, Allen Robinson, his No. 2 receiver in Brandon Felder and four of the 2013 Nittany Lions’ top six offensive linemen, including his center, 24/7 body guard and consiglieri, Ty Howle. In 2013, Robinson and Felder represented 46% of Penn State’s pass receptions and 56% of its passing yards.

So, Hackenberg must not only learn Franklin’s offense, but also be more in tune with returning wide receivers Geno Lewis (18 receptions), Richy Anderson (13) and Matt Zanellato (4).


These are the three guys who are going to help him do it:

James Franklin, head coach – At Vanderbilt (2011-13), Franklin was very involved in the quarterback play, the offensive game-planning and game-day offensive decision-making. Previously, Franklin was assistant head coach, offensive coordinator and QB coach at Maryland (2008-2010), where he developed the peripatetic Danny O’Brien (yes, the QB who almost transferred to Penn Sate in spring 2012). He also was the O-coordinator and QB coach at Kansas State (2006-07), where he coached Josh Freeman. Franklin was an excellent college QB at East Stroudsburg, twice all-conference, passing for 2,586 yards and 19 TDs as a senior. But how much time will he have for Hack? Given that it is Year One, Franklin’s time and attention will no doubt be diverted away from his team’s best player.

Ricky Rahne, quarterbacks coach – He will be Hackenberg’s primary guy. Rhane played QB at Cornell, where he was the team MVP three times and the school leader in most passing categories. He coached the Vandy quarterbacks the past three seasons, and his only QB coaching experience prior to that was one season as a GA, assisting Franklin in Kansas State.

John Donovan, offensive coordinator – He’ll have myriad duties and thus little hands-on coaching of Hackenberg. A DB at John Hopkins, he spent his first eight years in the business as a GA or assistant recruiting coordinator. He coached the Maryland quarterbacks the two seasons prior to Franklin’s arrival (2006-07), followed by a stint as the Terps’ running back coach (2008-10). During Franklin’s three years at Vandy, Donovan was O-coordinator and running backs coach.

Hackenberg must work hard to adjust to this new triumvirate and therefore continue his growth -- which is on a progression that could very well end as a Mel Kiper first-round projection for Draft Day 2017. Or, quite possibly, Draft Day 2016.

And amongst everything else those three new coaches must do, they also have a large challenge of their own -- summed up in these four words:

Make Christian Hackenberg better.

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Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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