Penn State Football: Part I, Q&A with Quarterback Christian Hackenberg
More often than not as a freshman quarterback for Penn State last season, Christian Hackenberg was fearless.
In the pocket, on the field, in post-game media crushes, walking The Mall as the most famous student on campus and in the film room with former head coach Bill O’Brien.
Hackenberg’s near-perfect storm of size, talent, poise and maturity resulted in a rookie season that earned him Big Ten Conference Freshman of the Year honors.
For good reason. He threw for 2,955 yards, while slinging almost 400 passes, with twice as many touchdown passes (20) as interceptions (10). Along the way, he led Penn State to a 7-5 record and improbable victories over 18th-ranked Michigan – a 43-40 four-overtime classic in Beaver Stadium -- and No. 14 powerhouse Wisconsin.
In the huge 31-24 upset against the Badgers in Madison in Penn State’s season finale, Hackenberg was not only fearless, but nearly flawless as well. He completed 21 of 30 passes for 339 yards, with four touchdown passes to three receivers, no interceptions and season-best completions of 68, 52 and 50 yards.
Nevertheless, as he enters his sophomore year at Penn State under first-year coach James Franklin, fear is what drives Hackenberg most of all. Not the kind you might think. It’s a motivation that is quite telling of the 19-year-old’s character, and it doesn't hinge on personal accolades.
The fear? Letting down his teammates. And it’s borne of the extraordinary, beyond-his-years loyalty that led Hackenberg to keep his commitment to Penn State as the nation’s No. 1 high school quarterback, even in light of the NCAA sanctions, and his commitment to stay at Penn State, even after O’Brien – Hackenberg’s own Yoda, of sorts – left for the NFL on New Year’s Eve.
Let him tell you: “I think that the biggest fear for me is letting down my teammates, and that’s one thing I always try and improve on and always work on.”
Hackenberg made those comments in a one-on-one interview we did at the end of spring, and are published here for the first time. We sat down in the offseason for the Q&A session, a portion of which appeared in the “We Are! 2014” Penn State preseason magazine from many of the Black Shoe Diaries folks, available now in digital form by ordering here.
What follows below, and in a second excerpt on Monday, are new and previously-unpublished excerpts from that interview. Today, we focus on Hackenberg’s thoughts on using that aforementioned fear as a motivator, the end of the 2013 season and the beginning of the 2014 campaign, playing in the zone, being a Penn State student and his relationship with the media. On Monday, the conversation will turn to the life and the legacy of a Penn State quarterback.
The learning curve in 2013:
"I think it happened when the season really kicked in and we really started Big Ten play. Michigan was huge. That was a huge moment for us as a team, and I think for me individually understanding how much one game can affect the total momentum of the season, how much one game can affect the fans’ respect for us as a team. Then it was a matter of going through that all the way up to Wisconsin -- where again we came out and played great against a fantastic team.
"Overall, it was understanding how much the fans really base their entire week on how well we do and how well we do as a team the whole football season. I think those two moments were big for me. Especially after Wisconsin I was feeling, 'All right, now it’s the next step. Take it to the next level with the guys. Get ready for next season and try to come back better and faster, stronger in every way.'"
In the zone during a game:
"Pregame you go out there, you feel the energy. It’s one of those things where I walked out in pregame and I always looked around. Feel the energy. Usually after the first two snaps it was there, but it’s not the same thing.
"I think the most comfortable you feel is when you are in that element, when you are playing football, you’re in the stadium. You’re focused on your assignment and trying to move the offense. You just get caught up in the game. Football is one of those things where there is so much going on. It’s very easy for you to get caught up in the game, caught up in that snap. Honestly, it’s weird. You’ll be tuned out. You’ll go out one series and you’ll get on the sidelines and maybe you’ll peek around a little bit. But then you’ll get back on the field, snap that chinstrap up. You’re back into that mode where it’s just balling it’s trying to get your team in the best situation to win.
"That’s one of those things that is comfortable. It’s a safe zone for you. Everything kind of just tunes out. You’re with your team, you’re with your coaches, you have people cheering for you and that’s how it is for me and when I feel the most comfortable."
"Both my parents were athletes. My uncles and grandfathers were all athletes … I grew up on the sidelines. My dad coached up here (in Pennsylvania). My grandfather coached up here. I was always the water boy and I saw things happen. I saw how people interacted and how devastating it could be if you knew you were the guy that could have made that play.
"That was always my biggest fear. It’s always a little frustrating when you see the fans or someone make a comment about you or your teammates and how you played. I think that the biggest fear for me is letting down my teammates, and that’s one thing I always try and improve on and always work on.
"You don’t want to be the guy always in trouble. You don’t want to be the guy running your mouth. You sure want to be the guy that if someone is in a situation, they’ll call you first. That's sort of how I take the approach to it. I want to be the guy that can lean on in any facet of life.
Penn State’s students:
"I love the kids here. We’re both in the classroom or going out to eat for the same reason. They respect that, they’ll say hi or ask for a picture. Anything that they need I’ll do for them, as long as it’s not absolutely outrageous. They’re like a family. A lot of people respect what I do and I respect what they do. It’s a mutual respect thing. There are not a lot of problems and it usually goes smooth. It’s always a good time meeting new people and seeing their look at the whole situation you know. You have the ability to understand that campus life isn’t that tough at all."
Walking across campus:
"I think it varies day to day. If we win, it’s a little different, and people are more excited. If you lose you want to keep it low a little bit, especially if you didn’t play super well. I had a couple of those last year. I think that the vast majority of the students understand what we go through on a day-to-day basis, and what we go through competing and playing college football. They have a lot of respect for that. Being able to go out and bounce back -- having good games, having bad games – they still give you the opportunity to do that.
"... I just try to put my head down and go. If someone comes up and talks to me, I'm cordial to them, talk to them, say hello. For me, it's trying to stay focused, trying to stay on an even keel ..."
Handling the media:
"My relationship with the media goes back to high school when I was being recruited. I think our class (of recruits at Penn State) took a lot of that heat. I was out in California when the sanctions first dropped. I was at the Elite 11, so my phone really wasn’t on and I was focused on football. I remember I landed in Richmond (Va.) with my dad and we were listening to the radio and it happened. That whole day we were just dealing with phone calls. It wasn’t even just to my cell phone. It was to my house, too.
"You learn how to cut that off, but you have to deal with it. I faced that throughout my junior year (of high school) and my senior year. People still doubted me, whether or not I was going to come here or not. I think dealing with the media goes back to that. When you come here and they start asking you about games and stuff it takes a little time. I think that it’s just sort of a game. I like it. It think it’s fun to go out there after a game to see what guys are really going to try to press a button and which guys have the right motives."
Any additional pressure in 2014:
"I think there is going to be more pressure on me. But for me, my mindset, it’s less. I feel more confident than I did last year, without a doubt – having been able to experience everything I experienced. It really helped being able to get a full off-season with my teammates and understand what they expect out of me and what I expect out of them, being able to get a spring (practice season) and now a summer (workout program).
"I’m going to be more confident. I’m not going to feel nearly as much pressure. That’s going to be good for us as a team. All of us, the ones that played last year, feel the same way. There is going to be a little more spotlight on the guys who played last year, with people wondering how we’re going to step up and play this year. Only time will tell."