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Penn State Football: QB Greats Blackledge, MRob Sing Praises of Christian Hackenberg

by on June 08, 2014 11:50 PM

There is a good amount of Todd Blackledge in Christian Hackenberg.

And by good, we mean great.

And by great, we mean legendary.

No Penn State quarterback has won more games than Blackledge (his 29 wins is tied by Tony Sacca).

And it was Blackledge who quarterbacked the Nittany Lions to their first national championship, along the way throwing for four TD passes in three consecutive games and making crucial fourth-quarter throws to beat Nebraska and Georgia.

From 1980 to 1982, Blackledge was big, strong, exceedingly smart on and off the field. He excelled under pressure. Savvy with the media, he deflected praise and accepted responsibility. The son of a football coach, Blackledge knew the game like few others, mastering the unique physical and oft-underrated psychological demands that go with being a big-time college quarterback.

In many ways, Blackledge and Penn State sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg seem to be simpatico.

‘“Well, thanks for saying that,” Blackledge said sincerely when that observation was shared with him a few weeks ago. “I think he’s pretty special.” 

So do a number of other Penn State greats. In addition to Blackledge, I had the opportunity recently to talk with such Penn Staters as Michael Robinson, Wally Richardson and the newly-retired Spider Caldwell to get their take on Hackenberg.

Hackenberg heads into the 2014 season as Penn State’s undeniable leader and one of the top-ranked quarterbacks in the Big Ten Conference, if not the country. Still, Blackledge is being humble. He was picked in the first round of the NFL Draft and received the NCAA Silver Anniversary Award, given to just six honorees a year. Today, he is one of college football’s most respected television analysts.

But while Hackenberg had a 2,955-yard, 20-touchdown pass season worthy of his Big Ten Freshman of the Year award, he has a long way to go until he matches Blackedge’s lifetime accomplishments. It is interesting to note, though, that the season passing efficiency numbers were almost identical for Blackledge’s last Penn State season (134.23, 1982) and Hackenberg’s first (133.98, 2013). 

Blackledge played seven years in the NFL and has broadcast college football for two decades. He likes what he’s seen of Hackenberg, who he met last season while doing a Penn State game.

“I think the best part from everything I’ve heard about him is he has that ‘want,’ ” Blackledge said. “You know, he really wants to be great, he wants to be coached, he wants to grow and improve. So I think he has a real, real bright future.”

LIONS’ PRIDE: A SHARED VIEW 

That’s the view from a Penn State QB from the 1980s. Richardson and Robinson, Nittany Lion starting quarterbacks in the 1990s and 2000s, respectively, echo those sentiments. Richardson, 21-5 as a starter in 1992 and ’94-95, has a front row seat from which to watch Hackenberg. He is director of the Penn State Football Lettermen’s Club, but makes it clear that he stays in the background when it comes to the current QB.

“Am I going to talk to him about playing quarterback?” Richardson laughed. “I’m not going to try to find a way to screw things up for him.” 

Last season, while Robinson was out of the NFL for several weeks due to an illness, he returned to Happy Valley for the Michigan game. The day before the game, MRob  addressed the team and had the chance to spend a few minutes with Hackenberg. Robinson, who led Penn State to an 11-1 record and No. 3 ranking in 2005, knows what it takes to succeed in both Beaver Stadium and The League, where he played for eight seasons.

“Oh my God, Hackenberg’s good,” gushed Robinson. “I really didn’t see Kerry (Collins) in his heyday. I’ve only seen film and things like that, but … wow, Christian probably could be the best one out of all of them to come out of there.”

Then there’s Caldwell, who this month completes a distinguished 31-year as Penn State’s equipment manager. He has fitted helmets and served as father confessor for dozens of Nittany Lion quarterbacks, including 21 starters – among them Richardson (No. 9), Robinson (No. 16) and Hackenberg (No. 21).

“Christian’s a true sophomore,” Caldwell said a few weeks ago. “It’s just incredible.”

Here’s more of what the quartet had to say about Hackenberg: 

TODD BLACKLEDGE

I was there to do a game (in 2013) and met Christian on the practice field. And I talked to him briefly a couple times. I really like his demeanor. I really like his presence. Certainly I like his skill and his talent level. And I think he’s kind of got that … got a little bit of that ‘it’ factor, that ability to make some plays.

“I remember he didn’t have a great game against Ohio State last year -- of course none of them did. I did that game, but I watched very closely the film of the Michigan game, two weeks before they played Ohio State. I was really impressed with some of the throws he made in that game that an average guy is just not going to make. First of all, an average guy is not going to take the chance to put the ball where he did. And secondly, an average guy doesn’t have the talent to make those kinds of throws. He impressed me with that.”

MICHAEL ROBINSON

“I’ve never seen a freshman who’s more mature. I’ve never seen a freshman who had that much command over a team. When we talked I didn’t feel like I was talking with an 18-year-old kid. I felt like I was speaking to a peer. Christian’s mature beyond his years – and that’s what is going to sustain him in the league.

“God willing, barring any injuries, I think he’s an NFL talent. What’s going to sustain him is his leadership ability, his decision-making ability, his maturity. It’s all those things you can’t put on paper.”

WALLY RICHARDSON

“I think Christian did an admirable job (last season), especially with the type of offense those guys ran. When I was in school, we were pretty vanilla. We probably could have some guys from the ’70s recognize plays that we ran, like, ‘That’s 642.’ It wasn’t all that complicated. We just had a lot of great players making the plays work.

“Everything Christian was doing as far as directing protections, knowing your hots, was beyond his years. For someone who is 18 and just got out of high school is very impressive, especially with the pro offense. He didn’t go up to the line and the play was the play. He had to check out of a lot of things. He had to be familiar with what was going on. That’s a credit to him and credit to Bill (O’Brien) for helping him understand what was going on and play at the level he played last year.”

SPIDER CALDWELL

“It’s impressive. I would assume the military academy that he went to really helped him. And his dad, his parents -- he comes from a really good family. I think he’s had a good foundation and a great starting point.

“Christian impresses me. He had that charisma coming in even with all those pressures on him. He came out of high school hugely hyped and everything. He is handling it so much better, I feel, than any of the other guys who had to play early. I don’t want to put those guys down, but I’m just so impressed with him.

“In our squad meetings, Coach (James) Franklin will ask a player who’s the ultimate teammate. A player will blurt out a name. Everyday Coach Franklin will ask one of the guys what makes an ultimate teammate. It’s being the Penn State kind of kid. Goes to class and doesn’t get in trouble off the field, not late, gives a 110% on the field. That’s the ultimate teammate to him.

“Every time they say that, Christian pops in my head.”

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Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979. He is a senior lecturer in Penn State's College of Communications and teaches a pair of classes in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism: “Sports Writing” and “Introduction to the Sports Industry.” He created and taught for several years the Center’s course on “Joe Paterno, Communications and The Media.” Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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