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Penn State Football’s Quarterback WAR: How Many Wins is Hackenberg Worth?

by on March 14, 2014 1:15 AM

Editor's Note: This is the first in a series previewing Penn State football, part of StateCollege.com's 29-day countdown of insight and analysis about head coach James Franklin and his team heading into the Blue-White Game on April 12.

In its 127 years of football, Penn State has never had a franchise player like quarterback Christian Hackenberg is set to become in 2014.

Not just a great player, but one who so ultimately, individually, determines the Nittany Lions’ fate in nearly every game.

Sure, Cappy had a defense that gave up 33 points in their first six games. But that was combined.

Blackledge had Warner -- but Warner also had Blackledge. The 1994 squad had the entire 1994 squad. Reid made beautiful music with Smear and Onkotz and Pittman and Smith and Kwalick.

LBU had both Arrington and Short. Then Poz and Connor. Then Connor and Lee. Then Lee and Bowman.

But, likely, it will be Hackenberg who will stand alone in this, the nadir of Penn State’s Sanction Era. Churchill said it, but by Nov. 29 @coachjfranklin may Tweet it: “Never was so much owed by so many to so few.”

Hackenberg, the Big Ten’s Freshman of the Year in 2013, is the most important player for new head coach James Franklin in 2014. There may be 15 starters returning from last season’s 7-5 team, but no one who’s back is more pivotal than Hack.

TROUT FISHING WITH CHRISTIAN

Look at it this way: Hackenberg is the equivalent of Los Angeles phenom Mike Trout. Times five.

In baseball, a key statistic is a player’s WAR – Wins Above Replacement. It’s how much better a player is than the one with whom his team would replace him. Simply put: How many extra games does his team win because he’s in the lineup – and not his replacement. With Hackenberg in 2014, that number has to be three, maybe four. (Did I hear five?)

In Major League Baseball, Trout ranked No. 1 in WAR in both 2012 (as a rookie), with 10.9 wins, and in 2013, with 9.0 – both stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com. The best MLB WAR in the past century came in 1923, when Babe Ruth was a 14.0 after batting .393, with 41 home runs and 131 RBI in the year the house he built was opened.

Christian is Penn State’s Babe. And then some. Trout meant 6.7% more wins for the Angels in 2012. Ruth meant 8.6% more wins for the Yankees in 1923. Hackenberg could mean 25%, even 33% more wins, for the Nittany Lions in 2014.

Don’t scoff. If Tyler Ferguson had been in the lineup against Michigan or Wisconsin (or even Illinois) in 2013, do you think Penn State would have won? (Of course, you can say the same thing about Allen Robinson in the Michigan game … and maybe others, beginning with Syracuse.)

Spring practice begins Monday for the Nittany Lions. Hackenberg will be the guy in the red jersey. On the practice field, in the dining hall, walking along The Mall. While no man is an island – as Darrelle Revis found out when he was cut this week – Hackenberg would be the toughest Nittany Lion to replace if he got hurt. God forbid.

That’s not to demean the importance of Nittany Lions Adrian Amos to Zach Zwinak and even Michael (Hull and) Jordan (Lucas) himselves. Each could single-handedly bring Penn State a victory, maybe even two, in 2014. But Hack could almost bring a handful. And he will need to.

GOING TO WAR: BY HOOK OR BY CROOK

Consider his backups. Behind Ferguson last year were three freshmen walk-ons – D.J. Crook, Jack Seymour and Austin Whipple. None played a snap in 2013. Hackenberg threw 392 passes and ran the ball 49 times, finishing with 2,995 passing yards, 20 TD passes, four TD runs and seven victories. Crook finished No. 3 on the depth chart in 2013 after a high school career where he threw for 8,126 yards and 77 touchdowns. Whipple had shoulder surgery last year, while Seymour is the biggest (6-2, 203) of the group.

It’s very likely, though, that freshman Michael O’Conner, who enrolled in January, will be Hackenberg’s WAR standard-bearer, if need be. An Under Armour All-America Game selection, O’Conner threw for 1,804 yards and 18 TDs for IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., last season. As an ESPN Top 300, he was hand-picked by Bill O’Brien. Finally, there’s Trace McSorley, a Franklin do-everything QB recruit who took Briar Woods High School to four straight state championships, winning three.

They’re potential replacements with promise. Or is that promising replacements with potential? No matter. In the WAR on the college football field, what they don’t have is experience.

“Christian didn’t have any (experience) this year and he turned out all right,” Penn State quarterback coach Ricky Rahne told me back in January. “Eventually you have to start your first game, you have to play in your first game, take your first snap. So it’s critical that I find out their strengths and weaknesses, and find out what they’re comfortable with – that means everyone in the (QB meeting) room. That way I know, so if they’re in the game, I can say these are some of our go-to things. And what are you comfortable with for us to be a successful as a team? It’s all about comfort.”

“Wouldn’t praying help, too?” I asked, barely kidding.

Rahne didn’t bite.

“I’m pretty confident in my ability and the guys’ ability underneath him that they’re ready to go in there and play if something happens to him,” said Rahne, a Cornell grad who held almost every Big Red passing record when he graduated.

“Knowing Christian – and what a great kid he is – that’s the main reason I don’t want him to get hurt," Rahne continued. "I have a lot of confidence in my ability and coach Franklin’s ability and the guys in that locker room.”

In other words, they’re all in this WAR together.

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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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