Penn State Football: Hackenberg Making The Grade In O'Brien's Eyes
Penn State's true freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg has played 85 minutes and 36 seconds of Penn State football. So it's safe to say he really is fresh to the game at the Division I level.
Over those 85 minutes and 36 seconds Hackenberg's statistics benefit from a small sample size and a mixed bag of opponents. But one thing is abundantly clear, the kid might just be really good at football.
When Hackenberg committed to Penn State, fans saw him -- for better or worse -- as their personal guide through the thick haze of NCAA sanctions. For each handicap NCAA President Mark Emmert was going to throw at Happy Valley, Hackenberg would be there to will the Nittany Lions to another victory.
So far the ride has more or less gone the way fans have pictured it. A 2-1 record is respectable, and while the Nittany Lions were unable to beat a UCF squad on top of its game, Hackenberg was in large part responsible for turning an 18 point disadvantage into a narrow three point loss.
Realistically though it's too soon to anoint Hackenberg the next coming of Kerry Collins. His 851 yards, 71% completion rate and four touchdowns have all been impressive. But with the Big Ten schedule looming, the world will know more about Penn State's 18-year-old gunslinger soon enough.
Hackenberg's head coach? He's happy too. With three weeks under the belt Bill O'Brien gave Hackenberg passing marks for his development, efforts, and performances so far.
"I think he's improving with that every week," O'Brien says. "He's a self-confident kid. He's just got a really good demeanor. He's sure of himself. He knows he has good ability. He's a good person. He's a calm guy, which is great for me, because I'm not a calm guy. It's really good.
"Matt (McGloin) and I last year, sometimes obviously we had similar personalities. Christian is a calm guy and that's good. I think the team feeds off of that. The guys have a lot of confidence in him. Any time you're completing balls and running the offense the way he is right now, which is pretty decent, guys around you have confidence. That helps your whole role on the team, too. He'll continue to improve with that."
But even with all the hype and excitement, Hackenberg is still new at a lot of this. So while impressive, O'Brien sees plenty of room for improvement.
The four areas O'Brien wants to see improvement with?
1. Continuing to improve with his knowledge of the offense.
So far this season Hackenberg hasn't thrown the ball more than 33 times in a single game. That's a fair mark, but it's not the 40 and 50 pass attempt numbers that Matt McGloin saw last year. That's not a knock on Hackenberg. He's only been around a few weeks, but as he dives deeper and deeper into the playbook those numbers may slowly rise.
2. Continue to take it one play at a time, forget the poor play and move on to the next play.
Hackenberg has yet to make mistakes and compound them only a few plays later, but for any young athlete with so much pressure on his shoulders, it's easy to stay focused on the negatives. Much like learning the offense, it's something he can always get better at.
3. Manage the game.
In many ways the quarterback is the extension of the coach. Being able to manage the huddle and personnel is important. What is also important is the ability to manage the play and to learn the value of taking what the defense gives him.
"I would say as the games go on, he'll have a better idea of what I call the silent alarm," O'Brien says. "The silent alarm for a quarterback means as you drop back to pass, you have to know when the journey is over. If you think somebody is going to come open with a 6-5, 290 (pound) defensive end bearing down on you, you're probably wrong. You need to get rid of it or find a lane to scramble.
"At times he's done a good job of that. Found the opening, slid. At other times he's held the ball a little long. We always try to improve that. That will come naturally to him. That will get better and better for him, I believe."
That silent alarm O'Brien speaks of is on Hackenberg's mind too. The freshman has been laid out on his back a handful of times this season more by his own doing than the blocking of the offensive line.
"Just understanding to check the ball down," Hackenberg said. "And not to take as many sacks. That's something I feel like I'm slowly getting better with and I just have to continue to build on that."
4. Continue to take care of the ball.
Despite the loss, Hackenberg's performance this past weekend was his first without an interception. A small detail when the game still doesn't end up in the win column, but Hackenberg did his part and avoided unforced turnovers. However, similar to managing the game, taking care of the ball sometimes means just getting rid of it.
The good news for Hackenberg, O'Brien and fans; all of these things are areas Hackenberg can improve on without a whole lot of effort or radical change in how he approaches the game. As he grows and learns as a player he can focus more and more on the details of the next opponent rather than the basics of O'Brien's football philosophy.
"It's fun actually," Hackenberg says of his film sessions with O'Brien. "I look forward to going and learning what I can do better to help the team. That's ultimately the goal for the entire team."
So for now, it's full steam ahead for Hackenberg's development.
"We spend a lot of time in the off-season talking about our installation for spring practice and training camp," O'Brien says. "We definitely have day goals, this is what we want installed, we want the kids to know by day. We have weekly goals. Base defense, base offense, nickel defense, third down offense, red zone. We have a schedule there. Yeah, that's basically what we do.
"He stayed on schedule. He's a smart guy. He works at it. Like I always say, if you're taking five classes on campus, this is your sixth class, especially playing quarterback. At this point I'd give him a B."
What does Hackenberg give himself?
"Whatever he says I agree with," Hackenberg states, without a sliver of sarcasm in his voice.