Penn State Football: O'Brien Confident In Hackenberg's Ability To Ignore The Noise
There's no way around it. The second most famous person on Penn State's campus is 18 years old.
Christian Hackenberg was famous before he ever called Happy Valley home. Being one of the nation's top high school quarterback prospects made the Virginia native a point of national interest just by doing things. A role on a weekly ESPN special about elite high school quarterbacks, scrimmages televised on national TV and recruiting sites heaping on accolades and awards.
Couple that with the fact that Hackenberg stayed committed to Penn State through the most trying year in university history, and it's easy to see how he could become so beloved by fans before ever stepping on the field in a Penn State uniform.
The result is something Penn State as a program has very rarely dealt with: The big man on campus is also one of the youngest on campus. There are close comparisons, but no Penn State player has quite walked in shoes that Hackenberg has put on only a few weeks ago.
Former Nittany Lions and quarterback Anthony Morelli is probably the closest parallel to Hackenberg, both coming to Penn State as highly rated quarterbacks. But Morelli never saw significant action until he started his junior and senior seasons. His career as a starter included two bowl victories and respectable back-to-back 9-4 record seasons but he never lived up to his own hype.
Larry Johnson Jr, the 2002 Maxwell Award winner, didn't burst on to the scene until his senior season only pleading for more playing time the first three years. Years of on and off field issues saw Johnson spend more time in the doghouse than the endzone before finally becoming the feature back.
Penn State's only Heisman winner John Cappelletti was a defensive back his first two years as a Nittany Lion before making the switch to running back.
Highly touted receiver recruit Derrick Williams played his freshman year but the pressures of a skill position are significantly different than that of a quarterback.
The above examples had to do with the way former head coach Joe Paterno handled freshmen. Generally, he was against starting or even playing freshmen unless he had to. Paterno was a firm believer in letting young talent transition to college before throwing them on the field. It was a reasonable stance, but one that occasionally kept talented players off the field.
"At some schools," Paterno wrote in 1989, "A freshman plays his first game before he attends his first class. He's surrounded so immediately by athletes and gets immersed so fast in a training schedule, he has almost no chance to form friendships with other students, particularly in a school where he is segregated in an athletic dorm."
And while Hackenberg has seen the field, the same issues and concerns that Paterno had are very much on the mind of current head coach Bill O'Brien.
"That's something I think about a lot," O'Brien said of his true freshmen quarterback's sudden fame and status in State College. "Eighteen years old, being the starting quarterback at Penn State, that's a big deal everybody understands that. He's a guy that's very calm, he has a cool demeanor, school is important to him. He won't miss a class."
"I don't think he's a guy where his head is all over the place. He's very focused on whatever the task is that needs to be accomplished. He has shown me to date that he can get it done. He doesn't really let that other stuff enter in. And hopefully we can continue to talk about staying focused and winning the day and taking it one day at a time and hopefully it'll continue to be that way."
Fortunately for Hackenberg he has a least one teammate that can help him live through the young and famous lifestyle. Tight end Adam Breneman carries an almost equal amount of fame with him although his time on the field has been more limited than his counterpart's.
"I definitely talk to (Hackenberg) about that," O'Brien said. "But you know there are other guys like that too in that freshman class. Like Breneman. That's recruiting though, they're all on those recruiting websites and those kids haven't done anything yet in college. Once they get to campus they're rock stars which is ridiculous when you think about it because they haven't done anything yet on the football field in college to deserve that."
"Obviously Adam and Christian are playing games and obviously Christian has done pretty well. I'm not with them on campus but I do talk to them every single day, two or three times a day about things like class and football and keep your head down and keep working and don't worry about all the stuff on campus. The biggest thing is to get off to a great start academically and play as best you can on Saturdays and I think he has taken that to heart."
For better or worse Hackenberg's fame will only grow as he succeeds during his career at Penn State. His two outstanding performances in the first two weeks of the season have done little to quiet the building hype around him. There will be inevitable bumps in the road, but the growing "Hack City" meme in Hackenberg's honor -- a nod to a popular hip-hop song -- it isn't a far cry from "Johnny Football" and the larger-than-life persona of Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M that was created during his freshman year.
Certainly, Manziel having won a Heisman trophy is a substantial difference between the Aggie QB and Hackenberg and there is no reason to suspect that divide with vanish over night. There is also no reason to think a few victories and decent performances will change Hackenberg into what has become the perceived caricature of Manziel.
Even so, as the legend of Christian Hackenberg grows, O'Brien's ability to mentor and guide Hackenberg through the unavoidable hurdles of fame and success will be crucial.
Because really, Penn State football has never seen someone quite like Christian Hackenberg.