Penn State quarterback Hackenberg expects to be better as sophomore
UNIVERSITY PARK — Despite the golden arm, five-star rankings and anointed savior status for the Penn State football program before arriving on campus last summer, Christian Hackenberg had to work to earn his teammates' trust.
Even as he gradually won them over while navigating a Big Ten Freshman of the Year season at just 18 years old, Hackenberg didn't stop impressing Nittany Lions players and coaches.
Yet after having one of the best seasons for a true freshman quarterback at the major-conference level in recent memory, Hackenberg isn't content. His teammates say they expect even better in 2014.
“Football-wise, he's 100 percent different,” tight end Jesse James said. “He learned a lot, and throughout the season he developed a lot as a player. You could see it on the field, off the field, when he was in meetings. From (last) August (through this past offseason), he just kept getting better and kept improving in all aspects.”
Penn State's first quarterback born after the Nittany Lions' entrance into the Big Ten, Hackenberg will have completed half of his eligibility while still a teenager.
Despite the recruiting accolades and national narrative surrounding him — he stuck with his commitment despite NCAA sanctions — Hackenberg was an unproven on-field quantity heading into last season.
Now, still just 19, Hackenberg is not only assured of a starting gig, but he casually is being referred to as one of the better quarterbacks in the country. ESPN.com named him the Big Ten's seventh-best player and No. 2 QB. Sports On Earth ranked him seventh among the nation's quarterbacks and the 36th-best player regardless of position.
Quite the expectations for a kid who was playing high school baseball less than 13 months before those lists came out.
Greatness from Hackenberg this season seems to be taken for granted so much that even James Franklin tacitly broke from typical head coach protocol when asked about improvements his young signal caller needed to make. While acknowledging Hackenberg's room for growth, PSU's first-year coach steered his answer to the quarterback's supporting cast.
“Our focus is on making sure that he's going to be able to do those things he can (if the Lions) get all the rest of the pieces of the puzzle in place,” Franklin said.
Usually polished and composed in speaking with the media, Hackenberg bristled when asked about the wealth of inexperience plaguing Penn State's offensive line and receiving corps.
“I'm not concerned at all,” Hackenberg said, his anger evident. “I work with these guys everyday all year, and I couldn't be more confident and couldn't be more proud to have guys around me.”
That type of passionate defense of his teammates is part of what has so endeared him to them.
“Christian is an awesome guy,” tight end Adam Breneman said. “When he walks into the huddle or walks in the media room or walks into a team function, he's just a guy who automatically has respect. That's because of who he is and what he stands for and how he carries himself. So he's a fun guy to play with.”
It's a lot more fun to play with a quarterback who, as position coach Ricky Rahne said, has the arm and talent to make every throw, the athleticism to extend and make plays with his feet and the aptitude to rely on to make the proper reads, calls and decisions before and during a play.
Still, most of all, if the answers you get from Hackenberg's teammates and coaches are any indication, it's Hackenberg's intangibles — not his physical and mental talents — that have won them over.
“Even though he's (19) still, he's one of the team leaders,” defensive captain Mike Hull said. “He gets the guys together. He's a hard worker. Everyone in the locker room respects him.”