Penn State QB Hackenberg more comfortable, prepared for sophomore opener
Three-hundred sixty-four days after making his college debut in an NFL stadium that would host the Super Bowl months later, Penn State's Christian Hackenberg opens his second season in an even more unlikely venue.
Now established as one of the Big Ten's top quarterbacks, Hackenberg concedes he'll be much more comfortable and confident on the rugby pitch of Dublin's Croke Park than he was to begin a muggy afternoon Aug. 31, 2013, at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
“It was a little bit different feeling last year than it'll be this year. I can definitely say that,” Hackenberg said. “Just the total understanding of the game, defenses, (having) confidence in our scheme. All that's probably a big difference from last year to this year. I also think I have improved my fundamentals a little bit — my drops and my release, just continuing to tweak those things to become more accurate.”
Hackenberg was about as on-the-mark as anyone could have reasonably expected last season as a freshman weeks removed from high school graduation when his season began.
Heading into this opener, which kicks off 8:30 a.m. Saturday against Central Florida, Hackenberg has the benefit of not only a year of body maturity but also of experience at the major-college level. Plus, Hackenberg went through spring practice for the first time.
Even with a new coaching staff and slightly different scheme, Hackenberg said he's better prepared for the start of this season.
On the same afternoon Hackenberg was throwing for 278 yards and two touchdowns — but also throwing two interceptions — in beating Syracuse in the Meadowlands, John Donovan was two days removed from opening the season as the offensive coordinator for Vanderbilt.
Part of the James Franklin staff that moved from Nashville, Tenn., to State College, Donovan didn't know Hackenberg — other than being on the periphery of recruiting one of the country's top prospects.
He's happy to work with him now.
“He's been exactly what we hoped he would be,” Donovan said of Hackenberg. “He's a very talented kid with a lot of ability, but he's a very hard worker, too. He studies the game. He loves the game. He's been a great leader with the guys.
“He's everything we want on and off the field as far as what you expect at that position. It's not just talent; it's that you take pride in the work ethic and how you lead the team. With him, that's been great.”
Hackenberg said being voted the first sophomore co-captain in Penn State history is a true honor.
“I have a ton of respect for each and every one of the guys in the locker room, and I feel like they feel the same way about me.”
Polite, well-spoken and savvy enough to say the right things when speaking with the media, Hackenberg presents a maturity beyond his age (19).
His teammates have noticed, too. How could they not? Hackenberg seems at ease approaching any of Penn State's players — regardless of position, age or seniority level.
“I like to pick someone's brain, whether it be a wide receiver or even a D-lineman or a linebacker or safety,” Hackenberg said. “The more you understand the other and what they have to do — both offensively and defensively — the better understanding you have for the game.”