STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Christian Hackenberg's life will change in two weeks.
He is still at least a year away from starting his NFL career, but when the names of Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota are called and the 2015 NFL draft ends, the year-long 2016 NFL draft process begins. That, then, is the moment that Hackenberg becomes the most scrutinized player in football.
Penn State will not enter the fall in the top 25, nor will it play many high-profile games, but 2015 serves as Hackenberg's possible redemption tour in the national spotlight. He did not finish in the top 100 in passer rating last year. He threw more interceptions (15) than touchdowns (12) and took 44 sacks in 13 games for the nation's No. 113 scoring offense, which was one of the worst offenses in Penn State history. It is unlikely that any of this will matter, because he has the skill set to re-establish himself as the first quarterback taken in the NFL draft anyway. The struggles of last year could turn out to be part of the journey, rather than any sort of indictment of his football potential.
"He's a competitive son of a gun. He wants to win," Penn State offensive coordinator John Donovan said. "We've got a great relationship. I think he likes some of the things we're doing right now. We've had a couple new wrinkles we did in the spring ... I think that him being the third year in the system and now being a veteran instead of being thrust into maybe a veteran spotlight a little bit before he should have been or whatever, I think he's just going to grow from that. So he's been great. The guys obviously respect the hell out of him."
On Saturday, in Penn State's annual Blue-White spring scrimmage, we saw what we've come to expect from Hackenberg: occasional brilliance, with one of the best arms in the country, but also unreliable offensive line play and a few poor decisions. As in all spring games, the game plan was vanilla, and few concrete conclusions could actually be drawn. We saw shades of 2014, with those glimpses of franchise quarterback talent mixed in.
Hackenberg was initially expected to play only a series or two, according to coach James Franklin, but backup Trace McSorley sat out for undisclosed reasons, forcing Hackenberg to play nearly the entire game with only one other scholarship quarterback on the roster. He completed 17 of 29 passes for 181 yards with a touchdown and an interception -- playing for the winning Blue team largely against second-teamers on the White squad -- and had a few positive runs offset by five sacks that netted him -22 rushing yards. The sacks weren't actually sacks, as Hackenberg was shielded from being hit in the scrimmage, yet he still ended up with the closest thing to an injury scare of the day, causing an estimated 68,000 fans in attendance to collectively hold their breath for an instant.
This is a relentlessly physical sport, but every little wince from a franchise quarterback like the 6-foot-4, 236-pound Hackenberg is treated like a potential emergency. Hackenberg bobbled a snap in the second quarter and got tripped up when trying to drop back, then limped away and rubbed his ankle. In the end, it was nothing. In the moment, and after the game, it was subjected to attention anyway. Hackenberg abruptly dismissed any questions about it, as did Franklin and Donovan.
Right after the brief scare, he fired a couple of passes that many quarterbacks can't make -- the types that have the NFL's attention -- hitting quick strikes into tight windows, first to tight end Kyle Carter, then to wideout DaeSean Hamilton. The next play, he scrambled and forced a pass downfield into coverage, narrowly avoiding an interception.
In only a few minutes, the full range of emotions related to the most prized Penn State quarterback -- and therefore player -- in years revealed itself: terror over any possible injury, giddy joy over pinpoint passes into tight windows and dismay at the Favre-ian attempts to do too much.
Hackenberg's college career continues under unique circumstances, especially for a Penn State team that had been the model of stability for decades before the Jerry Sandusky scandal of 2011. Last season was the worst of Penn State's depth crisis thanks to NCAA sanctions, with available scholarship players in the 40s for much of the season. While the full allotment of 85 scholarships and bowl eligibility have been restored by the NCAA, it will still take time for Penn State to rebuild the depth of a typical FBS program.
Last year also brought an abrupt coaching change. A big part of the reason Hackenberg is at Penn State is Bill O'Brien, but O'Brien left for the NFL's Houston Texans after Hackenberg's stellar freshman season in which he completed 58.9 percent of his passes for 2,955 yards with 20 touchdowns and 10 picks. The hiring of Franklin to replace O'Brien was praised because of Franklin's recruiting prowess and success at Vanderbilt, but another new staff brought both a different system and a very different personality. Hackenberg, who had been treated as the next big thing since his high school days, was thrust into a nearly unwinnable role amid all the change and all the problems as Penn State's new coaches had to try to scrap together a sustainable two-deep, let alone be concerned about fielding a winning team.
Given the circumstances, it was impossible to figure out how to spread the blame for the frequently sloppy offense during 7-6 season in which the wins were fueled mostly by one of the nation's stingiest defenses. The patchwork young offensive line with limited options certainly bore the brunt of criticism, because it gave Hackenberg limited time, restricted the offense and struggled to open holes for the run game. The play calling of Donovan and the game management of Franklin were both criticized too, as was Hackenberg himself. When everything looks bad, everybody gets blamed. That's especially true for the starting quarterback, and by no means should Hackenberg avoid any responsibility, because he certainly was not always sharp.
Most of the blame directed Hackenberg's way was unfair or exaggerated, though. While he made poor decisions and also occasionally reacted poorly to the offense's struggles, few prized quarterbacks have ever been subjected to the combination of inexperience and thin depth that Hackenberg had to deal with on the offensive line in front of him (not to mention almost an entirely new receiving corps). Frustrations mounted, and Hackenberg -- who turned 20 years old after the season -- got caught up in the middle of it, with spurts of unwatchable offense occasionally redeemed by moments of brilliance, capped by the phenomenal finish against Boston College in a comeback win in the Pinstripe Bowl.
All of last year's scrutiny of Hackenberg's game, as well as his reactions to the mistakes made by himself and teammates, will be amplified this year, moving from the local level to the national level, when the NFL draft spotlight begins shining on him, along with other potential top quarterbacks like Cardale Jones, Connor Cook and Cody Kessler. Hackenberg, Jones and Cook are all trying to be the first Big Ten quarterback drafted in the first round since Penn State's Kerry Collins in 1995.
"I'm not really worried about that," Hackenberg said when asked about the draft and this possibly being his last college season. "I just and go out and play as hard as I can and make sure that I do my role in making sure that I put my team in the best situation to win football games and make sure I get everyone else around me to play up to that level and do the same. So that's what I'm focused on."
Despite a favorable schedule that could eventually put Penn State in the top 25, with the right breaks, Hackenberg does not have a playoff-type team like Mariota and Winston did and he won't have their Heisman Trophy hype. He also does not draw the off-the-field attention of a controversial player like Winston, either. The scrutiny will undoubtedly be different. He is a hyped quarterback trying to match that hype in a tricky situation.
Right now, while the receiving corps shows great promise (sophomore Saeed Blacknall starred in the scrimmage, including on a perfect 41-yard over-the-shoulder throw by Hackenberg), we don't know how much better Hackenberg's supporting cast will be, especially with the offensive line still facing serious questions. It returns four starters, but left tackle Donovan Smith -- the most stable part of last year's line -- left early for the NFL, creating a gaping hole that may be filled by junior college transfer Paris Palmer. Depth will at least be better, but growing pains aren't going to suddenly disappear.
"Grading our quarterbacks, grading our running backs in a lot of ways is difficult to do at this point," Franklin said, "until we get our offensive line playing a little more consistently and a little more aggressively, and a little more cohesiveness as a group."
The context of the offensive line's struggles hovers over everything, but that's not going to stop everyone from grading every moment of Hackenberg's season anyway. As we near kickoff in September, the focus will be on the star quarterback who has shown many flashes of his potential without fully realizing it yet. It will be on the college junior trying to atone for a sophomore slump and prove that last year's problems don't preclude him from going on to college and NFL stardom. It will be on the quarterback with two years available possibly trying to send his team out on a winning note before potentially leaving early.
"His leadership is right on schedule," Franklin said. "I see him interacting with his teammates a lot more. I see him interacting with his coaches a lot more. I think where you're really going to see it is this offseason when the coaches are on the road; coming into the locker room, watching film on his own and with the receivers, with the O-line and talking protections, going out and throwing on their own. I think that's where you're really going to see the big step with him is this offseason, taking ownership of the team."
It is a new year, a chance to live up to the hype that his followed him since his days as a prototypical five-star pocket passer in high school. The last time we saw Hackenberg in a meaningful game, he played one of the best games of his life, completing 34 of 50 passes for 371 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions to win that Pinstripe Bowl. We have seen plenty of flashes of that Hackenberg -- last year's opener against UCF, plus sporadic big-time drives and last-minute-heroic moments that showcase a knack for making plays in the clutch -- but in December, a few weeks removed from a painful regular season, it felt like a statement game to remind us that, yes, this still might be the most talented pure passer returning to college footbal, regardless of what last year's numbers said.
The face of this Penn State team could go on to become the face of the next NFL draft. Hackenberg is already well adjusted to the spotlight, and he's already a pro at brushing off the questions, but with spring practice ending and a spotlight season about to begin, life will never be the same. For Hackenberg, everything has been building toward 2015.
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