STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Defensive end C.J. Olaniyan pivoted toward his right last month and watched as reporters crowded around the Nittany Lions’ star quarterback. It was a scene Olaniyan had grown pretty used to over the past year.
He understood it, of course. Christian Hackenberg was the reigning Big Ten freshman of the year. A potential future No. 1 overall draft pick. A former five-star prospect. But, with his hands on his hips, Olaniyan paused for a moment, smiled and then – half-jokingly – made a statement that underscored the importance of Penn State's sophomore signal-caller.
“He’s got the hopes and dreams of everybody in his hands,” Olaniyan said.
Olaniyan wasn’t stone-faced or wholly serious during his assessment. But the ironic thing is he wasn't wrong. Penn State’s ceiling is only as high as Hackenberg’s ability. And Happy Valley is only happy so long as Hackenberg is launching touchdown passes.
The 19-year-old has taken a lot upon his shoulders in a short period of time. He was hailed as the program’s savior when he still roamed the halls of his military academy, when he kicked up dirt on the baseball diamond and waded into local streams for fly fishing. Now, fans’ hopes are pinned and piled on his young shoulders. ESPN ranked him as the 46th-best college player in the country; another site ranked him even higher.
Hackenberg isn’t deaf to the fan murmurs regarding his importance. But, on Monday, he reclined on a bench, relaxed and looked more like a man catching a tan than one whose every move will be judged and analyzed. Put simply, he knows the stakes – but, he insisted, feels no pressure.
“I mean, I really don’t feel it at all,” he said with a shrug. “I think the people that I look to the most are my teammates, my coaching staff and my family. So as long as I’m not letting those people down and they have confidence in me, then I have confidence in what we can do and what I can do.
“Again, I’m just another piece to a bigger puzzle. I’m just trying to do whatever I can to help this team win.”
There’s a different look about Hackenberg this preseason. He enrolled last summer and spent about four weeks with Bill O’Brien before making his first career start in the opener. He didn’t look lost, but he didn’t look wholly comfortable either. As a rookie, he was forced to listen instead of lead. Now that he knows the offense, that the game has slowed and his on-field I.Q. has increased, he’s prepared for the latter.
“The kid is unbelievable,” strength coach Dwight Galt said. “The kid’s been here 13 months – not only 13 months – and the way he acts, the way he carries himself, the way everybody respects him, you’d think he’s a fourth-year guy.”
Teammates notice that confidence and the way he’s able to deflect that pressure. Instead of them directing him, he’s the one offering up tips and advice. Cornerback Jordan Lucas watches the way Hackenberg “walks, the way he talks, the way he calls plays” and how that swagger has become routine. It’s what Penn State expects now.
That’s why Lucas said nothing Hackenberg does is unbelievable anymore. Nothing is “crazy.” It’s just one of those things.
“There’s just certain times you play perfect coverage and he just fits the ball in there just because he can,” Lucas said. “And a lot of quarterbacks can’t do what he does. It’s not crazy; he just wows me. I just can’t wait to see what he does this season.”
Most Penn State fans can’t wait either, since neither they nor the media have really been able to gauge Hackenberg's progress. James Franklin ushered reporters out of practice Monday before Hackenberg attempted a pass over 10 yards. And he didn’t air it out during the spring game either. So, until the opener, it’s only the players and coaches who can really speak to how far he’s come.
Luckily, they're not shy about praising the sophomore.
“From the time he got here until now, he’s a completely different quarterback,” tight end Jesse James said. “He’s always had a great arm, and he just keeps learning more and more about how defenses change. He just keeps getting better; it’s like his arm gets stronger every day.”
Added tight end Kyle Carter: “He’s a lot more confident. Last year in training camp, he was the new guy and all that. Now you can tell he’s a lot more confident in his game and where he stands with the team.”
Not that Hackenberg really pays mind to the compliments, or all the attention. He’s one of the most recognizable faces around campus – even after tailback and unofficial team barber Bill Belton cut his shaggy blond locks – but he’s trying to take it all in stride. There was the time, during the spring game autograph session, when an elderly woman tried to cross the ropes and plant her lips on the teenager. (PSU officials intervened just in time.) And then there are the countless times when, ball cap or not, students will stop him for a few words or a pat on the back.
But beneath his white visor Monday, Hackenberg smiled and said he felt no pressure. Maybe it was a foreign concept to him since his commitment in spite of 2012 sanctions led to an explosion of media coverage. Maybe, just like the passing ability Lucas alluded to, the “crazy” has simply become routine.
“But does anything make Christian Hackenberg nervous?” one reporter asked.
“I don’t like public speaking,” he said. “I don’t like getting up and talking in front of classes, you know? It’s weird. Like my CAS 100 [Effective Speech] class, getting up and talking. I don’t really like that.”
“But you’re fine with this, talking to the media, and playing in front of 107,000 people?”
“Yeah, I don’t know,” Hackenberg said, nodding. “I can’t diagnose that for you. It’s just one of those things.”