STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- For two-and-a-half weeks after the season, Christian Hackenberg tried to get away from football.
He milled around his Virginia home, talked about school with his father and even bagged a deer while hunting. (“Meat in the freezer,” he said.) He relaxed. But, even then, he couldn’t stop thinking about the errant passes and missed opportunities of the 2014 season.
It didn’t matter whether he was in the woods or in his room. Eventually, those thoughts and regrets would come flooding back. But Hackenberg just laughed Wednesday afternoon recalling that “time off” because, even now, his mind still can’t stop replaying the negatives from last season.
And he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I like it,” Hackenberg said, “because you can picture that and you can go to the film room and then apply it. For me, I like it. It’s a good thing to have.”
The 20-year-old quarterback, who was deemed the program’s savior long before he ever stepped foot on campus, isn’t coming off an All-American season, or even an all-conference one for that matter. His 2014 numbers (12 TDs, 15 INTs) aren’t impressive, and his offense was the worst in the B1G in terms of scoring touchdowns. In other words, there are a fair number of mistakes to learn from.
Still, the junior’s talent is undeniable -- and it’s difficult to place those offensive struggles purely on his shoulders. Especially considering the offensive line allowed more sacks than all but six FBS teams.
“Last year Christian spent most of his time solving problems, running from problems, taking a lot of criticism, which I’m really, really defensive about,” coach James Franklin said. “To be honest with you, looking back at it, I’m a little angry that he faced some of the criticism that he did.”
During Wednesday’s practice, it wasn’t difficult to pick out the Nittany Lions’ starting quarterback. He was often referred to as “baby-faced” his freshman season, but not anymore. Hackenberg stood the tallest Wednesday, a full five inches more than walk-on Billy Fessler, and was 39 pounds heavier than the next-biggest signal-caller. His gait was confident, his arms noticeably thicker than his counterparts' and his arm strength evident during warm-ups.
When Hackenberg rolled out and tossed a 10-yard pass to a trainer, the man yipped when it hit his hands and bounced behind him. Hackenberg also nailed two bull’s-eyes on the net before walking back with his head down when he missed inches high and then inches to the right on the longest attempt.
Only the first 25 minutes of Penn State's seventh spring practice were open to the media, so reporters were asked to leave shortly afterward. But, according to at least one defender, Hackenberg hasn’t made it easy for them during the live drills.
“Playing across the ball from him isn’t easy,” defensive end Carl Nassib said. “He gets rid of the ball so fast. I timed up his passes; I think you need to get there in 2.2 seconds if you want to get a sack against that kid. So he’s doing a great job, and I’m impressed with him a lot. … He’s like a sponge.”
It’s a new season for Hackenberg and, as he sat in front of reporters Wednesday, he reiterated how this was a new situation. But in a positive way. This is the first time in his career he won’t have to open the spring by learning a new system. His receivers are more seasoned. He’s more mature.
And, with all the regrets still floating around his head, he wants to make sure this is a new beginning -- that he doesn’t repeat those same mistakes.
“I think it’s different for me in the sense that I now know what to expect what these guys want me to do and how they want me to operate, and now I can build off that,” Hackenberg said. “That’s the biggest thing for me -- just making sure I can build on things, mistakes or whatever it is.”