STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Christian Hackenberg pulled his Penn State ballcap close to his eyes, furiously chewing a blue stick of gum while the media peppered him with the same questions he has heard since September.
How could he go from Big Ten freshman of the year to throwing twice as many interceptions (14) as touchdowns (7)? Why is his offense averaging a touchdown less per game compared to 2013? Whatever happened to the Hackenberg of old?
“There’s not a quarterback in the country that can come out and play a perfect game every week,” he said Saturday.
He’s not wrong. But Happy Valley is still growing impatient with the player it anointed as the program’s savior when he was a high schooler. One local radio station recently debated the merits of benching the team captain. Others have hurled countless insults on Twitter: “Hackenberg sucks.” “He’s just awful.” “Just sit Hackenberg already.”
But, according to opposing coaches, a former scout and Hackenberg’s past coaches, all of that criticism greatly misses the mark. Stats and mistakes tell only part of the story, they said, and Hackenberg’s talent and draft stock haven’t dropped off, even if casual observers believe otherwise.
“No, it hasn’t dampened at all,” said Dan Shonka, one-time scout for the Philadelphia Eagles, Kansas City Chiefs and Washington Redskins who now runs Ourlads.com. “You’re talking about a guy who’s really smart and is mentally alert. He’s a good athlete. He’s durable, he’s tough, he’s made big plays in the past. And just look at his arm strength, quickness and delivery. You can go right on down the line.”
That ability hasn’t always been on display this season. But the quarterback position isn’t a solution to a struggling offense inasmuch as it’s the product. Last season, Hackenberg thrived with an experienced offensive line and the two-time Big Ten receiver of the year in Allen Robinson. This year, Hackenberg is struggling with the thinnest line in the Power 5 and with an exceedingly young crop of wideouts. That correlation is no coincidence.
His 37 sacks this season are tied for second-most in the FBS and are the most for a Power 5 signal-caller. And, according to ESPN Stats & Info, he’s under pressure at a rate 15-percent higher than the Power 5 average. The reality off that stat sheet is even starker, too, considering Hackenberg has been forced to throw the ball earlier to avoid said pressure.
“It’s the line. It’s all the line,” one opposing coach said. “We could see going in that he was taking a ton of hits, and big hits. He just can’t operate like he wants to with so much pressure.”
Hackenberg could only peel himself off the turf so many times before the frustration mounted. Against Maryland, following some drives, he’d angrily unbuckle his chin strap, jog over to the sideline – and then start shouting at Penn State’s offensive coordinator. During one sequence, he placed his hands on his hips and just stared at an assistant coach. At other points, he’d gesture and point until the frustration simmered down.
Even earlier in the season, during Week 2, Hackenberg grabbed the white phone on the sideline and it went viral when he appeared to mouth, “I don’t know what the f--- we’re doing.”
“It’s just being competitive,” Hackenberg explained after the 20-19 loss to Maryland.
But Hackenberg’s struggles aren’t especially surprising, scouts and coaches said, because the struggles haven’t started with him. He can’t step up in the pocket because two of his offensive guards were smacking around ball-carriers as defensive tackles in February. He’s a pro-style quarterback who has been forced to operate more out of the shotgun. And his high football IQ is countered by the fact the second-youngest team in the nation is still adjusting to a new system; he’s not even allowed to audible out of every play.
In other words, to some extent, he has been handicapped.
“More than anything, he’s a guy that is trying really hard to make plays,” said former Penn State quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher, who taught Hackenberg last season. “And sometimes you can force yourself, or try harder than normal to make plays, and we’ve all seen that before. I mean, Brett Favre threw more picks than anybody. That’s not just Christian Hackenberg.
“He’s a major, major talent. What really stuck out to me is how quickly this kid learned the offense and what we were doing. You don’t see that a lot with a younger player.”
One Big Ten coach after another has taken turns praising the sophomore signal-caller this season, in spite of the performances. It hasn’t just been lip-service because it has been so consistent. Brady Hoke and Pat Fitzgerald both called him one of the nation’s best quarterbacks. Randy Edsall and Kyle Flood both lauded him as a rare talent. Urban Meyer called him “an NFL quarterback,” and Kevin Wilson referred to him as “one of the better players in the conference.”
They continue to compliment Hackenberg – even when not directly asked about him – because no quarterback, no matter how elite or mature, can operate at a high level without an average offensive line. Even professionals. Drew Brees’ production has dropped off this season – and the New Orleans Saints stand at just 4-6 – thanks in part to poor pass protection. Eli Manning just so happened to suffer the worst season of his career (18 TDs, 27 INTs) with the New York Giants in 2013, when he was sacked the most in his career. (And Manning was sacked 39 times in 16 games; Hackenberg has been sacked 37 times in 10 games.)
“You get gun-shy because you can’t step up anymore and then you start doing other stuff that throws off your timing. That goes for anyone, even Peyton Manning,” Shonka said. “But, with Hackenberg, I think this is just a bump in the road right now. He’s just got to work through it.”
Added Micky Sullivan, Hackenberg’s high school coach: “When you have two seconds to throw it versus three-and-a-half or four seconds, it changes your reads. He hasn’t regressed; his physical attributes haven’t disappeared.”
Sometimes, that’s hard to see on the field. Against Temple, broadcasters chided the sophomore for throwing a pass behind intended target Mike Gesicki – who flipped the ball up shortly before it was intercepted. James Franklin acknowledged afterward that Gesicki, a true freshman, simply ran the wrong route. There have been countless plays like that this season, where a Hackenberg mistake is actually a teammate’s gaffe. Granted, not enough to explain away 14 picks – but the fact is he’s playing better, especially given the circumstances, than what it appears on paper.
He’s a great quarterback in a not-so-great situation. And, for as animated as he has been on the field, he has been calm and thoughtful during postgame interviews. He hasn’t railed against this offensive line or criticized the bad drops and wrong routes by his receivers. He just hides his eyes under his ballcap and walks out of the locker room every week prepared to answer the same question: Whatever happened to the Hackenberg of old?
Turns out the answer is pretty simple: He never left.