Draft spotlight will burn bright on Christian Hackenberg

Penn State is in the midst of its annual coaches' caravan, a whistle-stop tour that gives the school's sports figures a chance to yuk it up with fans around the state and the region.

It's a laid-back, casual affair that's designed to generate some excitement for the seasons ahead. Yet on just the caravan's second stop, Nittany Lions coach James Franklin was asked a couple of times about something that's probably eight months away: quarterback Christian Hackenberg's NFL decision.

Not surprisingly, Franklin didn't warm to the idea of discussing the subject.

"To have a conversation with you right now about next year's draft, I think, is ridiculous," Franklin told reporters. "I also think it's unfair and it's unrealistic when people talk about guys that are supposed to be this or supposed to be that before they've done any real in-depth research on guys."

Franklin is right. Looking ahead to the 2016 NFL draft a year from now is patently absurd. So, too, is our nation's collective obsession with the NFL draft itself, which somehow has become a 12-month news cycle that sometimes seems more important to fans and media than the actual games themselves.

That is unlikely to change soon, however. And Hackenberg probably will find himself at the center of many NFL draft debates in the coming weeks and months, which has its pluses and minuses.

Our own Todd McShay listed Hackenberg as the No. 1 overall pick in his way-too-early 2016 mock draft on Thursday. McShay hardly went out on a limb, either, as several other sites are projecting Hackenberg as a high first-rounder.

If you just looked at last year's numbers (or film), you might wonder what all the fuss was about. Hackenberg completed just 55.8 percent of his throws in 2014, tossing 15 interceptions and just 12 touchdowns. Of course, he was greatly affected by one of the most porous offensive lines in the country and a green receiving corps. Anyone who has even seen Hackenberg fire one of his tight spirals downfield understands why he has been talked about as a future pro since he was in high school.

Being pegged this early as a potential No.1 pick has its drawbacks. People will pick apart every facet of his game next fall, wondering how it will translate to the next level. Every mistake will be amplified. His O-line should be better this year and the receivers more experienced, so Hackenberg will be expected to put up numbers more like his true freshman year, when he threw 20 touchdown passes against 10 interceptions.

Then again, could Hackenberg have much more of a spotlight on him than he already has faced? As the starting quarterback from Game One of his college career, he has lived under a microscope. Last year, his sideline exchanges with offensive coordinator John Donovan and body language became a weekly talking point in State College and beyond. He should be used to the glow by now, though it will intensify.

But let's all try and remember that he just turned 20 on Valentine's Day. Hackenberg is still growing and maturing and should be allowed to find his way. He's still only a junior, so there's no guarantee he'll even come out for the draft after this season. Most people expect him to do so, but then again, most folks didn't think Connor Cook and Shilique Calhoun would return to Michigan State this year, either.

Mostly, we should just let the process play out. The mock drafts, especially this early, can create artificial expectations that feed upon themselves. This time a year ago, for instance, McShay had UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley as the No. 16 overall prospect on his 2015 draft board. Hundley wound up going in the fifth round. That's not a knock on McShay but a reminder that none of us can predict the future, and that players go through ups and downs. (Hundley also seemed to backslide because his offensive line struggled to protect him; let's hope history doesn't repeat itself with Hackenberg).

Being ranked No. 1 right now isn't a bad thing, because it means the opinion of Hackenberg is high, and he's almost certainly going to earn a nice paycheck in the very near future. But it would be a shame if all that speculation about the spring of 2016 overshadows Hackenberg's 2015 fall.