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CHRISTIAN HACKENBERG IS going to be late for dinner. He has been out in the sweltering July heat for three hours, hustling through drills, frustrating defenses with his Winchester of an arm and offering patient instruction to the nation's top high school quarterbacks. Just three summers ago, he was one of them, here at Nike's Elite 11 camp held each summer in Beaverton, Oregon.
A whistle blew six minutes ago, signaling it was finally time to break for food. Now a small army of blue-chip preps, college counselors and a handful of retired NFL players are milling in the direction of the cafeteria, weary from a long but productive day. But the 6-foot-4, 228-pound Hackenberg hangs back, stationed in the far end zone, his gray shirt soaked with sweat, obsessing over footwork and the nuances of ball protection.
He takes a snap, backpedals on the balls of his feet and digs his cleats into the turf as he sets up in an imaginary pocket. He ducks his shoulder and shields the ball from an imaginary pass rusher, stands tall again, then zips an outlet pass toward a friendly camper serving as a stand-in safety valve. Hackenberg jogs back to the line and goes through the routine again. Two times. Four times. Ten times. It might be the least sexy drill a quarterback could dream up, but Hackenberg spends a solid 15 minutes perfecting it, starting and stopping several times, clapping his hands in frustration when he doesn't nail his dropback -- one stride too many, his feet not quite the right distance apart.
You don't have to watch more than a few hours of practice to understand why the Penn State junior, who hasn't missed a start since arriving in Happy Valley and is arguably the top QB for next year's draft, might be the most polarizing talent in college football. In an era in which gaudy passing stats have become the norm, when a 4,000-yard season barely moves the needle (we've seen 69 of them since 2000), Hackenberg's poor production in 2014 is very difficult to explain away.
On the one hand, stats, in the eyes of most scouts, have become so inflated that they're now almost meaningless. There are too many moving parts on a football field, too many outcomes dependent on others, to make judgments based on one player's numbers. Instead, NFL front office types look at tape of Hackenberg and see, potentially, the next Andrew Luck. Maybe even the next Tom Brady. Give him enough protection to set up in the pocket and he has the acuity to quickly assess defenses, to look off safeties and corners with a glance. Give him receivers who create separation and he has the arm to uncork NFL-level spirals into windows so tight that most college quarterbacks wouldn't even consider the risk. Not to mention he is built like a lumberjack, possesses an analytical mind captivated by nuance and shows the determination to do the mundane film work necessary to maximize his abilities.
"I think he is easily a top-five pick," an NFL scout says.
On the other hand, in this era of constant comparison of next-level metrics, stats still matter -- especially if they are as bad as Hackenberg's last fall.
To his many critics, including a small but vocal contingent of Penn State die-hards, his projection as a top-five pick is one of the more baffling proclamations about a player in recent memory. Hackenberg's completion percentage (55.8 percent, 88th in the country in 2014) is used to question his accuracy, his touchdown-to-interception ratio (12-15) as proof that he forces throws into coverage. In 13 games, he was sacked 44 times, and while no one pins that solely on him, it points to heavy cleats and renders him a relic among the fleet-footed passers permeating the college game. Jeff Risdon, an analyst for RealGM.com, tweeted after PSU's loss at Michigan that Hackenberg was "undraftable" and the "worst quarterback I saw all year." The website Pro Football Focus graded him as one of the least accurate QBs in the country, even when he wasn't facing pressure (No. 74 out of 86 qualifying FBS QBs).
"Christian spent most of his time solving problems, running from problems, taking a lot of criticism, which I'm really, really defensive about," says second-year Penn State coach James Franklin, referring to Hackenberg's struggles on a team that returned just four other offensive starters last year. "To be honest with you, I'm a little angry. I don't know if it was fair, just or realistic."
So who is right, and who is going to be the fool, when Hackenberg is a first-round bust or a midround boom? He actually has two years of eligibility left, so it's possible this debate will rage into the 2017 draft, but for now, he embodies a conundrum that has haunted NFL GMs since the beginning of modern scouting: Should a player be judged more by his physical potential or by his production? Because while stats alone are no way to build a draft board, prototypical big-arm busts like Kyle Boller and Jake Locker continue to ace the NFL eye test despite warning-sign numbers.
This game of scouting roulette speaks volumes about the disconnect between college and pro offenses. After years of trying to adapt playbooks to the thrilling potential of the dual-threat QBs coming off the collegiate production line -- only to watch the likes of Colin Kaepernick, Robert Griffin III and Johnny Manziel struggle -- NFL brass are once again turning to tried-and-true pocket passers. "The one system that's never failed at the highest level is the pro-style offense," says Hackenberg, who signed with Penn State largely because he wanted to play in the pro-style system of now-Texans head coach Bill O'Brien. "You need a guy who can sit back there in the pocket, see the field and deliver the ball to the best athletes, let them make plays."
Mississippi State's Dak Prescott and TCU's Trevone Boykin will likely be two of the most exciting college football players this year, and their field-reversing highlights should have them vying for the Heisman Trophy -- the same way Manziel won it three years ago and RG3 before him and Cam Newton before him. And yet Prescott and Boykin are nowhere to be found on the top half of preseason draft boards.
Instead, you'll find Hackenberg, Ohio State's Cardale Jones, Michigan State's Connor Cook and Cal's Jared Goff, whose primary instincts are to stand tall in the pocket and drive the ball downfield with their arms. That's how a Super Bowl is won. That's how a QB stays off the injury report. Of the 10 passers with the highest QBR in the NFL last season, Russell Wilson's 118 rush attempts was 75 more than any other quarterback on the list.
"Why is the pocket passer still the most important commodity in football?" asks Jordan Palmer, a counselor at Elite 11 and a current NFL free agent QB. "Because this game is about completions. And completions don't always come when you take five steps and throw with no one around you. Completions come with people in your face, people hanging on you. Brees and Brady, they create space in the pocket. They buy themselves time even though they're not athletic, and they know exactly when to get the ball out. Christian has those same qualities."
But more than instincts, how much weight should we place on a player's intangibles? How much credit should he receive for his character and composure? That's yet another issue about which Hackenberg represents a divide.
Considered the top prep senior arm in the 2013 class, he stuck by his commitment to Penn State even after the school was hit by the NCAA with heavy scholarship reductions and a postseason ban due to the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. Thirteen players on the roster transferred, and half a dozen recruits backed out of their commitments. But Hackenberg kept his word to O'Brien, thinking he would never be allowed to play in a bowl, much less for a national title, and fully aware that the program could offer only 15 scholarships per year, 10 fewer than the schools it competed against. "It was huge for our confidence," says senior center Angelo Mangiro. "It was proof that even through all this turmoil, we could still get great players."
The decision, Hackenberg says, did not come easily. He had 50 other scholarship offers and debated them for hours with people he trusted. He knew, on some level, that he was putting his own football future at risk. There was no guarantee O'Brien would remain in Happy Valley for the duration of his career. He knew he'd be signing up to lead a team that would receive scrutiny and ridicule, a team that wouldn't always have the talent to prop him up or protect him. He bought in anyway.
Hackenberg's first season scarcely could have gone better. He won the starting job in August camp and threw for 278 yards and two touchdowns in his first start, a win over Syracuse. Despite some predictable growing pains, he was a perfect fit for O'Brien's system -- the same one Tom Brady ran while O'Brien was with the Patriots -- which put Hackenberg primarily under center, taking five- and seven-step drops, making multiread progressions and throwing vertical routes. A conservative game manager for the first few starts, in time he was given freedom to stretch the field, and the comparisons with Luck began to spread. He led a program on the brink to seven wins, none bigger than a 31-24 upset of No. 15 Wisconsin in the finale, a game in which he threw for 339 yards and four scores. "I've been around some pretty competitive people in my life," Mangiro says, "but he tops that list."
But the hard hits would only get harder. O'Brien left in January after Hackenberg's freshman season. Penn State lost four offensive linemen (three would go on to the NFL), and tight end Adam Breneman, the second-best PSU recruit behind Hackenberg, would miss all of 2014 with a knee injury. The hardest shot of them all for Hackenberg, though, was adjusting to new coach James Franklin's approach, which emphasized shotgun sets and timing routes. Rather than build on his impressive freshman season, Hackenberg appeared hesitant in the pocket, often scrambling to allow his young, inexperienced targets more time to get open. Three of his four receivers -- including his best one, DaeSean Hamilton -- were freshmen, and routes were often freelanced, their combinations a mess. Eventually, injuries decimated a shallow offensive line, and Hackenberg rarely had more than three seconds to throw. In one eight-game stretch, he tossed three touchdowns to 10 interceptions. It got so ugly, with rumors swirling that Hackenberg might transfer, that one Pennsylvania radio station even debated whether Franklin should bench him.
The season reached a nadir on Nov. 1 with a miserable 20-19 home loss to Maryland in which Hackenberg was spotted in a heated sideline exchange with offensive coordinator John Donovan. The local media portrayed Hackenberg as sullen, petulant and mopey. Donovan would later say that it was simply Hackenberg's competitive spirit boiling over, a kid not used to being on a team this bad reaching his breaking point. But there it was, a crack in his intangibles facade, and scouts will undoubtedly be watching closely this season to see if further adversity causes it to widen.
Franklin, for one, doesn't seem concerned. A few days after the loss, the coach and Hackenberg met to clear the air and address frustrations. "It's important to keep in mind the unique situation he was in," Franklin says. "He was a true sophomore, 19 years old, but he's looking around and he's the most experienced guy in the huddle. Now you add in a lack of a running game and a lack of protection -- that's a lot to carry on your shoulders."
Hackenberg, to his credit, isn't defensive about the boos and cries for his benching. Some of the vitriol wounded his pride, but he understands that he must be more Joe Flacco, less Philip Rivers with his sideline theatrics. "I have to be even keel," Hackenberg says. "If I throw a touchdown, I have to act the same as if I throw an interception. I can have a little five-second spurt where I'm pissed off, but I have to feel like I'm a rock who won't be moved one way or another."
A week after his stint as a counselor at Nike's Elite 11 camp, Hackenberg spent four days at the Manning Passing Academy in Thibodaux, Louisiana, picking the brains of Peyton and Eli. Watching the elder Manning fuss over the minutiae of footwork was like getting a graduate degree in the science of pocket passing.
"Every one of his drops, even if he's not in a game situation, looks the exact same," Hackenberg says. "He's always out there coaching himself, obsessing over the details. If a receiver breaks off a route a yard short, he's pointing it out before the ball even leaves his hand. It's awesome to watch."
With all the consternation over Hackenberg's struggles, it's easy to forget that Penn State's season ended on the program's highest note in half a decade. In September, the NCAA lifted the scholarship and postseason restrictions, meaning the 6-6 Lions were eligible for a bowl. So it was that on the evening of Dec. 27 in Yankee Stadium, Hackenberg shredded Boston College for 371 yards and four scores in a dramatic 31-30 overtime win, Penn State's first postseason victory since 2009.
For the first time in months, he looked like the nation's best pocket passer -- taking the snap, backpedaling on the balls of his feet and digging his cleats into the turf before delivering throws with pinpoint accuracy. The linemen who had once struggled to block for him formed a cohesive unit, allowing just two sacks on 50 pass attempts. And his top three receivers totaled 21 catches, 273 yards and three scores with nary a drop. When the game was over, as Penn State players stormed the field, Franklin was so emotional, he called Hackenberg over, gently wrapped his hands around the quarterback's head and cried.
Now Hackenberg is expected to carry that momentum from the Bronx into his junior season. With each repetition, every five-step drop, tuck of the shoulder and release of the ball, he knows that he has far more important matters than being on time for dinner.
This season -- with four linemen returning as well as his top four wideouts and his leading rusher -- Hackenberg knows that anything but a return to form will result in criticism landing squarely, and rightly, on his shoulders. No more excuses. What kind of quarterback are you?