Penn State Football: Christian Hackenberg- The Pressure Of Expectations


As the lull of the off season begins to hit, all eyes begin to turn to the expectations of a college football season that is still over 3 months away. Penn State is no different, of course. The rabid fan base of Nittany Nation has put the past turmoil in the rear-view mirror, and is now focused on rebuilding and recovery.

Coming off of the season ending Pinstripe Bowl win over Boston College, the program’s first bowl win since 2009, second year head coach James Franklin and staff  by all accounts have the Nittany Lions pointed in the right direction. At the center of all the newfound optimism stands the heralded, yet highly scrutinized junior quarterback, Christian Hackenberg. The expectations for “Hack” have never been any higher than they are right now. Today, we take a look at the pressure he faces as he leads Penn State into year three of the Hackenberg era.

Recently, NFL draft guru Todd McShay, declared that Hack would be the No.1 pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Most other draft analysts have either him or Michigan State senior QB Connor Cook rated as the No.1 rated pro-style quarterback prospect. Talk about the weight of the world for a kid who won’t even reach his 21st birthday until next Valentines Day!

All of this on the heels of what critics consider a rather dismal sophomore campaign. Most even called it the dreaded “sophomore slump”. His 12 to 15 touchdown to interception ratio was a steep drop-off from his freshman year when Hack threw 20 TD’s and only 10 INT’s. His QB rating dropped from 134.0 to 109.4 last season and the most telling stat of all was the school-record 44 sacks that he suffered through in 2014.

To the blind eye, and some “armchair quarterbacks”, that kind of production would lead to an open competition come August and the opening of camp. Not so in this situation. In fact, it appears to be, and rightfully so, the exact opposite for Christian Hackenberg. The old mantra, ” what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger”, plays a prominent role as a new season and a fresh start approach

It’s been well documented, throughout the last year, that in 2014 Penn State fielded the 2nd youngest team in college football. The offensive line was porous at best and returned only one starter, recent 2st round draft pick Donovan Smith. A knee injury during the spring to senior Miles Dieffenbach only compounded the issue and created a severe lack of depth. O-Line coach Herb Hand was forced to switch two defensive lineman over, as well as use an abnormal amount of freshmen. The results spelled disaster. The troubles up front rendered the running game non-existent.

Although Geno Lewis and DaeSean Hamilton, as well as true freshmen Saeed Blackball and Chris Godwin, had some memorable moments, the fact is that all four were young and inexperienced as wideouts. As a freshman, Hackenberg was able to dump the ball off to record-setting wideout Allen Robinson and watch him do his magic. He did not have that luxury in 2014. The pocket would collapse as soon as the ball was snapped and Hack was forced into bad decisions. Some of them fell on him, but most of them were simply unavoidable. Call it the perfect storm, if you will.

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Throughout it all, the sophomore quarterback answered every question with poise, took the blame without pointing fingers, and most important, he survived. He never missed a play. He never quit. He never gave up. Despite all the chips stacked against him, he led his team to a winning record and ended the season on a high note. All of which leads us to where we are today. The expectations of whether or not he can handle the pressure.

The fact of the matter is, the woes up front in 2014 as well as the lack of consistent playmakers can do nothing but improve. Despite the loss of Smith, the O-Line is older, wiser, and more experienced. The running game, led by Akeel Lynch, has no other choice but to improve and get better. An experienced line, and a more consistent run game will give the wideouts more time to gain separation and finish their routes.

The biggest thing that Hack himself had to improve on was the ability to leave the pocket when all else crashed down around him. Too many times, he stood in and absorbed the hit and not take off and gain positive yards. If April’s Blue/White game was any indication, that is something that he and Offensive Coordinator John Donovan have clearly been working on. Several times we saw him tuck and run and even saw a few called runs from the pocket.

In short, to answer the question of whether or not Christian Hackenberg can handle the pressure of expectations, the answer has to be a resounding yes. The kid has all the tools to be one of the greatest to ever don the plain old blue and white uniform that represents Penn State. He weathered a storm of adversity that most would have crumbled under and he did it with class and dignity. When Penn State takes the field at Lincoln Financial Field in September, expect the expectations to be the furthest thing from his mind and enjoy the show while you have the chance!