Christian Hackenberg is a name that still resonates with Penn State football fans, but unfortunately, not for the right reasons. Despite coming to Happy Valley with much fanfare and high expectations, Hackenberg’s time as the Nittany Lions’ starting quarterback was largely disappointing. Coming out of Fork Union Military Academy as the 7th-best player, and #1 QB, in the country, his collegiate career is known more for its disappointment than success.
Christian Hackenberg’s talent and potential were on full display during his freshman campaign. He completed 231 of 392 passes for 2,955 yards, throwing 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, earning accolades such as the Big Ten Freshman of the Year award and recognition as a freshman All-American. One of the highlights of his freshman year was Penn State’s epic four-overtime win against Michigan, where Hackenberg threw for 305 yards and three touchdowns. Fans were filled with hope and excitement as they witnessed the young quarterback’s ability to lead the team to a 7-5 record and a victorious outing against Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl. However, little did they know that his subsequent years would not live up to the promise of his remarkable freshman campaign.
Part of the reason why Hackenberg’s career at Penn State was so difficult was because of the NCAA sanctions the program was dealing with at the time. The team was hit hard with a four-year postseason ban, scholarship reductions, and a $60 million fine in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. This made it difficult for the team to recruit top talent and compete at a high level.
Despite these challenges, many believed that Hackenberg had the potential to be a star quarterback in college football. Bill O’Brien, who was the team’s head coach during Hackenberg’s freshman year, was known as a QB guru and was responsible for helping to develop Tom Brady during his time as the New England Patriots offensive coordinator. However, O’Brien left for the Houston Texans in the NFL after just one season with Hackenberg, leaving the young quarterback without his mentor.
Hackenberg’s style of play and skillset just didn’t mesh well with head coach James Franklin’s offensive system. Hackenberg was a dropback quarterback who excelled at reading defenses and delivering accurate passes downfield. Franklin, on the other hand, prefers more mobile quarterbacks who can make plays with their legs as well as their arms. This disconnect between Hackenberg’s strengths and Franklin’s preferred style of play may have contributed to his struggles on the field.
Hackenberg also faced significant challenges with the team’s offensive line and less-than-stellar rushing attack. The offensive line struggled to protect him, and he was sacked 44 times in 2014 and 38 times in 2015, which was tied for third-most in the nation. The rushing attack was also inconsistent, which put more pressure on Hackenberg to carry the offense.
Despite these challenges, Hackenberg did have some strong offensive weapons at his disposal. He had a talented group of wide receivers and tight ends who could make plays downfield and in the red zone. However, even with these weapons, Hackenberg was not able to consistently perform at a high level.
In the end, Hackenberg’s time at Penn State was a mixed bag. While he showed flashes of brilliance and had some impressive performances, he also struggled with consistency and faced significant challenges with the team’s offensive line and rushing attack. Additionally, changes in the coaching staff and offensive systems may have hindered his development as a quarterback. Despite his struggles, Hackenberg’s legacy at Penn State is still one of the most highly-touted recruits to come through the program, and his story serves as a cautionary tale for high school athletes with high expectations.