PSU QB lives up to hype

There’s no way Christian Hackenberg is just another Penn State student, but that’s really how the humble freshman quarterback views himself.

He’s already one of the biggest names on campus less than three months after arriving in town, and he could walk around with his head high, seeking attention, basking in the limelight.

Hackenberg does the exact opposite.

“I usually just try to keep my head down,” Hackenberg said of his campus demeanor. “I just want to be recognized as a regular student during the day. I’m here doing the same thing that everyone else is, just trying to get an education. But I just play football, as well.”

That he does. Very well.

As much hype as there was surrounding Hackenberg’s recruitment and arrival, one would think it impossible for him to exceed all expectations. But it’s taken him only three games to do so, as he’s already putting up prolific passing numbers and showing the potential to be even better once he gains experience.

“He’s not a freshman anymore,” Nittany Lion center Ty Howle said.

Hackenberg certainly hasn’t looked like a freshman, completing 71.7 percent of his passes for 284 yards per game. He’s made some mistakes, throwing three interceptions compared to four touchdowns, and as good as his overall numbers have been, it’s the mistakes that led coach Bill O’Brien to give the quarterback a grade of B following last week’s 34-31 loss to Central Florida.

“I’d agree with whatever he had to say,” Hackenberg said of the grade given by his coach. “I feel like I did some good things, but I also did some things where, if I could have executed better, I could have affected the outcome of the game. I’m just trying to improve on that every week and then not make that mistake next week and just continue building on it.”

Perhaps more impressive than what he’s done on the field is how quickly Hackenberg has been able to earn the respect of his teammates and become the leader of the offense. The quarterback is pretty much always the leader by default, but in this case, the way Hackenberg has handled himself in adjusting to the college game so quickly has won over his teammates.

“We could kind of see off the bat the kid was a confident kid and good leader,” Howle said of PSU’s summer workouts. “Obviously you see it evolve as it goes along, but you could kind of tell right off the bat he was a quarterback. The quarterback carries himself in a certain way, and he did.”

The respect Hackenberg earned in the weight room, 7-on-7 drills and so on went only so far. Once the season started, his teammates needed to see if he could actually perform well on the big stage, and he’s clearly done that.

Hackenberg threw for 278 yards against Syracuse and a PSU freshman record 311 against Eastern Michigan, then in the loss to Central Florida he was 21-of-28 for 262 yards and one TD.

“Definitely not as much anxiety,” he said of his comfort level three weeks into his career. “I’ve experienced pretty much everything that I could at this level, so really it just comes down to preparation and then just continuing to get better each week.”

O’Brien said Hackenberg has “a really good demeanor,” and the 18-year-old quarterback said that stems from his time at Fork Union Military Academy. He learned under coach Micky Sullivan something that’s vital for all successful quarterbacks.

“You’ve got to be the rock, you’ve got to be the foundation, the leader,” Hackenberg said.

There’s a big difference, though, between being the star quarterback in high school and leading a team of kids to immediately becoming the face of a college offense and having to be the leader of men.

Hackenberg’s preparation learning O’Brien’s complex offense before even arriving on campus played a big role in his ability to command respect of the team.

Once he felt like he had a strong grasp of the offense, he was able to walk into the huddle with confidence equal to his physical ability.

“That comes naturally to me,” Hackenberg said of asserting himself in the huddle. “You have to establish yourself in this setting. Guys have been here longer than you, and you have to understand that. I just try to earn their respect.”

His center clearly respects how Hackenberg has juggled so many elements so well.

“I can’t even imagine between classes and trying to fit in and getting to know all the teammates getting used to all that kind of stuff and then also learning a complicated, pro-style offense on top of that and going out there and being able to run it on Saturday, that’s been very impressive he’s been able to do that,” Howle said.

Howle added that he’s not surprised Hackenberg is so successful because “he’s got the best coaches in the country coaching him in Coach O’Brien and Coach [Charlie] Fisher.”

The O’Brien/Fisher factor cannot be overstated in Hackenberg’s development because, as good as he is now and as much experience as those two have coaching quarterbacks, it’s hard to believe Hackenberg won’t get markedly better as his career unfolds.

Hackenberg called his film sessions with O’Brien “fun” and said, “I look forward to going and learning what I can do better.”

Hackenberg has always been O’Brien’s guy, from the recruiting process to now, and it’s easy to tell how much the coach enjoys getting to work with and develop a potential star quarterback.

“He’s sure of himself, he knows he has good ability, he’s a good person,” O’Brien said. “He’s a calm guy, which is great for me because I’m not a calm guy. Christian is a calm guy, and that’s good. I think the team feeds off of that.

“The guys have a lot of confidence in him. Any time you’re completing balls and running the offense the way he is right now, which is pretty decent, guys around you have confidence.”