Hack helps himself with strong pro day

UNIVERSITY PARK – Football scouting is a lot of guess work. Sure, scouts will say it’s a finely tuned skill, but come on, there have been enough high draft picks who flopped to tell us sometimes all the number crunching and analysis can be way overblown.

As much as any player in the upcoming NFL draft, scouting Christian Hackenberg is primarily a guessing game. Much of the game film on him the past two years is so tainted by Penn State’s bad offensive line that figuring out exactly what Hack might be able to do in the pros is more about a giant leap of faith based on assumptions than what he’s actually shown on the field.

Until Thursday, most of the most positive things scouts could point at concerning Hackenberg stemmed from what he did three years ago as a freshman, when he had a solid year under Bill O’Brien.

Until Thursday, the only thing scouts could do was guess about his accuracy, his footwork, his mechanics – things that often looked poor in college but, again, were influenced by a giant asterisk.

During PSU’s pro day Thursday, Hackenberg finally gave the scouts something concrete to look at and say: There, that’s an NFL quarterback.

Hack looked terrific inside Holuba Hall, completing 44-of-52 passes by my unofficial count and displaying arm strength and zip on the ball to all parts of the field. Most importantly – and really, this is by far what matters most regarding Hackenberg – he was accurate.

He fired bullets on the mark 25 yards down the field to receivers cutting and curling. He was on target on quick outs to his left and right. He threw some gorgeous deep balls, completing one 65-yarder and barely missing a couple of 50-plus yarders by about a foot.

Hackenberg, who struggled with accuracy at the NFL Combine, at one point completed 21 consecutive throws Thursday. Maybe half of them were relatively easy ones within 15 yards, but the other half required precision and timing down the field.

He threw one really bad pass out of 52, a high one about 4 feet over tight end Kyle Carter’s head in the left flat.

The only throw Hack didn’t attempt much was the quick slant to a receiver running full speed 6-8 yards over the middle, a staple in the NFL. The quarterback struggled with that throw the past two years, so perhaps not incorporating it Thursday was a strategy play by trainer/QB guru Jordan Palmer (brother of Carson) so as to avoid a potential weakness.

After his workout, Hackenberg chose not to speak with the local media. That’s just disappointing, from the perspective of the press, but since fans generally don’t care how the media feels about such things, let me say that not talking to the guys who covered him the past three years probably was a wise move on his part.

Hackenberg would have been grilled with some tough questions from those who know his situation best, such as why he didn’t thank James Franklin on his way out the door, or how much his offensive line hurt his college performance. At this stage in the game for him, there’s no more reason to answer that stuff because his future depends on throwing the football accurately, not reliving the past.

His trainer, Palmer, did speak to the media and gave Hackenberg’s pro day performance an A grade.

“I think you’re going to start to hear a buzz nationally, starting in the next two or three days once all these pro days settle down, of Christian Hackenberg trending upward,” Palmer said.

He went on to add that draft analysts who have been critical of the quarterback “are going to start getting some tough questions when this tape goes around the league and the people who were here today start talking about what they saw.”

There could be a lot of truth in that.

It was easy to doubt Hackenberg based on his college game film. However, for the 20 minutes he threw the ball Thursday, scouts got a chance to watch and grade the things that will matter much more to them in the draft than how Hackenberg looked playing behind a sieve of an O-line.

In full disclosure, I’m not a fan of pro days, combines and workouts where guys wear shorts and T-shirts going against no defense. They serve a purpose, yes, but I prefer the eye test watching actual games.

Rob Bolden, Kevin Newsome and Paul Jones looked good enough throwing in shorts that they were rated as 4-star recruits, and we all know how those guys turned out at Penn State.

From this view, Hackenberg underachieved significantly during his career as a Nittany Lion. He will always be a legend for sticking with the program through the toughest of times, but for the past two years he just didn’t look like a quarterback who someday could lead an NFL franchise to major success.

He did look more like that kind of quarterback Thursday, and now that the scouts have something positive to talk about, Hackenberg undoubtedly increased his draft stock.

Cory Giger is the host of “Sports Central” weekdays from 4 to 6 p.m. on ESPN Radio 1430 WVAM.