Editor’s Note: This is the sixth in a series previewing Penn State football, part of Onward State and StateCollege.com’s countdown of insight and analysis about head coach James Franklin and his team heading into the Blue-White Game on April 12. Read the previous stories here.
With the Blue-White game coming up in just three short weeks, we are breaking down each position to see where the units stand going into the game. Here’s one of the easiest breakdowns of the spring for Penn State: quarterback.
Key losses: Tyler Ferguson (backup, transferred to Louisville).
Key returners: Christian Hackenberg (starter, true sophomore) — 231/392, 2,955 yards, 20 touchdowns, 10 interceptions.
Incoming players: Michael O’Connor (early enrollee)
Depth chart: This should be the easiest decision for James Franklin and his staff. Barring a catastrophic injury, Hackenberg should be the one to lead the Nittany Lions out of the tunnel on August 30 in Ireland. After Hackenberg, however, the second-string spot is wide open. The departure of Ferguson for Louisville leaves an open opportunity for DJ Crook, Austin Whipple and early enrollee Michael O’Connor to go at it during spring practice and earn the chance to hold the coveted second-string clipboard. Look for the incumbent Crook to hold the job early, but if O’Connor can stay healthy and show flashes of his potential, the freshman could overtake the walk-on Crook before the spring is over.
Player to watch: Hackenberg. With his favorite receiver gone and a new offense to learn, this pick is obvious. This team can only go as far as Hackenberg takes them. If he has any trouble with Franklin’s system, the entire offense will fail until he can get it right. The next three weeks will be essential for the young quarterback to fully grasp the intricacies of the new coach’s offense.
Prediction: The sky is the limit for this sophomore under Franklin, and he will play like it throughout the season. His big arm and newfound confidence will lead Penn State to at least one early season comeback win, and he will build on his Freshman of the Year award-winning season last year. Expect Hackenberg to toss the ball for more yards and touchdowns than he did last year, especially if he can learn a new offense quick enough.
We’ll be back tomorrow with our next position preview, where we’ll break down the running back battle between Bill Belton, Zach Zwinak and Akeel Lynch.