Bench’s Transfer Increases Hackenberg’s Importance for 2013
Without doing anything directly, Christian Hackenberg just became much more important to Penn State as the Nittany Lions prepare for the 2013 season.
The 5-star quarterback from Fork Union, Virginia will not arrive on campus until June and will not practice under the tutelage of Bill O’Brien until August, but could find himself receiving the first offensive snap of the season from center Ty Howle on the final day of that month.
That, however, is not necessarily the main story stemming from Steven Bench’s announced decision to transfer yesterday. After all, the message from O’Brien, throughout the spring was that Hackenberg was always going to have an opportunity to compete for the starting job.
“We will integrate him right in there,” said O’Brien of Hackenberg following Saturday’s Blue-White game. “It is very difficult to get three quarterbacks reps during training camp, so we will have to evaluate that over the next couple of months, how we are going to do that, if we are going to do that.”
Hackenberg’s status is as undefined as it was yesterday, but his role and that first week of practice is even more essential. The best and worst things that could be said for Bench and Tyler Ferguson is that they did not do much throughout the spring to prove why they should win the starting job, but they also didn’t do much to show that they couldn’t handle it.
The two of them together gave O’Brien options. With both in the fold, the Nittany Lion head coach could have easily decided to continue the two-way competition through August and redshirt Hackenberg, giving him a year to learn the offense and an extra bowl game.
Now, giving Hackenberg a redshirt season seemingly becomes a bit more difficult and a bit less likely. When August rolls around, O’Brien could still decide that Ferguson is his guy, but if the junior college transfer from California is ineffective early on or suffers an injury, the only backup options would be walk-ons D.J. Crook, Austin Whipple, and Jack Seymour. Seymour is not on campus until the summer. Crook and Whipple have only been here since January, did not take any first-team reps all spring, and — while the sample size is small — combined to go an abysmal 3-for-10 for 11 yards and two interceptions in Saturday’s scrimmage.
A unit that returns three starters on the offensive line and is loaded with playmakers at the skill positions could quickly be derailed without a competent signal-caller and having Hackenberg carrying a clipboard on the sidelines will not help.
O’Brien made the calculated decision to choose upside over the candidate who had been in the system for a season. It leaves him with one less option and devoid of any who have ever spent a fall season in major college football. In an ironic twist, Hackenberg has the longest relationship with O’Brien despite having yet to participate in a formal practice.
“I don’t think it’s easy for any of the quarterbacks to pick [the offense] up. Just the offense itself, it’s not the easiest offense in the world to pick up. It’s a language and we have to do a fantastic job of teaching it well and making sure that our players, especially the quarterbacks, understand the emphasis of each play and the concept that we’re trying to get done,” said O’Brien during a Big Ten coaches conference call two weeks ago.
If the prized recruit can master the complexity of the playbook, it won’t take much for O’Brien to hand over the keys to the offense, but even if he doesn’t initially, Hackenberg could still be a factor in 2013.
“You bring these guys in, they are on full scholarship. Unless they are injured, you’re going to put them into the mix and let them compete and you’re going to play the best players. You are looking to go out there and put your best football team on the field August 31,” said O’Brien at the beginning of spring practice.
With less depth than before, O’Brien needs Hackenberg not just down the line but in the present, and the “quarterback of the future” label may soon be removed.