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Blue-White Game Countdown / 25 Days: Limiting Hackenberg’s Hats As Crucial Season Approaches

By Ben Jones,

Editor’s note: This is part of a daily series counting down to Penn State’s Blue-White Game April 18.

It took five short claps for the huddle to form around Christian Hackenberg, the sound cutting through the buzz of Penn State’s second spring practice.

As the huddle broke Hackenberg identified a defender with an extended arm, barking out commands as he surveyed the field before the play began.

Five claps, five plays, five smart decisions.

The first took just three steps before he launched a laser to receiver Matt Zanellato. The second play, a bootleg to his left before opting to throw the ball out of bounds.

A short outlet pass to Akeel Lynch highlighted the third play. Hackenberg opting to take the safe route after going through his progression. Lynch rewarded the choice with a nice run after the catch.

From there Hackenberg went under center and ever so slightly modified his cadence pulling a defender across the neutral zone and into an offensive lineman. Players watching from the sideline cheered at Hackenberg’s trickery with the same excitement that comes with seeing a well executed crossover. Hackenberg just stepped back slowly, almost annoyed that it worked as if his own success was delaying bigger and better thing, he read the defense and returned to the line.

A few seconds later the ball found tight end Mike Gesicki’s outstretched arms as he rose up to catch the pass in stride, running to the endzone nearly untouched.

As the play ended, Hackenberg walked off the field as calmly as he entered it, watching the remaining quarterbacks go through the drill with varying levels of success. In their defense the bar had been set high.

But for as routine as the entire exercise may have seemed a apt analogy for his time at Penn State.

In 2014 Hackenberg wore many hats. After games he was the de facto offensive coordinator as James Franklin was never followed by John Donovan at the podium. The good and the bad faced Hackenberg after every Saturday win or loss and he skillfully handled it all.

It didn’t stop there though.

On the message boards he was the scapegoat for nearly all of the issues the offense faced.

On the field he was an appointed savior by many fans who expected him to live up to the hype no matter Penn State’s own sanction inflicted obstacles.

At nearly every juncture Hackenberg was asked to carry more than his fair share of the load. Even if that wasn’t the intention, his status in the program made him a part of every positive and negative equation. Fair or not, intentional or not. That was the reality he had to deal with.

So as Hackenberg took the field this past Saturday he was once again doing everything. But this time he was doing it all within the context of football. Making short throws, living to see another down, opting for the smart decision, tricking the defense and letting playmakers make plays. He had time to make decisions, he had time to think about football and nothing else. Five plays orchestrated nearly to perfection.

He wore one hat, that of an elite level athlete.

And in a perfect world, that’s the only hat anyone in his corner wants him wearing.

“I want Christian to be able to work on his development and his role in this offense, fundamentals, technique, understanding of the schemes,” Franklin said.  “Being demonstrative with other offensive players about how specifically he wants a route run, what we’re doing in protection and why, checking out a runs into passes or passes into runs.”

“Not just during spring, but during spring and then being able to do that all off‑season. I think that’s probably one of the things that’s most valuable, is Christian is going to be able to take this offense and these players, and with the coach’s help and support, really get a lot of work done this off‑season.”

“I’m excited about Christian being able to focus on his development, doing his job and role within our offense, and having some more support around him, if that makes sense.”

There was an even more telling moment in James Franklin’s nearly hour long press conference just last week. A short mention of Mr and Mrs Hackenberg’s happiness regarding the return of a more experienced offensive line. A seemingly unimportant quote focused on the need to reduce the 40+ sacks Hackenberg dealt with last season.

In that context it is accurate, but in a broader sense it speaks to something much less implied.

Hackenberg is still at Penn State.

While it may never be admitted in public, it is difficult to imagine that the Hackenberg camp never even casually conversed about his future in Happy Valley after the ups and downs of 2014. Equally so, it is difficult to imagine that same group not bringing up any and all concerns to Franklin before, during and after the season.

So it does not seem by pure chance that Franklin’s message to start off the spring was so pro-Hackenberg, focused on fending off old attacks questioning his performance. Erasing one hat from the wardrobe.

Equally, it does not seem by pure chance that Franklin acknowledge the need for Hackenberg to simply focus on getting better, to find players to help him and to simply keep him healthy. An attempt to publicly nod to those standing behind Hackenberg interested in his long term career, that Penn State has to find ways to help him. For as team oriented as football is, Penn State’s mission statement ultimately comes down to the ability to get Hackenberg playing at as high of a level as he can.

For now some questions remain unanswered. How much Franklin can mesh his view of offense with Hackenberg’s abilities, and if that interest in utilizing Hackenberg’s skills results in a modified playbook. If the draft number over Hackenberg’s head is contingent on his collegiate performance of simply his potential.

And while most assume it is, if these are the final games Hackenberg plays at the college level.

The answers to all of those question will be discovered in due time, but for now the focus is limiting the number of hats Hackenberg has to wear.

Because if he can duplicate those five plays when the result really matters, it will go a long way for both parties.

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