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Offensive Optimism Abound As Blue-White Weekend Approaches

Much has been written on the development of Christian Hackenberg. He was first the top-tier recruit turned freshman savior of a recovering university, then the sophomore slump and potential transfer, and ultimately the comeback leader in the Pinstripe Bowl.

So what personality will he assume as he enters his third year under center for Penn State football? It could be that of the optimist, at least according to his teammates.

“Christian, it’s almost night and day from where he was last year to this year,” said tight end Adam Breneman, who’s been close to Hackenberg since they committed to Penn State in the same recruiting class as high schoolers. “When he speaks, everyone has undivided respect for him. I think Christian may have taken a lot of flak, but his confidence is at an all-time high. He’s doing an awesome job.”

There’s reason to be confident. Hackenberg didn’t lose one member of his core receiving group; Geno Lewis, DaeSean Hamilton, Chris Godwin, and Saeed Blacknall are all coming out of breakout seasons. Franklin has hyped DeAndre Thompkins in spring practice, a redshirt speedster who will also enter the mix this year. Up front, the offensive line that at times struggled mightily last season returns with experience and newfound confidence.

“We struggled,” admitted tackle Andrew Nelson. “But getting all of those reps and all of that experience was key to helping us grow.”

And with Breneman — who gained 10 pounds of muscle and upped his bench press by over 50 pounds — returning, the tight end corps can now block effectively, paving the way for Akeel Lynch in the backfield. Hamilton said Lynch, suddenly the most experienced member of Penn State’s backfield after the departures of Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak, has taken a leadership role, pushed by younger backups vying for his spot.

“We came out the first day in pads, and the tight ends looked extremely different,” Nelson said. “The offensive line is very happy with the tight ends…the whole team is very happy and proud of those guys for doing that.”

There’s also the fact that offensive coordinator John Donovan at last seems to be meshing with his players. Though Hackenberg denied throughout the year that there were any tensions between the two, at numerous points during games the quarterback and coach could be seen in tense confrontations. It didn’t help that Donovan’s offense struggled throughout the year, headlined by a slumping quarterback and a beleaguered offensive line that couldn’t find space for its impatient running backs.

“Any time you go through a coaching change, there’s some resistance and stuff,” Breneman admitted. “As far as we are right now, I don’t think it could be any better.”

That’s all led to a happy Hackenberg, and his teammates seem to have noticed.

“I think [he’s] taken a different outlook, a different role this spring,” Nelson said. “He’s a bit more positive, he’s definitely leading the offense a bit more than he did last year. He’s not only helping our entire offense improve, but he’s improving himself.”

Hackenberg’s optimism may be rubbing off, or it may simply be the effect of a renewed hopefulness that comes with a new season. Anthony Zettel, the All-Big Ten lineman that relinquished the NFL draft for another year at school, said he’s noticed a change since last year.

“It’s 100 percent different, everyone is more on point, better communication. On the offense, just watching those guys, it’s a 100 percent turnaround,” Zettel said.

Nelson said the team has been riding a bit of a high since the Pinstripe Bowl. The players earned a few weeks off after the victory to “veg out” with their families. “I think that did a lot of good for us,” he said. “We came back and it was right back to work for us the next day.”

It seems that momentum hasn’t yet worn off. Penn State still has five months until its incredibly easy pre-conference schedule kicks off against Temple. If it can keep the train rolling with Hackenberg as its conductor, big things could be in store.

“We’re heading the right direction right now,” Zettel said.

Photo: Bobby Chen/Onward State

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Ben Berkman

State College, PA

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