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Year Three: Christian Hackenberg’s Redemption

Everywhere you look today, there is an obsession for perfection. Whether it’s at a workplace or in professional sports, perfection is no longer a mere goal — it’s an expectation. To some, perfection is something unattainable, a straw that’s just out of reach; for others, it is something that has been promised as soon as they recognized their potential.

One player whose potential was great enough to be deemed worthy of perfection was a five-star quarterback prospect out of Palmyra, Virginia: Christian Hackenberg. Boasting a pro skillset groomed at Fork Union Military Academy, Hackenberg was described by scouts as a player with elite potential. Listed at 6-foot-4, 210 pounds, the quarterback was compared to the likes of Jay Cutler (remember, this was 2013) and was one of the gems in his recruiting class. Penn State head coach Bill O’Brien landed Hackenberg, and right away it seemed like a match made in heaven.

Fast-forward two years and the once-coveted five-star recruit has had his ups and downs in Happy Valley. After an impressive showing during his freshman season in 2013, Hackenberg was forced to learn a new offensive scheme under head coach James Franklin and offensive coordinator John Donovan. Most quarterbacks would not be expected to put up substantial numbers in two years under two completely different schemes. However, people expected perfection out of Christian Hackenberg because of his potential and assumed that his numbers would remain unscathed when switching coaches. We saw in the 2014 campaign that Hackenberg’s ceiling is high, but he’s still only human.

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Hackenberg had a rough second season, inspiring doubt that he can get it done.

While regressing in almost every statistical category from his freshman year, Hackenberg had an off year largely in part to a young, inconsistent offensive line, a new scheme, and poor decision making. This off year made the majority of Happy Valley question Hackenberg’s ability, and even more so, the NFL scouts who remained head-over-heels for the Penn State “star.” Still having the NFL body and the intangibles to be a successful pro, many NFL scouts predict Hackenberg will be a top quarterback coming out of college. A pocket of fans distrust the overrated, spoiled five-star Hackenberg, while another pocket remains loyal to the elite NFL-bound Hackenberg waiting to erupt. The caliber of play he shows this coming season will sway one side or the other. 2015 is a crucial year for Christian Hackenberg.

This season will feature drama unmatched by his previous two years at Penn State. Hackenberg will have a big decision to make in the coming months — should he stay in Happy Valley for another season, or should he forgo his senior year to pursue a career in the NFL? Most have written it off as a forgone conclusion that Hackenberg will bolt to the pros after this season — the opportunity that’ll be presented to Hackenberg after 2015 might be too much to pass up. If he improves upon last season, Hackenberg is a sure bet to remain atop the NFL prospects board, in turn giving him a significant chance of being a top-ten selection in the 2016 NFL Draft. But if he regresses another season, Hackenberg could see his draft stock plummet further than most would’ve previously imagined.

One theory for the quarterback’s sophomore slump is that Franklin’s system is not fit for Hackenberg’s pro-style approach. That’s a reason, not an excuse — the expectations are still there for the Penn State quarterback, Hackenberg just needs to prove that he can still meet them. If Hackenberg’s big-time performance in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl was any indication on his future, then Penn State is in for something big.

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Christian Hackenberg can build a successful season with momentum from his stellar performance in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl.

Some of the most vocal doubters are Penn State students themselves. Penn State’s campus is home to mixed opinions, but a common denominator is one of understandable disappointment. Penn State fans were shown a glimpse of a star in 2013 during Hackenberg’s freshman season, and rather than see a step taken forward, they were met with the feelings of disappointment in the following year. Inconsistency is something that doesn’t resonate with fans. Hackenberg wants to learn from the frustrating season and come back in a big way.

“At the end of the day, you learn to love those experiences – the goods, the bads — and you get better from it, or you build off of it,” Hackenberg said. “Last season as a whole, I don’t really try to segment it. I just take everything I can from it and what I can learn from it and help this football team win as many games as it can.”

“That there were a lot of ups and downs, you were going to face adversity at times, but you have to continue to make sure you play through it and stay true to who you are.”

One of the biggest reasons for optimism is Hackenberg’s loaded arsenal of young, talented wideouts and halfbacks. Redshirt sophomore DaeSean Hamilton and redshirt junior Akeel Lynch— who both showed flashes of brilliance in 2014– headline the group of weapons at his disposal, along with Geno Lewis, Chris Godwin, Saeed Blacknall, Kyle Carter, Mike Gesicki, and new participants DeAndre Thompkins, Saquon Barkley, and Juwan Johnson. The list of talent for Hackenberg in 2015 is stronger and deeper than he’s ever had before, giving him an extra edge to succeed this season.

He also gets another year in James Franklin’s system, allowing him to work out the indiscretions of the 2014 season. Hackenberg is excited to work in his second year under the same program.

“This is the first time I’ve ever been in a system for two years,” Hackenberg said. “Talking to how some of these guys feel this year how much more comfortable they feel in the system, I think that year two is always the year that you see some jumps in a lot of areas. We’re excited and we’re working as hard as we can to make sure that is the case. I know, ultimately, what you are asking is ‘do we feel a lot more comfortable about it?’ We definitely do, and I think that’s huge, having one year under the belt.”

Hackenberg needs to adjust, and figure out just what went awry in 2014 that caused him to hit such a snag in his sophomore year. Another thing that needs to change is the expectation for Hackenberg’s play this season. Happy Valley is a place that was built around football and tradition. It is taken very seriously, and the expectations for the players involved can be staggering, especially the ones for its quarterback. Fans shouldn’t expect another slump of a season, but we also shouldn’t expect Penn State to ride Hackenberg’s shoulders to a National Championship. The Nittany Lion faithful should keep an open mind for the third-year quarterback. Even someone with elite potential can have another setback.

But that doesn’t mean give up hope on the junior quarterback. After all, he’s still ranked among the top quarterbacks in college football by experts. Hackenberg has all the ability in the world to fire up his play, and people whose professions are to know that kind of thing believe in him.

Should we expect perfection? No, no one is perfect even if they potentially have the highest ceiling ever for a Penn State quarterback. Can he come back from a disappointing 2014 season? Yes. He had his ups and downs, but now Christian Hackenberg is ready to prove the doubters wrong and exceed his 2013 form. He ended the season confidently, and will expect to build upon that to bring Happy Valley a bright future — while fulfilling the lofty expectations that were set the moment he stepped foot on campus.

About the Author

Jacob Abrams

Jacob Abrams is a sophomore from Oxford, PA, majoring in Management in the Smeal College of Business. Jacob is the President/GM of The LION 90.7 FM along with being a play-by-play commentator and sports talk show host. He is a sports fanatic, and strongly supports the Philadelphia Phillies, Flyers, Sixers, and the New Orleans Saints. He is a first-generation Penn Stater, and in his free time he likes to play sports and sing. You can follow him on Twitter @jake_abrams and contact him at [email protected]

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