Bolstered By Offensive Improvements, Christian Hackenberg Is Poised For His Third Season Opener
Christian Hackenberg has faired well in his first two season openers as a Nittany Lion. Exactly two years ago from Tuesday, Hackenberg, the second true freshman to open the season at quarterback for Penn State since 1910, completed 22-31 passes for 278 yards, two touchdowns, and two picks to defeat Syracuse at MetLife Stadium. A year later, this time at Dublin’s Croke Park, No. 14 threw for 454 yards, then scrambled and led a game-winning scoring drive.
Hackenberg again will begin his season at a neutral site, but he should feel comfortable handling the first game jitters.
“I trust try to prepare as well as I can, I think as a unit we always come out, we execute well, it’s not just me,” Hackenberg said Tuesday regarding his first game successes. “I’m excited about what that brings. I’m ready to roll, I think we have a great game plan.”
A lot’s changed in these two years, but there are still some constants that will line up besides Hackenberg on Saturday when Penn State travels to Lincoln Financial Field to battle the Temple Owls. In his first opener against Syracuse, Hackenberg found Geno Lewis down the middle early in the fourth quarter. Lewis sprinted to the end zone for a 54-yard score — a play that turned out to be the decisive score in the game. A year later, this time against Central Florida, Hackenberg again found Lewis late in the third quarter. The 79-yard bomb secured a 10-point lead, and set the stage for Sam Ficken’s late-game heroics.
Lewis is back this year — though he’s listed behind DaeSean Hamilton in the season’s first official depth chart — and he’s joined by a slew of impressive returning receivers. It’s that substantial array of options that’s making Hackenberg excited just talking about the notion.
“I think they’re faster, stronger, I think the biggest thing is they understand things more. Last year, we were just going through the motions, but you can see a more concise focus,” he said. “I think the intricacies of the position is something they’ve really dove in to. I think they’ve matured at a pretty amazing pace, its really good to see them work, they work together as a unit as well as any on the team, in terms of how they gel and how they push each other.”
While Hackenberg frequently gelled with his receivers, his relationship with offensive coordinator John Donovan appeared to be strained at times. Donovan cycled between coaching on the field, where he helped guide Hackenberg through his struggles, and the press box, where he preferred the bird’s-eye view that it provided. According to the game notes released prior to Tuesday’s press conference, it appears that Donovan will return to the box to begin the season.
“I think as an offensive unit we needed one of those guys down there,” he said, referring to quarterbacks coach Ricky Rahne, who will be on the field. “Having either or, whatever they were most comfortable with, I was most comfortable with. I think Coach Donovan decided to come up, and Coach Rahne decided to come down.”
Hackenberg also struggled mightily playing behind his shaky offensive line last season. But 2014 is now in the rearview mirror, as junior college transfer Paris Palmer looks to add an element of consistency as the starting left tackle — a concept last year’s team simply couldn’t grasp. Palmer will be joined up front by Brendan Mahon, Angelo Mangiro, Brian Gaia, and Andrew Nelson — all of whom return starting experience from last season. The names may not have changed much, but more depth, experience, and a new big body in Palmer provide added reasons for optimism when it comes to protecting Hackenberg.
“I think [Mangiro] has done an awesome job, he’s really taken the reigns this offseason,” Hackenberg said. “He and Coach Hand have really done a great job. We’re really just trying to get on the same page, [Mangiro] has gotten a good job with that, he really helped [Palmer] a lot.”
That’s all to suggest the pieces around Hackenberg are there for a successful season, or at least an improvement over last year’s sophomore slump that still saw him pass for 2,977 yards. But the noticeably stronger No. 14 may think he’s not the most crucial element in his own success after all.
“I don’t necessarily think it’s about me, I have to do what I have to do within our unit, but as a whole we’ve got to be a lot more consistent,” he explained. “One player’s not gonna turn the tide, you need 11 players to execute.”
They’ll have their first chance this Saturday.