by Ben Jones
Sitting at home Christian Hackenberg watched Penn State celebrate a Big Ten title. It was a moment that was undoubtedly as exciting for him as it was bittersweet, seeing the final remaining members of his recruiting class having the night of their lives.
A passionate DaeSean Hamilton had one of the best games of his career. Garrett Sickels helped Penn State’s defense refocus in the second half. Jordan Smith made big plays in the secondary while Brandon Bell created havoc in the backfield.
So this was not a former player watching his old team win a title, years removed from his college days. Hackenberg could have been there. His final year of eligibility would have put him and his rocket arm on the field at Beaver Stadium in 2016.
But in truth, Penn State’s season probably would have ended differently.
All the same, the Nittany Lions wouldn’t have won the Big Ten title without him. Coaches often say that players are their best recruiters and Hackenberg’s early and strong commitment (and continued commitment) to Penn State was perhaps one of the most important moments in the stabilizing of the program. Penn State could and did survive the departure of Silas Redd and countless other players, but Hackenberg, that could have been the final straw.
So while it is very likely that Hackenberg’s pro-style mindset and physical tools wouldn’t have led the Nittany Lions to a Big Ten title, equally true is the unlikelihood that Penn State ever gets there without the foundation that he helped create.
Even having given offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead a ringing endorsement, the fact that a Big Ten title was never in the cards for Hackenberg seems to be something he at least quietly acknowledged while speaking on the phone with StateCollege.com on Sunday afternoon, simply answering the question if he ever wonders what it would have been like to play under Moorhead.
“Yeah,” Hackenberg says with a laugh, mulling things over. “I was really impressed meeting him in person. It’s hard to say either way whether or not I would have loved to have played in the offense or not, that’s hard to say. I’m happy with where I’m at and what I’m doing and I’m really at peace with all of that.
“I’m excited about where I am and my journey moving forward but I think Joe Moorhead has done an awesome job. He’s created an identity. He’s putting those guys in position to be successful and you can see those guys are really gravitating towards what he’s preaching in the team room and that just shows by their play and his ideology of offensive football. I think him and coach [Brent] Pry played big roles in that and getting those guys playing together.”
There is a lot of truth in what Hackenberg says, or rather doesn’t say — that Penn State’s success this season is largely the result of an offense that Hackenberg wouldn’t have done well in. Trace McSorley is the perfect fit for a team that needed him at the exact moment he became available. Hackenberg had won plenty of games for Penn State in spite of the team around him, but that next step was going to be taken by someone else. Comparing the former Penn State quarterback to Moses simply screams of hyperbole, but Hackenberg was never going to see the promise land.
“I take pride in my role and my legacy I guess or my three years in terms of, you know, I know what I accomplished while I was up there and I’m extremely proud of that,” Hackenberg said. “I don’t know if pride is the right word. I am excited to see that we just won the Big Ten East, four years, five years after sanctions. I’m proud of my role within that.”
As far as McSorley’s rise to stardom, it something that Hackenberg saw coming the moment they met, maybe even the first time he watched him play back in high school. Maybe not to this extent, but there is nothing all that surprising to the now New York Jet about how well McSorley has played, especially that tough-as-nails attitude.
“I loved Trace the first time he stepped on campus,” Hackenberg said. “He’s a kid who I gravitated to from a character standpoint. He’s a hard worker, he does everything right, he pays attention in meetings, he wants to learn, he understands the game.
“It was funny, I actually got to see Trace when I was a sophomore in high school, when we won the state championship I was able to see Trace play in his state championship for his freshman year and I watched him play and I was impressed then. He’s just really, people think scrappy is a bad thing but he is scrappy as hell. He gets the job done, he’s a competitor and he showed up every day at practice and he and I would go at it more so than people probably would think when it came to practice, whether it came to bucket drills or something. So he always really had that special edge to him and I always really liked working with Trace, I knew that he could be a really good football player when his time came and he has done nothing but prove that thesis correct so I’m really happy for him. He’s definitely earned it and he has done it the right way.”
Now Hackenberg continues his focus forward toward his NFL career, but for more than a few Saturdays this fall there is a certain sense of happiness that comes with the success Penn State has seen since his departure. Maybe no longer the perfect match, both Hackenberg and Penn State are in better places apart, but they both owe plenty to each other. It’s complicated and sometimes it has been messy, but the love and respect, that isn’t going anywhere.
“I think kind of going back to when I first got there, one of the first things that I remember talking to the older guys and even talking to Coach O’Brien, this program is so much bigger than any individual that ever played there and it’s huge,” Hackenberg said in reflection. “It was an honor to wear the blue and white and wear it while I did, I think that especially with everything that was going on, how we won this season making halftime adjustments, coming back and scrapping, clawing, I think that’s very characteristic of what the entire program has gone through the past four or five years now. I thought it was very symbolic. I thought it was very cool to see it come to fruition.
“I hold a lot of those guys in really high regards in terms of friends and as people and I don’t think anything is ever going to change that.”
Legacies can be confusing and often debated aspects of an athletic career. Most times they don’t really last the test of time. Players come and go, and very few see their names beloved for years and years in a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately climate.
But Saturday’s win seemingly has legitimized and solidified the importance that Hackenberg had on the program during his three years in the blue and white.
And with it an equally odd truth:
That Penn State probably wouldn’t have won the Big Ten with him, but it couldn’t have won it without him either.