Christian Hackenberg clenched his fists and made contact with the turf, burying his head in the Minnesota grass. He’d solely sealed the deal. Penn State was going to lose.
The true freshman fumbled a snap late in the fourth quarter last weekend against the Gophers, shattering every last hope the Nittany Lions had of making a spectacular comeback.
His frustration was palpable.
The 18-year-old has heard his fair share of criticisms as of late, with fans and media speculating the quarterback has hit a wall. They say his development has halted, and he’s no longer progressing. Rather, is he moving backward?
“I've got a lot of belief in this kid,” coach Bill O’Brien said, “and I think he's going to be better and better. We need him to be better against Purdue. Like I've said, there's been a lot of good and then there have been some things that we just need to take from this stage to that stage and get it all the way to the next level. That's what we're trying to do.”
O’Brien said the freshman has been improving every week, noting specifically a drive during the Minnesota game where Hackenberg had to make a check to draw the defense to show its scheme. He checked the play, made the right call, but didn’t complete the pass.
Now, for Hackenberg, it’s about executing.
“I think it’s just recognition at the line of scrimmage as to what’s going on, and it’s a complex offense,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s all about the team, so you really got to try and do your part and do your job, and I feel like I’ve done that.”
While a lot of his development has admittedly been outside the stat sheet, the quarterback’s passing success compared to similar true freshman quarterbacks is on par.
It’s tough to compare the very successful true freshman quarterbacks with Hackenberg, as many of them were athletic, dual-threat signal callers whose passing yards simply can’t be compared with a pro-style quarterback’s.
So go back to 2009. Matt Barkley led USC to a 9-4 season and a BCS bowl win over Boston College. On the season, the true freshman had a 131.3 passer efficiency rating and threw for 2,735 yards and 15 touchdowns.
In 2004, true freshman Chad Henne led his team to a Big Ten Championship and the Rose Bowl while logging 2,743 yards and 25 touchdowns, all the while recording a 132.56 passer efficiency rating.
Hackenberg’s numbers aren’t far off from those. The young Lion has a great No. 1 receiver, but not many consistent receivers behind Allen Robinson.
Still, he’s on par to finish the season with 2,916 yards (more than Barkley and Henne), 18 touchdowns (more than Barkley), and currently has a 127 passer efficiency rating.
Hackenberg still has a lot of growing ahead of him, he’s said, but knows he has O’Brien to understand the challenges of leading a decimated team after being on campus for just a few months.
“[O’Brien] has embraced me,” Hackenberg said. “I’m a young player. I’m 18. A freshman. Everything I’m seeing is for the first time, and he’s been really understanding."
Anna Orso can be reached at email@example.com or (814) 865-1828. Follow her on Twitter at @anna_orso.