Scoring two rushing touchdowns in eight games doesn’t necessarily correspond with being a mobile, dual-threat quarterback. And pocket passer Christian Hackenberg hardly fits that bill.
But the signal caller used his legs to score an impressive nine-yard touchdown Saturday against Illinois. The freshman, who hasn’t proven particularly mobile thus far, said after the game he hopes to use his legs more moving forward.
“It’s still coming to fruition, just being able to adjust to the speed,” Hackenberg said. “I definitely work on that in practice, just understanding if it’s not there… just take my time and put my head down and go and get some type of yardage.”
That’s exactly what the 18-year-old did. In the second quarter following a delay of game penalty, Hackenberg and Co. were set up on second down with nine yards between them and the goal line.
The quarterback took the snap, dropped back several yards, went through his reads, and saw the Illini had dropped back the majority of their defenders into coverage. He saw a lane, stepped up and went with it.
Hackenberg ran straight down the middle, eluded one Illinois defender, was surrounded by five more at the two-yard line and lunged headfirst into the end zone for a score. Despite the ball popping out after stretching for the touchdown, officials ruled that the freshman had broken the plane before the drop and gotten the score.
Coach Bill O’Brien said after the game that Hackenberg has had opportunities to use his legs all season but has hesitated and held onto the ball too long. The freshman has attributed many of the 19 sacks he’s taken to holding on longer than he should have.
Naturally, the passer is trying to drive the ball downfield with his arm.
“We’ve worked in practice on some scramble drills, because he can run,” O’Brien said. “He’s a good athlete. He took advantage of that on that play. I think we’ve got to teach him to get his pads down, though.”
Quarterback guru George Whitfield, who operates his own quarterback academy and worked with Hackenberg this past summer, said Hackenberg has the athletic ability to be mobile and use his legs to cause problems for defenses.
“He’s your prototypical 6-4, 225-pound guy who, if he leaves the pocket, that could be 20, 30, 40 yards downfield, and if you try to tackle him, that’s a business decision you got to make,” Whitfield said in October.
He added that the young quarterback’s ability as a runner is a product of his competitiveness and willingness to keep on learning.
“He’s stolen some first downs with the sneak, he’s extended some plays, he’s been hit in the mouth one play, comes right back and makes a big third down play,” Whitfield said. “All those sorts of things kind of go to the competitiveness. Are your gloves always up?”
Anna Orso can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (814) 865-1828. Follow her on Twitter at @anna_orso.