Brandon Hackenberg is in a unique position as an athlete at Penn State. He shares DNA with one of Penn State’s greatest quarterbacks in history, and now the junior center back and self-described “QB” of the defense is trying to cement his own legacy on the pitch.
“I kind of came here expecting to be called Christian’s little brother and what not,” Hackenberg said. “But I kind of wanted to start making a name for myself and I think I’m starting to do that which is awesome.”
Before his time at Penn State, Hackenberg’s older brother Christian broke record after record as the starting quarterback on the football team. His brother’s experience had a positive impact on Brandon prior to joining the soccer team.
“When he was here I would come visit and hang out with the guys. Some of the older guys who are graduating this year helped get me here,” Hackenberg said. “I think that just talking to him and picking his brain on what it takes to be a Division I athlete definitely helped me.”
Hackenberg has been a key part to a much improved Nittany Lion defense this season.
Before this year, Hackenberg only saw the pitch occasionally, but over the course of the season he has shown the quality he adds to the side as a consistent starter.
“He’s really dedicated, very focused,” coach Jeff Cook said. “Of all our guys, he had one of the best summer periods. He worked really hard over the summer and came in extremely fit and showed his commitment to the group and that’s what we see every day. He’s very consistent, very humble, and I’m really pleased that he’s seeing the rewards of that kind of determination and commitment to his development.”
Hackenberg himself noted that he took this offseason to bring his game to another level. From last season to this season, and with a new coach, Hackenberg has found his niche in the Penn State starting lineup as a confident and consistent center back, crediting some of his development to conversations with veteran Penn State defender Dani Marks.
“A lot of different aspects of my technical game [have improved], and over the summer I got a lot more fit than I was last year and that made a big difference for the coaches. Other than that it's just working on the little things in my game like simple passes and communicating with people better,” Hackenberg said.
Toward the end of the regular season, Hackenberg scored his first career goal in a match against Detroit Mercy at home that ended in a 2-0 win.
“It was awesome,” Hackenberg said. “You always dream about scoring your first collegiate career goal and I’m sure everyone says that, but it's awesome to finally get on the score sheet.”
Hackenberg is a threat to score on set pieces and is great attacking in the air, but the most impressive part of his game is his passing ability from the back line.
With his natural left foot and playing on the left side, Hackenberg is always looking to make a game-changing pass from his defensive position, but he also knows how to control the game when need be and retain possession.
“Coach is always big on playing out of the back and I think he has a lot of confidence in me playing out of the back and I take that personally,” Hackenberg said. “I try to be the quarterback back there, I think I see the field well and I think my passing has improved and I give a lot of credit to the guys that help me see the passes and get open for me, it’s a team effort.”
Just like his brother, Hackenberg’s feel and touch on his passes is of the highest quality.
In the game against Detroit Mercy where he scored his first career goal, Hackenberg completed 34 of 40 attempted passes. In the opening minutes of the match, Hackenberg found striker Jeremy Rafanello on a through pass from his center back position that led Rafanello in on goal for a one on one opportunity that was barely ruled offside.
Hackenberg was in complete control at the back and able to dictate the tempo of the game with his vision and calm demeanor.
“His left-footed passing is something that you really look for as a coach, as someone who can distribute the ball on the left side and be a natural left footer,” Cook said. “He’s just a tough guy who will put his body on the line to defend well and I think he does a great job.”
Hackenberg was also very disciplined during the regular season. Of all the starting midfielders and defenders for Penn State, Hackenberg was the only one to not receive a single yellow or red card.
Against a lot of their opponents this year, the Nittany Lions have focused on holding a majority of possession and keeping their opponents in their own half of the field.
When playing that possessive style, the team is susceptible to counter attacks from the opposition, especially when the attack has a lot of pace in it.
In an upset win at home against Wisconsin, Penn State had the widespread majority of possession as the Badgers sat back and absorbed pressure, but there were multiple occasions where Wisconsin threatened to score on the counter.
“He is very good on his left foot, he’s growing in confidence, but what I was most happy about was one of the main things we talk about, preventing counter attacks,” Cook said. “I think we noted that we had more passes in the game than Wisconsin and a greater share of possession, which is great, but the moment that you lose it there is that transition element to the game, and I thought that Brandon was excellent in that department in snuffing out some counter attacks and reacting really well in some tough situations.”
Hackenberg’s success this season has been a product of his hard offseason work and growing confidence, but he is still quick to compliment his teammates when the talk is focused on his own successes.
One of those teammates that has noticed his contribution is captain Aaron Molloy, one of the central midfielders Hackenberg is often feeding the ball to during a change of possession.
“He’s fantastic, he wins all the balls in the air, he’s a big boy, he communicates very well, he’s left footed, he wins all of his tackles and he’s just been solid for us, never had a poor game all year,” Molloy said. “He’s not played much the last couple years and since coach Cook came in everything’s been going well for him so I’m very happy for Hack.”
Hackenberg has helped this year’s Penn State side to a No. 6 seed in the Big Ten tournament, where the Nittany Lions will face Michigan. Hackenberg and the rest of the defense will have to have one of their better performances of the season to get the result they’re hoping for.