As I try rolling through the preseason buzz from both the media and the fans, I notice one topic that is picking up speed: Christian Hackenberg‘s Heisman Trophy chances. While I am a believer in the Penn State quarterback, to say he’s ready to emerge at that level is simply too far fetched, and I don’t buy it for a second.
Hackenberg’s freshman campaign was a joy to watch. He was an easy pick for Big 10 rookie of the year with 2,955 yards, 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. I think he deserves even a little more than the initial praise because of the fact that he was a true freshman constantly trying to learn and evolve within then-coach Bill O’Brien‘s offense.
Then there were the sanctions and low expectations; it probably wasn’t supposed to be a successful season for Hackenberg as a kid fresh out of high school. But he continued to get better and better in each of his 12 starts before capping it all off with four touchdown passes against Wisconsin.
One of the luxuries Hackenberg will have to do without this season is a true weapon at wide receiver, Allen Robinson, who departed early for the NFL. Robinson was everything for Penn State’s offense. Yes, Hackenberg has talent, but you can’t convince me he had a successful freshman season without a guy like Robinson out wide.
Here’s a look at what Hackenberg will be missing this season.
But moving on…
A second luxury that will be lacking this season is offensive line play. Last year, the Nittany Lions’ line was protective of Hackenberg and especially excellent in passing down situations. Originally, the hit to this year’s unit was going to be three starters lost, but with Miles Dieffenbach out for the year with a torn ACL suffered in practice this spring, that leaves Donovan Smith as the only lineman with starting experience.
The formula doesn’t look pretty on the line. Now you’re talking about a quarterback who likely won’t have that go-to option at wide receiver when the pressure mounts in the backfield because of a struggling offensive line.
One area that may prove to be the saving grace of Hackenberg’s growing pains is at running back, a unit which returns its top three performers from last season. It’ll be senior Zach Zwinak, who rushed for 989 yards last year, carrying most of the weight this season. Fellow senior Bill Belton is going to be in the mix, too, after posting 803 yards in 2013.
Now, I know it’ll be difficult for the run game to get much of a punch in if the offensive line can’t generate a push, but the potential for a solid ground attack is certainly there, and that would really help alleviate some of the pressure being placed on Hackenberg right now.
As I said, I’m a firm believer in Hackenberg; I think he’s going to continue to develop nicely under James Franklin and his staff, and the Heisman talk may be due in a season or two. But for now, there are too many negative variables standing in the way.