Christian Hackenberg looked like every bit the player fans expected when he stepped onto the field as a freshman at Penn State two seasons ago. Expectations were high in year two, but the Big Ten Freshman of the Year had a rocky sophomore campaign.
Hackenberg was the 13th ranked overall recruit in the country, the nation’s top quarterback recruit and the top overall recruit in the state of Virginia. Recruited by former assistants Charles London and Charlie Fisher, he stuck to his commitment through the NCAA‘s sanctions and was invaluable in keeping a competitive team intact.
Bill O’Brien, who coached Pro Bowl and future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady as an assistant coach in the NFL, was named the head coach of the program after the university parted ways with Joe Paterno‘s staff and brought an offense to Penn State that Hackenberg thrived in. As a freshman, he threw 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions and led Penn State to a 7-5 record. It’s an average season under normal circumstances, but impressive given the program was still under sanctions and led by a true freshman quarterback.
Year two was more challenging for Hackenberg and the Nittany Lions. O’Brien accepted a head coaching position with the Houston Texans, leaving Penn State searching for a their third coach in four years. Their choice — former Vanderbilt head coach, James Franklin. Hackenberg struggled under Franklin’s offense and the team took a step back in the post-O’Brien era. Hackenberg’s production declined and he finished the season with just 12 touchdowns while tossing 15 interceptions and the team finished the regular season with a 6-6 record.
An easy scapegoat for the team’s struggles last season would be the offensive line. Hackenberg was sacked 44 times and was constantly moving outside of the pocket, but part of the reason for that is Franklin’s desire for a mobile quarterback. O’Brien’s offense was designed for pro-style quarterback like Hackenberg. Franklin’s offense is designed for quarterbacks who can move the pocket. The head coach and the signal caller were clearly not on the same page.
Penn State’s success in the Big Ten this season will depend entirely on whether Hackenberg’s development in Franklin’s offense. That said, Franklin needed to make adjustments to make Hackenberg feel more comfortable and we’ll soon find out if he has. A head coach recruits players based on the type of system that they like to run. Franklin’s targets have been and will continue to be quarterbacks who can move and break the pocket, but for the time being, the offense must complement the team’s star quarterback. Penn State has the potential to produce a winning football team this season, and those hopes will live or die with Christian Hackenberg.
Jason Shawley is a Featured Writer for RantSports.com covering Big Ten Football. Follow him on Twitter @jshawls.