UNIVERSITY PARK — Christian Hackenberg dropped to a knee on the Holuba Hall turf on Saturday, drew his right arm back and fired a warm-up pass to teammate D.J. Crook as nearly 100 media members and high school coaches watched.
Minutes later, the football exploded from Hackenberg’s right hand and cut through the air with such velocity that you could hear it slap against wideout Geno Lewis’ gloves 30 yards down the field.
“I’ve been very impressed with Hackenberg,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “Everybody told me ahead of time, but until you see it live — I’ve been very impressed with him.”
Franklin can see it. So can Hackenberg’s teammates.
Just four months removed from being named the Big Ten’s Freshman of the Year, the sophomore quarterback is bigger, faster and stronger.
But like last season, Hackenberg is learning a new offense and adjusting to new coaches. Unlike last season, when he was thrust into the spotlight with just a few summer throwing sessions and a 26-day training camp under his belt, he’s got a lot more time to do so.
“There’s not as much pressure on you of having to get it down,” Hackenberg said. “You can take more time on some things to understand them better and I think that’s been advantageous in terms of picking up the offense.”
He’s also picked up some extra size without sacrificing athleticism.
Hackenberg added 15 pounds of bulk during winter workouts and checks in at 235 now. Earlier this year, he ran the fastest 40-yard dash time of his career, a 4.73.
His rifle arm is noticeably more powerful, he said.
“I just feel like I’ve gotten stronger,” Hackenberg said. “I went through my first real weight training progression this winter so I feel like the ball’s coming out a little better.”
And he’s throwing to a host of new targets.
While he and Lewis hooked up for 17 of Lewis’ 18 catches catches last season, Hackenberg completed more than 52 percent of his passes to the departed Allen Robinson and Brandon Felder. In addition to Lewis, Richy Anderson and Matt Zanellato are the only returning wide receivers that have caught passes from Hackenberg in a game.
This spring, Hackenberg’s picked up where he left off with his returning targets from last season. He’s also working to develop chemistry with newcomers DaeSean Hamilton and DeAndre Thompkins.
Hamilton missed all of last season with a left wrist injury and is wearing a brace for added protection this spring. Thompkins — a true freshman — was playing for Swansboro High School last fall.
“We have a young receiving corps but they’ve all developed quickly,” Hackenberg said. “Throughout this spring they’ve really picked it up and I’m excited for the new challenge but I think these guys are ready for it and it’s going to give us an opportunity to really spread the ball around this year and let a lot of different guys get their hands on the ball and make plays.”
Hamilton and Thompkins both elicited praise from receivers coach Josh Gattis during individual drills on Saturday after each caught two passes from Hackenberg on deep comeback routes.
After reeling in Hackenberg’s pass, Hamilton spun on his heels to the outside, threw stiff-arm into Gattis and sprinted down the sideline to Gattis’ approval. Thompkins burst off the line and had to go up for an overthrown ball but hauled it in to cheers from his coach and a nod from Hackenberg.
While Hackenberg has complimented Thompkins’s willingness to learn, cornerback Jordan Lucas has been tasked with covering the speedy freshman. Lucas believes Thompkins can add playmaking ability to Penn State’s passing game immediately.
“He’s very fast. He’s quick on his feet and he has great ball skills,” Lucas said. “It’s his first time ever playing on the college level and I’m just excited to play with him and compete with him and get better with him.”
But Lewis, who finished last season with seven catches for 119 yards and two touchdowns and a handful of crunching downfield blocks, is trying to emerge as Hackenberg’s top option.
During a passing drill against a complete secondary and full complement of linebackers, Hackenberg looked for No. 7 — Lewis — as his primary target on three straight plays for two deep completions.
“Geno and I have been tight since I got up here,” Hackenberg said. “Last year you really got to see him play in the last game and the last couple of games and he’s accepted the role as one of the older guys in the receiving room. I enjoy just sitting down with him, talking ball, working with him and look forward to see how this offseason goes.”
Franklin said it’s been tough for Hackenberg to mentor his younger receivers as they are all trying to learn the new offense at the same time. Hackenberg said coordinator John Donovan’s pro-style offense is “pretty similar” to former coach Bill O’Brien’s NFL-inspired schemes.
And this time around, Hackenberg will have all summer to absorb more of Donovan’s offense and dial in his understanding of it. Spring ball is just the beginning.
“I think you’ll see Christian taking all the wideouts and the tight ends and coming in and watching film with them all offseason, going out and throwing individual routes, going out and throwing seven-on-seven,” Franklin said. “You’ve got a much better chance to improve your passing game between the end of spring and the beginning of fall camp than you do your running game.
“It’s hard to go out and work on the running game in the summer in shorts and T-shirts. But the quarterbacks, receivers and the DBs, they can go out and work all summer long and get a lot of work done.”