Christian Hackenberg has spent plenty of time on himself this offseason.
He’s gained plenty of arm strength thanks to the 20 pounds of muscle he packed on in Penn State’s weight room. He’s obtained a better grasp of offensive concepts and how to adjust to defenses with ample time in the film room. He’s taken his preparation outside to Penn State’s practice fields too, where he’s improved his drop steps. They’re quicker, more precise. As a result, his release is faster, he said.
The time for the sophomore quarterback to put his improved skill set to work is almost here. Penn State begins its season against Central Florida in Dublin, Ireland on Saturday.
“I definitely would say I feel more confident with everything that I’m doing,” Hackenberg said. “I’ve done it now. I have spring under my belt, summer and fall camp so I feel a lot more confident going into this first game. But really, my mindset hasn’t changed much. I’m going to go out there and do my role to help the team win.”
Those around Hackenberg, who see the sophomore quarterback on a daily basis, believe he is primed for big things. While the humble signal-caller from Palmyra, Va., said he was surprised and humbled to be named one of Penn State’s seven captains, it came as no surprise to others.
“He’s been exactly what we hoped he would be,” offensive coordinator John Donovan said. “He’s a very talented kid with a lot of ability. He studies the game. He loves the game. He’s been a great leader with the guys and he’s everything you want on and off the field and what you expect at that position.”
While he was thrust into the spotlight last season — Hackenberg played his first collegiate game in an NFL stadium as an 18-year-old rookie with only a handful of training camp practices under his belt — Hackenberg took plenty of cues from the older players on the team. He worked out with Allen Robinson and Brandon Felder specifically last summer and developed bonds with both of them, looking up to both receivers and respecting their seniority.
But now, Robinson and Felder — players who combined to catch 118 of Hackenberg’s 231 completions, or 51 percent — are gone.
But that doesn’t mean Hackenberg was working alone all summer. In fact, he spent a lot of time throwing to a fellow Virginia product DaeSean Hamilton in addition to a number of true freshmen looking to crack the lineup opposite and inside starter Geno Lewis.
Although a lingering wrist injury from his final high school season made redshirting Hamilton an easy choice for former coach Bill O’Brien, the injury didn’t prevent Hamilton from starting an early relationship with his quarterback. A product of Fork Union Military Academy, Hackenberg was already familiar with Hamilton, who played about 80 miles north at Mountain View High. There, Hamilton turned in an impressive senior season in which he caught 64 passes for 1,073 yards and 10 touchdowns en route to being named the Commonwealth District’s Offensive Player of the Year.
“When we first got here, before he knew about his wrist last year, he and I threw two or three times,” Hackenberg said. “And he was with me every day this summer when I went out. He and I have developed a really good relationship and a very good connection there with that. he’s been a guy that’s showed he wants to work hard in the film room, getting extra work on the field. DaeSean is ready to play. He’s like Geno, those two guys are really focused and understand what they want to do.”
And Hamilton will play. A lot. The 6-foot-1, 203-pound wideout earned the starting spot with a strong training camp. He’ll join Lewis, who caught 18 passes for 234 and three touchdowns, as Hackenberg’s primary targets.
In addition to a strong group of tight ends, Hackenberg said he’s confident in the options Penn State will have in the passing game. After all, he said, there are a handful of young, hungry players behind Lewis and Hamilton looking to get in the rotation. Veteran Matt Zanellato is still trying to earn significant offensive playing time while true freshmen Saeed Blacknall and Chris Godwin have turned heads in camp.
“We’re pretty solid across the board,” Donovan said. “Geno’s the guy out there, DaeSean’s been great in camp and then Saeed and Chris, for young guys, have learned really a lot in a short amount of time. It says a lot for them to be able to be in the mix.”
Hackenberg knows what that’s all about, having won the Big Ten’s Freshman of the Year award last season.
Maybe he’s gained a few years mentally, too? Hackenberg already speaks like an upperclassmen.
“I think the younger guys have showed that they’re eager to work and they’re eager to make plays for us and that’s a key part of their development, especially being so young like they all are,” Hackenberg said.