When Christian Hackenberg takes calls on Saturdays, Ricky Rahne’s voice crackles through the earpiece on Penn State’s sideline telephone.
With offensive coordinator John Donovan nearby in the press box, Rahne, Penn State’s quarterbacks coach, has a few things to go over with the Nittany Lions’ young signal-caller.
What did Hackenberg see on that third down? How can he attack that defensive look better next time?
Was Hackenberg’s most recent throw off the mark? Did he force a throw into coverage? Why?
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Did he misread a defensive alignment or miss a step in his progression? How come?
Now two games into his first season mentoring Hackenberg, Rahne is finding out his conversations over sideline phones and headsets with the sophomore quarterback usually don’t involve much nitpicking of Hackenberg’s game. Hackenberg does that himself.
“There’s been a couple plays in each game where he just had lapses in judgment and really, that’s my job to get that fixed,” Rahne said. “But overall he’s played very well. He’s thrown the ball accurately and those sort of things and he’s made the plays that are there. I’ve been pleased with his play, it’s cleaning up those three to four to five plays a game that we need to clean up. Some of those plays you see, some of them you probably don’t.”
Hackenberg sees them all. And not just on the playback when he’s watching game film soon after. He relives them in his head as he’s walking off the field.
While the 19-year-old from Palmyra, Va., already holds a handful of Penn State passing records with just 14 games under his belt, Hackenberg’s the first to admit he has plenty to learn.
“It’s pretty evident that I’ve been forcing some throws,” Hackenberg said. “I think I’ve been playing pretty well with the exception of four or five plays each game and I just need to continue to correct those. And it just comes down to understanding when to take a shot and when not to take a shot.”
Hackenberg’s taken plenty. He’s completed seven passes of 25-or-more yards and has thrown more than a dozen deep balls this season. He’s hooked up with receivers for long touchdowns of 79 and 44 yards so far.
He’s also taken a few chances that haven’t paid off, and he has not protected the football as well as he did late last year.
After finishing last season strong — Hackenberg led Penn State to an upset win at Wisconsin and threw just two interceptions over his final 157 dropbacks — he’s thrown a Big Ten-worst four interceptions this year. Hackenberg was picked off twice in the season opener against Central Florida and tossed two more against Akron on Saturday.
Hackenberg’s two recent interceptions both came in the red zone. Both passes were floated deep and snagged by Zips defenders who Hackenberg missed hovering around the goal line.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt when guys have the arm talent that he does, they feel like they can make some throws that most normal human beings wouldn’t try,” Franklin said. “So that’s where I think it factors in a little bit.”
But with risk comes reward and Hackenberg’s play has often yielded the latter as he’s adapted nicely to the college game. In 14 starts, Hackenberg has seemed far more experienced than his youth would suggest.
Take a look at his performances in the clutch.
Hackenberg has led three game-winning or game-tying fourth-quarter drives so far and has been at his best in the fourth quarter. Hackenberg’s thrown eight fourth-quarter touchdowns in his career. To go along with that, Hackenberg’s fourth-quarter passer rating was 152.73 last season and it’s up to 154.96 this season. His six 300-plus yard passing games are tied for most in school history with Matt McGloin.
His poise in the huddle and pocket was the hallmark of Hackenberg’s play last season, according to most of his coaches and teammates. Rahne said he has to remind himself often that Hackenberg is still just a sophomore.
“Every day,” Rahne said. “Not only because of his genetic gifts that he has but also because of his maturity and watching him deal with and interact with all the pressures that he has every day. I have to remind myself that in the rarest instance he does act like a 19-year-old kid. I have to remind myself that in fact that is how old he is.”
Despite his relative youth, Hackenberg was named as the second-youngest captain in program history and has been able to take on more on-field responsibility. He progressed quickly from using the half-field reads former coach Bill O’Brien utilized to make Hackenberg’s transition easier as a true freshman and was progressing through multiple targets by the end of 2013.
This season, Hackenberg’s picked up where he left off despite learning a new offense in the wake of O’Brien’s departure. Now he’s got more chances to call his own shots and make his own pre-snap adjustments.
“He’s a very bright kid. We give him the ability (to check in and out of plays),” Rahne said. “Some of the checks are built into the plays, some of them are week-by-week checks based on certain looks that the defense can present us. He’s getting more freedom as he becomes more comfortable with the offense. I know he enjoys that freedom. Most quarterbacks do.”
As a result, Rahne said, Penn State’s offense has found a certain balance without the help of a consistent running game.
Hackenberg and his receivers have displayed solid chemistry through the first two weeks. Seven different Nittany Lions have caught passes from Hackenberg with Geno Lewis and DaeSean Hamilton drawing almost equal targets.
“I’ve been pleased with how he’s been working through his progressions,” Rahne said. “It’s allowed us to get the ball to a bunch of different people. If you look at our numbers, a bunch of different guys have catches this year and that’s been able to keep us balanced. A lot of times people talk about run-pass balance but the fact that matters is we’ve been able to balance it out by how many different people are touching the football.”
Hackenberg is quick to voice his confidence that Penn State’s ground game, which is averaging just 82 yards per game, will get going. If not, he’s got plenty of confidence in his arm and his receivers down the field.
“I wouldn’t say it’s frustrating,” Hackenberg said. “We’re working extremely hard day in and day out and whatever you have to do to win the football game is ultimately what we’re going to do as a team. Definitely balance is something we’re looking for and what we’re working for each day.”
Hackenberg has rarely showed frustration and does not let negative body language betray him. If he’s got a negative thought, it comes out as self criticism when he’s on the phone on the sideline after a poor play.
Franklin, who like Rahne, played quarterback, prefers to let Hackenberg take the call before pulling him aside. Franklin and Rahne both know how fired up they could get after making a mistake. They see it — Hackenberg’s competitive level — as another promising attribute.
“Christian is so competitive and so hard on himself, he’s very similar to how me and Ricky Rahne were I think as players, so I don’t think he needs it right then,” Franklin said. “I kind of let him go to the sideline, get on the headset, get a chance to talk to Ricky and then I’ll visit with him a little later, I’ll pull him aside.
“It’s all based on the kid and what their personality’s like. Some guys you’ve got to get after them. Christian’s as critical of himself as anybody.”