Penn State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said he’ll never forget the team’s first spring practice in 2014.
Shoop remembers standing behind the secondary in Holuba Hall and watching the ball come out of quarterback Christian Hackenberg’s hand.
Shoop was going into his first season at Penn State and the 26th season of his coaching career at the time.
“It was like nothing I had ever seen before,” Shoop said. “The guy could make every throw. Clearly, he’s right out of central casting.”
Shoop recreated that scene during Penn State’s media day at Beaver Stadium on Thursday before calling Hackenberg “a special guy” and “the undisputed leader” of the offense. Shoop led a dominant Nittany Lion unit that ranked second in the nation in total defense — allowing 278.7 yards per game — in 2014 and is looking forward to this season’s group establishing its own identity. Hackenberg threw 12 touchdowns and 15 interceptions and completed 55.8 percent of his passes in his sophomore season and said he learned to fight through the ups and downs he endured.
The defensive coordinator and quarterback have developed a unique relationship.
Shoop knew Hackenberg’s father from the second stop in his college coaching career at Virginia. Shoop was an offensive graduate assistant coach working with quarterbacks, and Erick Hackenberg was the Cavaliers’ third-string quarterback.
“So I knew who Christian Hackenberg was long before I was at Penn State,” Shoop said.
When Shoop arrived at Penn State, he was immediately impressed by the quarterback.
Hackenberg built a relationship with the defensive coach, picking his brain on how to attack specific situations.
“Coach Shoop’s one of the best that does it in the business,” Hackenberg said. “So for me, having a resource like that and not using it would be a failure in my mind from my end.”
Shoop and Hackenberg talk often.
Many times, they provide each other with feedback right after practice. Shoop will offer a compliment and ask what the quarterback was thinking on a specific play. The coach will ask how a scheme looked. Hackenberg will point out if a defensive player is giving away a blitz.
“He’s so mature, it’s a lot like talking to a pro,” Shoop said. “He’s very advanced in his knowledge of the game and his expectations in the game.”
Shortly after Media Day ended, the Nittany Lions announced their 2015 team captains. Hackenberg, safety Jordan Lucas, center Angelo Mangiro, linebacker Von Walker and defensive tackle Anthony Zettel will lead Penn State this season.
It is Hackenberg’s second consecutive year as a captain.
Penn State’s sounding board
Penn State coach James Franklin offered some insight into former NFL coach Jim Haslett’s role with the program.
Haslett, who is serving as a consultant, will not be coaching players. He’ll be watching the offense, defense and special teams and providing his perspective to the coaching staff.
“It might be the best deal in the country because I think our (graduate assistants) are making more money than him,” Franklin said. He’d joked at Big Ten Media Days in Chicago last week that “any head coach would want an ‘intern’ with 30-plus years of experience.”
Haslett was the head coach of the New Orleans Sains from 2000-05 and was the St. Louis Rams interim head coach for part of the 2008 season. He also was the Washington Redskins defensive coordinator from 2010-14. Haslett’s son, Chase, is now the quarterback at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
Haslett also has connections to the Penn State staff. He coached with Jim Pry, who is the father of linebackers coach and co-defensive coordinator Brent Pry and was Franklin’s offensive coordinator at East Stroudsburg.
Haslett was also the defensive coordinator at the University at Buffalo when Brent Pry was a defensive back. Pry said Haslett has been a family friend for a long time.
Pry remembers taking annual trips with the Louisiana-Lafayette staff to Saints training camp during Haslett’s tenure.
“I’ll never forget walking in there into his office, expecting this big-time head coach NFL office, and he got barely anything in the office and there was a mattress in the middle of the floor,” said Pry, who was Louisiana-Lafayette’s defensive coordinator from 2002-06. “That’s just the kind of coach he is. He’s a football guy, man. He’s a football junkie.”
Pry said he thinks it’s been refreshing to Haslett to be around the college game.
“He’s a sounding board and he’s a resource really for everybody in the building,” Franklin said.
Hamilton leads young receivers
Franklin said there is a noticeable difference in Penn State’s young group of receivers as they transition from year one to year two of their college careers.
Receivers coach Josh Gattis agreed.
“They’re just able to go out there and play much faster,” said Gattis. “We put a lot on our receivers in our system. They gotta know hot routes, they gotta know coverage adjustments, they gotta read coverages, they gotta be involved in the run game.”
Gattis said he was impressed with the success of his group, as they were predominantly freshmen.
“They’re going to be able to carry over a lot of confidence into this season,” he said.
DaeSean Hamilton, who was Hackenberg’s top target last season as a redshirt freshman with 82 receptions for 899 yards and two touchdowns, said the group of receivers knows they still have a long way to go, but they’re “hungry” to improve.
“We’re our biggest critics,” he said. “All of us, we compete to get better every day and we critique ourselves and learn from each other. We watched film three times a week over the summer and learned from that.”
Hamilton is expected to lead the group of young receivers, and said his parents, who are both former Marines, help keep him grounded and focused on the work ahead of him as his “toughest critics.
“They keep me level,” he said. “They make sure I never get too high (on myself), or too low.”
Hamilton’s mom, nicknamed “Max,” also sends him an inspirational Tweet every morning, which he says helps him realize his blessings every day and stay focused — and he’s not the only one.
“Those Tweets help me too,” said Gattis.
Time for more Thompkins?
Gattis said he expects redshirt freshman DeAndre Thompkins, who is one of the fastest players on the team, to be an impact player.
“A lot of people questioned why we redshirted him,” Gattis said. “But it played out for the best for him.”
According to Gattis, Thompkins has had time to mature and put on weight —16 pounds, 12 of which Gattis said were lean muscle.
Special teams coordinator Charles Huff mentioned Thompkins in a group of players who could be expected to contribute as kick returners, alongside sophomore Grant Haley, running back Nick Scott and linebacker Koa Farmer.
“With heavy competition creates depth, and with depth creates options,” Huff said.
Kevin Reihner transfer
Offensive lineman Kevin Reihner announced his transfer from Stanford to Penn State in May.
The Scranton native comes from a Nittany Lions pedigree, as his father was a Penn State lineman from 1974-77 and his uncle was a kicker from 1972-75.
After his arrival to State College, Reihner said veteran center Angelo Mangiro was the first person he called to help him get a feel for the current playbook.
“Angelo and I were the same recruiting class in high school,” he said. “I reached out to him first. He was extremely welcoming. I told him multiple times, he was actually way more welcoming than I would be if it were the other way around.”
Reihner also said he sat down for two hours with Hackenberg to watch film, and that the quarterback is a “football junkie” who asked him questions about Stanford and picked his brain.
“Those were probably the two biggest players that were instrumental in helping me figure it out,” said Reihner, who is confident in his adjustment to a new offense.
“Learning the offense really wasn’t that tough, because we’d run a lot of the same schemes we ran at Stanford,” he said. “Conceptually, I feel comfortable.”
Franklin said he expects a player with the number of years Reihner has under his belt to step up as a leader on the offensive line, a role that was “weird at first” for Reihner immediately upon entering a new program.
“I was like a freshman, but not,” he said. “But I’ve gotten to be around a lot of great football players. ... I feel like I came in here and worked hard, and I hope I’ve gained the respect of some of these guys.”
Reihner said he knew he could be an immediate contributor to the growth of the group. How?
“Handsomeness, probably, right off the bat,” he deadpanned. “They were struggling there.
“But in terms of football, I just feel like I can really know the offense. I’ve played offensive line in college about twice as long as (some of the guys on the line) have, so I feel like they can help me with the nuances of the offense, and I can help them with the tricks of the trade.”
Just for kicks
Growing up not far down the road in Hummelstown, Joey Julius has plenty of connections to others on the Penn State campus, but he’s also got a pretty strong link to the Nittany Lion soccer team. His former teammate was Penn State’s leading scorer last season.
Julius and Connor Maloney were both forwards on the PA Classics club program. Julius attended Lower Dauphin High School, while Maloney went to Bishop McDevitt in Harrisburg.
“We’ve grown up together,” Julius said. “We started out as enemies, in the same area, and then we ended up, as we got older, we’re like, ‘You know what? We need to come together.’ We had a pretty dynamic duo going into our senior year.”
Maloney scored 10 goals and assisted on three others last season for Penn State, earning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year honors, but when they were club teammates, at least according to Julius, it was another forward who paced the offense.
“I did score more goals,” said Julius, a redshirt freshman who turned down college soccer offers. “You can tell him I said that. But me and him, we just fed off each other.”
Getting to play in an NFL stadium is a treat for just about every college football player, but for Penn State’s Philly boys, the season opener will be extra special.
The Nittany Lions open the season Sept. 5 facing Temple in Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field, and about 20 team members grew up about an hour or so away from the city.
“That’s, like, huge to have my first game there,” said Julius, a redshirt freshman whose hometown is about two hours away.
Defensive end Carl Nassib, from West Chester, said he has been inundated with requests from friends and family looking for a ticket connection.
“Every day someone texts me,” he said.
The team has had games in other major venues like Met Life Stadium and Yankee Stadium, and will head to M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore later this year, but going to the place where Nassib has gone for Eagles games will definitely top his list.
“It’s definitely going to be the highlight for me,” Nassib said. “I’ve been to a bunch of games there growing up. It’s going to be extra cool. I’ve never been to the locker room, so it’s going to be extra cool seeing what that’s all about.”