Quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator Ricky Rahne has just about the most face time with junior signal-caller Christian Hackenberg of any of the Penn State coaches.
On Thursday, Rahne spoke with media via teleconference about the struggles and the improvements of Hackenberg, as well as with Penn State’s offense, which has been heavily criticized, despite a 4-1 record, for a No. 116 national ranking in total offense among FBS teams and a 30 percent conversion rate on third down.
Question: Where do you think Christian has made the biggest strides since last year?
Answer: “I think that there are two things that he’s done very well, and made big strides with. He’s made some great checks in the running game that have really helped us run the ball better, in terms of getting us into good plays and things like that. There have been a couple times where he’s checked us into perfect gains and touchdowns and things of that nature. And then the other thing I think he’s done very well (is that) he’s taking care of the football. That’s been a huge point of emphasis and something he’s done a great job of doing. It’s helped win some games.”
Q: One thing Christian said to us a couple weeks ago is that he has to work on his footwork with shorter drops … How has he done with that, and why is that important?
A: “I think that’s something that quarterbacks work on, you know, forever ... I think that he’s done a nice job with that in terms of working on that and doing those things. I think it’s important because of the timing of some of those quick throws. You have to have your feet set in the right area, you have to have your weight placed, and those sort of things, so that you can be accurate in those passes. You know, you’re getting the ball, if it’s under center, it’s 1-2-3 and the ball’s out, it can be from the shotgun and you might be catching the ball, you might be throwing it with or without the laces, that sort of thing, but your feet are the thing that is going to help you be as accurate as possible in those passes.”
Q: How would you evaluate the team’s short passing game in the flat and over the middle? It looks like the timing isn’t quite there yet.
A: “It’s something that we are continuing to work on. It goes back to the footwork that I discussed. We just have to make sure that the feet sync up with all of the routes and the consistency of that. I think Christian has done a really good job of working on that. It’s just a matter of the wide receivers taking the exact right route, Christian taking the exact right drop and the guys up front that they are setting according to the route. It is a team game on that end of it. I think we have made some progress on some of those things, but we just have to continue working on it.”
Q: Ricky, you guys have one or two explosive plays, I believe, on all of your touchdown drives without a short field this season, but only one drive of over four minutes. Is there more of an emphasis, maybe this week or in previous weeks, on trying to extend these possessions to maybe help your defense out a little bit?
A: “I think that one thing that helps our defense out is to score points. I think if we asked Coach (Bob) Shoop, he’d love us to take an eight-minute drive and score a touchdown, but I think he’ll take the 80-yarder for a touchdown as well. One thing, if you look at football and the way the game is going right now, explosive plays are dictating offensive production, and that’s the key. Defenses are becoming much more adept at creating turnovers and those sort of things, so those longer drives sometimes become difficult to sustain. So you’ve got to create explosive plays, you’ve got to be able to get chunks, we’re always going to concentrate on that. The thing we’ve got to do is we’ve got to convert third downs in order to give ourselves more opportunities to create those explosive plays.”
Q: What would your response be to fans who question whether or not Christian feels that he’s equipped for this type of offense, and what are some of the ideal skills and traits a quarterback needs to have in this offense?
A: “I would say that our offense is a multiple offense, and there’s a lot of different types of quarterbacks that can be successful. There’s been multiple different types of guys, sizes, skill sets, that have succeeded in this offense. So I would say that Christian’s skill set fits it well. In terms of this, it’s about accuracy, it’s about intelligence, and post-snap decision making, and being athletic enough to make plays with your feet, whether that’s throwing outside the pocket at times, taking off to scramble when it’s necessary, or something like that. I think Christian’s skill sets fit a variety of offenses. He’s got a big arm but he’s still athletic. He’s a very intelligent kid. So I think that’s a bit overblown.”
Q: What kind of work do you guys do in practice on third downs?
A: “Obviously that’s a focus for us ... I think that we work on it every day in practice, to be quite honest, we have a period of the day devoted to that. I have periods in my meetings where we’re going over third downs and third down plays, the defenses, the scenarios that we’re anticipating them running, and those sort of things. I think the one thing that, as an offense, we can do better is that we’ve got to be able to adjust to the defense when they give us something that maybe they haven’t shown on third down in the past. I think it’s a process that we need to keep working on, and it’s about execution and timing, and those are things that we’ve just got to keep working on.”
Q: You’re with Christian the most ... with the criticism he gets, how do you help him avoid that noise? And do you take some of that personally, some of that criticism that he gets?
A: “You know, the thing I take personally is I want to make sure he’s able to play as well as he possibly can, and our offense is able to play as well as it possibly can. I’m going to be real honest to you, if we didn’t have recruiting, I wouldn’t be on Twitter and Facebook and any of that stuff. That’s not really who I am, so I think that Christian tries to avoid that stuff as much as humanly possible, too. The thing I talk to the quarterbacks about all the time is ‘You’ve got to be able to ignore the noise either way.’ The games when he’s throwing for 300-plus yards and multiple touchdowns and no interceptions, and things like that, he’s got to make sure he ignores the noise that way, and make sure that he stays focused and doesn’t get too high. It’s the same thing when you’re not having the production that you want, you gotta be able to ignore the negative criticism. I know this: I know that I’m going to work as hard as I possibly can to make sure that Christian can maximize his potential and I know that he’s working just as hard. To me, that’s the most important thing.”