Sports

Passing grade: Hackenberg tries to shake off rough patch as Lions head to Michigan

Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg is pressured and tripped up by the Rutgers defense. Sacks and hurries have led to Hackenberg miscues.
Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg is pressured and tripped up by the Rutgers defense. Sacks and hurries have led to Hackenberg miscues. CDT file photo

Angelo Mangiro sat in one of the dimly lit corner stalls where players are interviewed in the Beaver Stadium media room. The Penn State center had bags of ice on both knees. Although Northwestern’s thorough beatdown of Penn State had been over by nearly an hour, sweat still beaded on Mangiro’s forehead.

When the television cameras flicked on, light spotlighted Mangiro. He was soon peppered with questions: one about Penn State’s inability to run the ball, a few more about establishing chemistry as an offensive line. There were some about protecting the quarterback, Christian Hackenberg (who is now up to 14 sacks suffered on the season) — including a massive hit that caused Hackenberg to get up slowly.

“That’s our guy,” Mangiro said. “He’s a good friend. He’s our leader. He’s our captain. And we don’t want to see him get touched at all.”

With that, a Penn State employee signaled there would be no more questions for Mangiro and the big offensive lineman grabbed his backpack, got up, turned right and out of the stadium’s media center.

A few feet away, at the main podium where head coach James Franklin takes questions, Hackenberg sat, still surrounded by cameras and faces.

Hackenberg wanted to get away. Penn State’s quarterback left Beaver Stadium as he usually does that night, down through the tunnel from the team’s locker room, through the interview area and out the entrance gates.

He headed back to the on-campus apartment he shares with Garrett Sickels, Cole Chiappialle and Hunter Crafford, where the couch was waiting. When he got home, Hackenberg sat down and turned on the TV. He spent the night watching college football and thinking back to his own play earlier that afternoon.

Hackenberg completed just 22 of 45 passes and threw his first pick-six against the Wildcats. He also completed just 52 percent of his throws the week before and hasn’t thrown a touchdown pass since Week 2. Hackenberg admits, this is the roughest he’s played since arriving at Penn State last summer.

“I’m not proud of the way I’ve played the past couple of games,” Hackenberg said.

On Sunday, Hackenberg threw his golf clubs into his green Chevy Silverado and drove to meet his dad, Erick, who was in town to play nine holes of golf. It was a relaxed round, friendly and competitive with little talk about football.

Hackenberg is hesitant to discuss his golf game at first. He’s only been playing for two and a half years. His best 9-hole score? He shot a 38 once, but he was “playing ridiculous” and isn’t confident he could do it again right now. There are a few teammates he hits the links with.

Anthony Zettel and Jack Haffner are good golfers, Hackenberg said. So is Chiappialle. Sam Ficken always plays a respectable game, too. The more Hackenberg has golfed, the more he’s learned to love it. He’s also learned about proper swing mechanics and has improved his scores by tweaking his technique.

He loves the mental aspect of it.

“It’s a tough game. it’s demanding,” Hackenberg said. “It actually has a lot of correlation to throwing a football, in terms of how you drive and your hip placement with your hands and stuff like that. But I usually treat that as my release from football, I just want to get out and get away from everything, get away from the world. Whatever it is, I’ll go play golf or I’ll go fish, or I’ll go hunt. Those are things that I’ll do.”

While he got into golf late, Hackenberg was never short on ways to occupy his time after his family moved to Fluvanna County, Va., when he was seven.

“Growing up, my parents always made me play as many sports as I could,” Hackenberg said.

Both of Hackenberg’s parents were standout athletes at Marion Catholic High School in Tamaqua. Erick’s football prowess led to snaps at Virginia and Susquehanna and Nikki played volleyball at Lehigh. Hackenberg got a taste of what college would be like early when he attended Fork Union Military Academy and adopted a disciplined day-to-day approach to school and sports.

“I think that, along with the way my parents brought me up, I’m the oldest of four boys, so I was sort of always the guy that had to set the example and I was the first one to mess up and not the last in the family in certain things so I think I had to grow up a little quicker than most people,” Hackenberg said.

His three brothers, Brandon (17), Adam (15) and Drue (12), all have different personalities, Hackenberg said. They’re all starting to develop their own niches in sports, too.

Brandon is the family’s soccer player while Adam played defense on Fork Union’s ninth grade football team last season. Adam Hackenberg will turn out to be the baseball star, Hackenberg speculated. Drue may want to follow in his oldest brother’s footsteps.

“He’s relatively younger, so he’s sort of exploring,” Hackenberg said. “He keeps telling me he wants to play quarterback, so we’ll see how that goes.”

Hackenberg wants to play quarterback the best he possibly can. He wants to play in the NFL eventually. It’s part of the reason why he committed to Penn State in the first place.

The chance to be coached by Bill O’Brien, a former NFL guy himself, was a big reason why he signed his letter of intent and remained committed despite NCAA sanctions against Penn State. But when O’Brien left to take over the NFL’s Houston Texans in January, Hackenberg was left with a decision to make, would he stay based on who the new coach would be?

Having already had a summer and fall session and a freshman season under his belt, Hackenberg had grown comfortable with Penn State and decided the only way he’d leave is if a new coach came in and wanted to implement a completely different offense.

“If some triple option team came in here, of course it’s not a great fit for me,” Hackenberg said. “I love Penn State and I love everything about this school, but at the same time, the thing that’s paying for my school, if I’m not enjoying that, you have to be able to figure out what you can do to put yourself in the best situation to succeed there as well.”

He harbors no ill will toward O’Brien. In fact, the two remain connected. Hackenberg said he feels like they’re friends more than before.

“He’s gotten to be a guy I can lean on, can talk to, through situations, football, life; he’s a guy that got me to buy in with what he was preaching and I’d trust him still with anything to this day,” Hackenberg said. “My parents still trust him and he’s a guy that I like to lean on. He’s an awesome dude.”

After Penn State got back from Ireland, Hackenberg and O’Brien had their most recent discussion. O’Brien told Hackenberg to trust himself and his abilities to interpret and diagnose film by himself. He spent much of his bye week doing just that.

After getting a chance to spend last weekend with his family, Hackenberg returned to Happy Valley, where he made heavy use of his new iPad. He prefers to go into the team meeting room, work the big projector and lead study sessions of opposing defenses.

Hackenberg can talk football for hours. He can remember specific plays and how certain protections broke down from back in his Fork Union days. He absorbs Xs and Os and is fluent in football slang. For him, although offseason film study can be tedious, it is satisfying when it pays off on the field.

“You get all of those views that the average person doesn’t get (from watching on TV),” Hackenberg said. “You get to see the intricacies within the plays that the average eye won’t understand and won’t see. So you look at everything, from the Mike points (middle linebacker alignment), to the protection, to if they slid to the right guy, if you were going through your progression the right way, if your footwork’s right for the route, for the timing.”

For his strong-armed delivery and model poise, Hackenberg has already earned recognition as a potential early NFL Draft pick when he is eligible. He shrugs off suggestions like Massachusetts coach Mark Whipple made that Hackenberg would be the top pick if he was in the field this coming spring.

He figures he’ll be in football in some way. It should come to no surprise to anyone who is familiar with Hackenberg’s unquenchable thirst for football knowledge that he’d like to stay in the game even when his playing days are over.

“I want to coach football, to be honest with you,” Hackenberg said.

His teammates aren’t worried that Hackenberg’s completion percentage has dropped recently, either. For them, Hackenberg’s been a model of consistency in how he’s dealt with the offense’s struggles.

Tight end Jesse James sat next to Hackenberg on a nearly 10-hour flight home from Ireland.

“He doesn’t get too mad, stays pretty level,” James said.

A few minutes removed from his team’s come-from-behind win against Rutgers, where Hackenberg was sacked five times, James Franklin was asked about the importance of protecting his quarterback.

“I agree with you,” Franklin said “We’ve got to do that.”

The fact that Hackenberg has thrown more interceptions (6) than touchdowns (4) and has been asked to throw 13 more passes through this point of last season leads Franklin at times to believe his quarterback is trying to do too much.

“You know, I think it’s a fine line. The way our offense has been the first couple weeks, there’s been a lot on his shoulders, and it’s always easy to find fault when things don’t go well, but a lot of those plays that he has been aggressive, have gone well, have gone well.

“I always get a kick out of watching games on TV and the announcers after the fact, you know, questioning why somebody did something or why something was called. You know, that’s easy. But when you’re out there and you’re competing and you’re being chased by 300-pounders and things like that, Christian is growing just like we’re all growing, and I’ve been pleased with it.

“So I think obviously at the quarterback position, and a lot of positions, we want to continue to make great choices and make good decisions with the football. But, you know, a lot of those plays that he’s made have been extremely valuable to our program, as well.”

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