Christian Hackenberg has plenty of critics, many of whom think the New York Jets’ second-year quarterback will never be an NFL starter.
And that’s before the former Penn State starter has even played in a regular-season game.
“That’s their opinions,” Hackenberg said of the naysayers. “I can’t really speak for them, whoever it is.”
Hackenberg was drafted in the second round last year, a pick some thought was a reach because of his struggles with the Nittany Lions in his last two seasons following a fabulous freshman campaign. He was widely considered a project who needed work on his mechanics, footwork and overall approach.
It didn’t help that Hackenberg went 17 of 47 for 159 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions in his two preseason appearances last summer. And, even as the quarterbacks carousel spun with Ryan Fitzpatrick, Geno Smith and Bryce Petty taking turns under center during the regular season, Hackenberg never saw the field.
“I know what I can do,” Hackenberg said. “And I know what my coaching staff feels I can do, so I’m just confident in my abilities. And when I get my opportunity to play, I’m going to do that.”
Sounds like a guy who knows he has lots to prove — to everyone other than himself.
“I’m confident that I can play at this level, and play at a high level,” he said. “So, when I get my opportunity, I’m going to take advantage of that.”
Hackenberg is competing with Petty and veteran Josh McCown for the starting job in what the Jets have characterized as an open competition that might not be decided until sometime in training camp.
McCown is the early favorite to be under center in Week 1 at Buffalo on Sept. 10, having worked mostly with the starters during practices open to the media. But with New York’s offseason purge of veteran stars, including wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker, the franchise’s sights are firmly set on the future.
Hackenberg will get the chance to show whether he can be the quarterback to lead the Jets this season — and perhaps beyond. At 6-foot-4 and a solid 228 pounds with a cannon arm, Hackenberg certainly looks the part.
“I love the way he prepares and the way he competes,” offensive coordinator John Morton said at the start of organized activities two weeks ago. “I’m talking about competing in the classroom, too. Guys have to learn to do that, and be a pro and be a student of the game and learn to take notes and those things. He’s doing those things.”
On one play at practice, he can hit a receiver with a pretty back-shoulder toss in the end zone. But then, he can also have some ugly throws that could be interceptions.
That’s how it has been so far this offseason for Hackenberg. Some ups, some downs — and even some progress while learning Morton’s offense.
“I’m not going to say night and day, but definitely just being able to go through it, it’s been really good,” Hackenberg said. “I feel a lot better going in there, having a greater understanding of what’s going on.”
He’s no longer the wide-eyed rookie trying to navigate his way through the basics of life in the NFL. The plays on the field are also coming to him a lot easier, even compared to a few months ago.
“I think we’re getting to a point where I’m not even thinking about it,” Hackenberg said, “and I’m feeling that right now.”
Hackenberg has been a starting quarterback since high school, and the Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2013, so sitting out all of last season — a “redshirt year” — took some getting used to. It was a humbling experience in which Hackenberg had to keep his ego in check.
“I really can’t change it,” Hackenberg said. “It was in the past. It is what it is. But I think if you’re a negative person, you kind of think about it negatively and you say, ‘Dang, I wish I had a chance.’ I don’t want to fill my mind with that type of negativity.
“I’d rather focus on the positives of it and take what I learned from it, the good from it. That’s how I kind of look at last year: I try and take the positives out of it and go from there.”
Hackenberg has been working closely with new quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates, the two often seen chatting during practice. There’s still plenty of work to be done, of course, but Hackenberg could end up working his way onto the field during a game — and silencing all of the doubters.
“I think I’ve grown in a lot of ways,” he said. “It’s a long road, but I feel good where I’m at right now.”