Penn State Football

Penn State football: Hackenberg earning cautious praise for physical play

Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg takes a break during Wednesday’s practice at the Lasch outdoor facility.
Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg takes a break during Wednesday’s practice at the Lasch outdoor facility. CDT photo

To slide or not to slide? That is the question.

For Christian Hackenberg, he’s opted for the latter option more often. Penn State’s quarterback hasn’t occupied himself with self-preservation this season as he’s gone head-first five times on 11 scrambles. This physicality and willingness to sacrifice his body to keep drives alive has earned Hackenberg praise from coaches and teammates.

It’s alarmed them just as much.

“I love it and I hate it,” coach James Franklin said. “I love it from a competitive standpoint. That’s kind of who I want us to be. But that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for us right now. And that’s not smart. So he’s got to be calculated.”

In other words, Franklin said, if his quarterback needs one or two more yards to extend a drive and can get them by dropping his pad level, so be it. Hackenberg, who holds himself to a lofty standard, said he expects to pick up every yard he can with his feet if his receivers aren’t open or if the pocket breaks down.

Hackenberg has already shown a willingness to put himself on the line to make plays in the passing game. He’s stood in the pocket and taken hit after hit to make throws for much of his 16-game career. He even sacrificed to make up for his own mistake in Week 2 against Akron when he made a perfect form tackle on Bre’ Ford to halt the Akron safety’s return of a red zone interception.

“I’m trying to be as competitive as I can and help my team in any way that I can,” Hackenberg said. “So if that requires me to put my shoulder down and get a couple of extra yards to keep the drive moving, that’s what I’m going to do. If I have the ability to step out of bounds, then that’s something that I’ll do as well. I think it just varies on situation to situation.”

He understands Franklin’s sentiments. And it’s not the first time Hackenberg has been instructed to steer clear of avoidable contact. Former coach Bill O’Brien instructed Hackenberg to slide in the open field every time and Franklin has found himself doing so more as the season has unfolded.

After all, Hackenberg has been hit plenty without scrambling. He’s been sacked 10 times through four games and is on pace to take 30 sacks. He was sacked 21 times all of last season.

So far, he’s withstood the punishment without complaints and his last-ditch rushes haven’t been in vain. Hackenberg’s picked up 77 yards and is averaging seven yards per scramble.

It’s partly why Hackenberg put the work in over the summer with strength coach Dwight Galt who helped the 19-year-old add 15 pounds of muscle to his 6-foot-4 frame. Galt said then his mission was to “make Hackenberg bulletproof.”

It’s also emboldened the young quarterback to go head-first more often than feet-first, which he’s done just twice. Hackenberg slid safely on the Croke Park pitch on his first scramble of the season and last surrendered himself with a slide against Akron. Although he did take contact on the play, the Zips weren’t flagged.

He’s made use of the sidelines, too. Hackenberg has safely stepped out of bounds four times.

“I think it’s based upon situations,” Hackenberg said. “You’ve got third-and-3, you get six, rather than take the hit, get down — you’ve got the first down. But when it’s fourth-and-5 and you’re getting some contact at four, you’ve got to put the shoulder down and finish the run, get the extra two you get falling forward.”

That was Hackenberg’s mindset late in Penn State’s Week 3 game against Rutgers when the Nittany Lions trailed late.

Trying to get an offensive rhythm going, Hackenberg had stepped out of bounds on his first two scrambles of the game. But with his team behind in the second half, Hackenberg racked up 24 yards on three scrambles and lunged forward on all three of them.

None was more impressive — and harrowing — for his coaches and teammates than a first down play on Penn State’s third drive of the fourth quarter. Hackenberg dropped to throw and the pocket immediately collapsed. He sidestepped two Rutgers players in the pocket, tucked the ball and ran. He picked up eight yards before lowering his shoulder into 235-pound Rutgers linebacker Kevin Snyder and falling forward for another yard.

“It’s always exciting to Christian break out of the pocket on a free run,” running back Zach Zwinak said. “Because he is a big kid. He’s known as a pocket passer but a lot of people don’t know, he’s very athletic and can run. About him hitting people, that’s on him. Personally, whenever he does, (I think) just don’t get hurt.”