Penn State Football

Penn State football: Nittany Lion offense getting more comfortable, confident

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Christian Hackenberg has seen the Penn State offense become more confident as a group.

The offensive line and wide receivers understand what the unit has to do on a certain play, from each individual role to positioning and timing. And with a better grasp of the system, the Penn State quarterback and his teammates have been able to hold each other more accountable this spring.

“I think for me, that’s given me the confidence in what we’re doing more, to be able to go up and pull someone aside,” Hackenberg said Wednesday. “And I think it also gives the receivers more confidence to be able to come and pull me aside or pull a tight end aside when they know something wasn’t right within the concept or whatever, so I think that’s just helped everyone be able to do something like that.

“And for me, I’ve definitely become more comfortable with that and I expect them to hold me to the same standard.”

The Nittany Lion offense struggled last season, averaging the fewest points in the Big Ten as Hackenberg was sacked 44 times. Hackenberg said the experience gained last season has been beneficial and evident during spring practice.

Heading into the second season under coach James Franklin, the players understand the system — and Franklin knows how to utilize his players’ skills.

“(Franklin has) seen guys do it in games now,” Hackenberg said, “so we can do more personnel-based plays in terms of trying to get someone the ball when you need to because they’re really good in that certain situation, so you sort of see the evolution of our offense in that sense, where we trust more guys and we’re able to get those guys the ball and they’re able to make those plays on a more consistent basis.”

Hackenberg said he always felt pretty comfortable in the offense.

But Franklin said after practice Saturday that Hackenberg was focused on helping his teammates last year and it stunted his development. Franklin identified the quarterback’s mechanics and game management as areas to work on this spring.

“When you get hit that much you start falling into bad habits,” Franklin said Saturday. “You start drifting, your footwork’s not as clean, falling off throws, things like that, but more than anything it’s just the management of the game. It’s getting us into the right plays, it’s getting out of the bad plays, it’s getting the playmakers the ball, it’s managing the clock. It’s all of those things.”

Penn State offensive lineman Angelo Mangiro has noticed a slight change in Hackenberg since last season.

“He’s always been the most competitive guy I’ve ever been around and played with and that hasn’t changed,” Mangiro said. “But I think he’s more calm or relaxed back there.”

Mangiro said he’s seen that calm disposition in many of his teammates, thanks to their understanding of the offense.

That’s apparent on the offensive line.

Last season, left tackle Donovan Smith was the lone returning starter. This season, Mangiro, tackle Andrew Nelson and guards Brendan Mahon and Brian Gaia return after each started at least nine games in 2014.

Mangiro said the offensive line’s communication has improved.

“Even if we’re on the same page and we’re messing up and doing the wrong thing and we’re all on the same page, it’s got a chance to be right,” Mangiro said. “That’s a quote by (offensive line) coach (Herb) Hand, I can’t take credit for that one.”

Franklin said no one on the line was confident making calls last season as they were afraid to make the wrong call. But the coach said the group has done a good job making decisions so far.

Mangiro made sure to single out Mahon on Wednesday.

“I know he’s been making calls before I even have a chance to,” Mangiro said. “I usually have my head between my legs and he’s making calls, which early on in the season that wasn’t happening last year.”

The offensive line, like the rest of the offense, knows what it needs to do now in certain situations.

“I think last year we were still trying to figure out working with each other and still understanding the system 100 percent,” Mangiro said. “I think that’s behind us.”