There are two versions of Christian Hackenberg.
One, the 2015 junior version, is just a guy. He’s an average college quarterback, nothing special. He has the tools you’d like in a NFL quarterback, but he simply doesn’t use them. The Penn State team around him is horrible and he’s constantly running for his life because his offensive line is simply inadequate.
The other, the 2013 freshman version, is one that makes scouts go back and double check their notes. This version throws downfield, shows off his big arm, and has pocket presence of a veteran college quarterback.
This is a problem for scouts before the 2016 NFL Draft. Hackenberg arguably has one of the highest upsides of any quarterback in this year’s draft, but hasn’t proved it on a college field so far. Is this a product of stunted development, going from the pro-style Bill O’Brien offense to James Franklin’s quick, spread scheme? Or was his true freshman season simply an illusion?
Let’s take a look.
Christian Hackenberg Bio
College: Penn State
Recruiting Ranking: #13 (#2 QB)
2013 Stats: 231/392 (58.9%), 2955 Yds, 20 TD, 10 INT
2014 Stats: 270/484 (55.8%), 2977 Yds, 12 TD, 15 INT
2015 Stats: 192/359 (53.5%), 2525 Yds, 16 TD, 6 INT
To begin, let’s start with his recruitment. What makes Hackenberg’s recruitment so interesting is the fact that he stuck with his Penn State commitment despite the Jerry Sandusky scandal unfolding at the time. Where other college quarterbacks would bolt for other programs with more stability, Hackenberg stood firm with Penn State. Despite the NCAA sanctions and recruiting implications, he never wavered. At this time, Hackenberg was also courted by many top programs in the country, including Alabama and Stanford.
To me, this says a lot about Hackenberg’s character. He knew that he was getting himself into a less-than-favorable position by committing at Penn State but stuck with the Nittany Lions regardless. Rival coaching staffs likely told Hackenberg, “Hey, things look fine now, but in two to three years the recruiting sanctions are really going to hit Penn State hard.” Alabama probably sold him on winning a couple of national titles while Stanford was likely selling him on becoming the heir to Andrew Luck’s throne.
Luckily for Hackenberg, noted quarterback guru Bill O’Brien became the next head coach at Penn State. This probably played a huge factor in Hackenberg staying at Penn State, because O’Brien had just come off of coaching Tom Brady for the past couple of years.
When you watch Hackenberg’s tape from 2013, you can see why a lot of scouts had him pegged as a future No. 1 overall pick. He’s big (6-4, 230 lbs.), mobile, and throws with a lot of velocity. In fact, I think that one of Hackenberg’s most underrated traits is his mobility. Now, he’s not a read-option quarterback but he is more than capable enough of running for a first down or two in a game. His pocket presence as a freshman was also exceptional. You see him move around the pocket like a veteran college quarterback and scramble only when the pocket has collapsed. He’s not a guy who will run at the first sign of trouble. Even with free rushers bearing down on him, Hackenberg will stand tall in the pocket and deliver a strike down the field.
Another factor that had scouts drooling was Hackenberg’s arm talent. Hackenberg had arguably the best arm out of any quarterback from the 2013 recruiting class, which also included future Cal star Jared Goff, but Bill O’Brien’s system in Happy Valley put it on full display. Watching his freshman tape makes it pretty obvious to any viewer that O’Brien knew he had something special in Christian Hackenberg and was determined to squeeze every last bit of talent from him. The system that Penn State ran in 2013 was pro-style, with emphasis on utilizing Hackenberg’s arm strength to stretch the field. With future Pro Bowl wide receiver Allen Robinson on the field, Hackenberg had a phenomenal true freshman season, throwing for nearly 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns.
Still, despite all of the strengths that Hackenberg put on display, there were also some things that he needed to work on. For one, he had a habit of throwing off of his back foot quite a bit. Much of this was disguised by his natural arm talent, but there are instances where Hackenberg under throws a receiver that is open deep because he doesn’t step into the throw. He also had a tendency to simply launch the ball deep when he was getting pressured or his first read wasn’t open. Again, he was bailed out by having Robinson as a receiver to go up and get these throws.
But the future looked bright for Hackenberg. For the few mistakes that he did have to his game, they were massively overshadowed by the potential that he displayed. Bovada had him at 50/1 odds to win the Heisman and college football writers had high hopes for Penn State in 2014.
And then Bill O’Brien left for the NFL.
It wasn’t really a surprise. In fact, O’Brien had interviewed with the Eagles and Browns a year earlier but had decided to stick at Penn State for a second season. But the Houston Texans job was too good to pass up and O’Brien left Penn State at the beginning of the new year.
To his credit, O’Brien left Penn State in a much better state than when he first arrived. In the two years under O’Brien, Penn State went 15-9 overall and 7-5 in Hackenberg’s true freshman season of 2013. Penn State was ineligible for a bowl due to the NCAA sanctions, but O’Brien was widely praised as the man who turned around the Nittany Lions.
After O’Brien’s departure, Penn State hired James Franklin as their next head coach. Formerly of Vanderbilt, Franklin had helped turn the Commodores from a laughing stock to a bowl-eligible squad. In three years under Franklin, Vanderbilt went 24-14 overall, including two 9-4 seasons back-to-back. The hiring of Franklin was widely praised by the media and Penn State was one of the most interesting teams heading into 2014. For Hackenberg, writers wondered how he would transition from O’Brien’s pro-style system to Franklin’s spread scheme but figured his natural talent would still show through and he’d still be the same future No. 1 overall prospect that he had shown during his freshman campaign.
But they were wrong.
Early on in the James Franklin era, it was obvious that Hackenberg was struggling to grasp the new system. In the first four games of the 2014 season, Hackenberg had a 4-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio and was completing around 50% of his passes. The next four games? Three touchdowns to five interceptions. The final four games of the season? Only one touchdown to five interceptions. While he did have a nice bowl performance, Hackenberg finished with only 12 touchdowns to 15 interceptions. He only passed for eight touchdowns in the regular season despite taking every snap at quarterback.
What was the cause for this drastic turnaround?
Well for one, Penn State’s offensive line did Hackenberg no favors. Despite having a future second round draft pick at left tackle, Hackenberg was sacked 44 times in 2014, a drastic increase from only 21 sacks in 2013. More often than not, Hackenberg was running for his life as one or two rushers would consistently get in the backfield. His great pocket presence, which had served him so well in 2013, was quickly turning into a scramble drill on a down-to-down basis.
The transition from a pro-style offense to Franklin’s new scheme was also harder than previously though. In 2013, the offense focused a lot around deep passing, utilizing Hackenberg’s legs on roll-outs, and taking advantage of Hackenberg’s arm talent to stretch the field. In 2014, Franklin implemented his spread scheme, which focused on getting the ball out quick to playmakers in space, utilizing screens and slants, and trusting Hackenberg to make quick decisions. Franklin wasn’t utilizing Hackenberg’s arm the way O’Brien did and it showed. Hackenberg’s yards per attempt, which was 7.54 in 2013, went down to 6.15 in his sophomore campaign.
While much of the blame can be placed on Franklin’s scheme, Hackenberg also showed a clear regression from his freshman season. He missed open passes, threw the ball too far in front or behind receivers and simply missed reads at times. This caused his interception total to go up and, by the end of the season, Hackenberg simply wasn’t trusting his arm as much as he did in 2013. Hackenberg was playing conservative football, trying to limit errors but at the same time missing opportunities for big plays down the field.
Despite this, there was hope heading into 2015. Hackenberg’s bowl performance, a four touchdown to zero interception game against Boston College, had scouts thinking he’d return to his true freshman form.
Well, in short, 2015 was good for Hackenberg, but it wasn’t all that much better than 2014.
His touchdown-to-interception ratio increased to 16-6, but Hackenberg still showed the same errors that he was making as a sophomore. Throws were in front or behind receivers, he missed out routes and other simple throws and you could tell that the quick-passing game of James Franklin was still not something Hackenberg was comfortable with.
The offensive line, despite surrendering less sacks, arguably got worse. Hackenberg’s scramble ability was put on full display in 2015 as he was running for his life most of the time. In fact, watching his film, I often wondered if he approached every drop back with a “I’m going to get hit” mentality. The offensive line surrendered 10 sacks in their season opener versus Temple and it didn’t get much better throughout the season.
Despite the poor play of the offensive line, Hackenberg’s pocket presence and mobility remained the same. In fact, Hackenberg had more opportunities to display both of these during his junior campaign. He is fantastic at stepping up in the pocket and only bailing when the pocket truly collapses. Most of the sacks that he took were simply due to defensive linemen dominating his offensive line. There aren’t many times when Hackenberg is sacked simply because he holds onto the ball too long. For scouts watching his film, this can be taken away as a positive note. Hackenberg senses pressure well and has the mobility to escape pressure when needed. In fact, there are many times when I couldn’t tell if it was Christian Hackenberg or Tony Romo escaping Big 10 defenders back there.
Another aspect that scouts will like is the fact that he doesn’t wildly throw the ball downfield anymore. A lot of big plays in his true freshman campaign were based around launching the ball downfield to his future Pro Bowl wide receiver Allen Robinson. His sophomore and junior film show that he’s grown out of this habit. When scrambling, like in the clip above, Hackenberg will go for the safe yards on the ground rather than throw it wildly downfield to his receivers, who played very poorly in 2014 and 2015. This limits the turnovers and shows that Hackenberg has a growing appreciation for ball security.
Hackenberg still has the huge arm you see from his freshman season, it’s just used in a different manner. He throws with velocity and the ball still seems to jump off of his hand. He flashes the ability to make the “special” throws you’d like to see in a future NFL starter, but he never makes them. There are no throws where he perfectly lobs the ball over a linebacker to his receiver. There are no anticipation throws, where he reads where the receiver will be before he is even there. Is this a product of Franklin’s quick-passing game, or Hackenberg’s inability to test his arm on these throws?
So who is Christian Hackenberg as a draft product?
In short, he’s a project. He has NFL-ready size and a huge arm, but teams will question his mental makeup of the game and his accuracy. Can he read an NFL defense? Can he utilize that special arm talent and make NFL throws? Can he throw with anticipation? Can we afford to sit him and let him learn? These are all questions that NFL teams will have to ponder before drafting Hackenberg.
I have an analogy for Christian Hackenberg, but it’s long so bear with me.
You have this piece of apple pie. It’s a really good piece of apple pie. It’s warm, gooey, and the bitterness of the apples perfectly blends with the flakiness of the pie crust. You finish half of it and you put the other half in the fridge for later.
But in the fridge, it loses what made it good. It gets cold, the apples start to get mushy, and the crust is hard to eat.
You get this pie out of the fridge and you are presented with two options. One, you can eat the pie right away. It’ll be cold, hard and you’ll probably regret eating it right away. Or, you can heat it up in the microwave.
You heat it up in the microwave for two minutes. Long enough for it to get warm, but not long enough for it to return to the gooeyness that it had before.
But then you heat it up for the full five minutes. It comes out of the microwave warm, crunchy and it’s like the same piece of pie that you had before.
That piece of pie is Christian Hackenberg.
When an NFL team drafts Hackenberg, they will be presented with two options. One, they can play him right away. He will probably struggle, he’ll miss open receivers, and he might throw a bunch of interceptions.
Or, they can sit him and let him learn. And I’m not talking about for a couple of games or a single season. No, I believe Hackenberg really needs a good two to three seasons on the bench before he will be ready for NFL action. Nowadays, only a handful of teams can afford to do this. Arizona, Pittsburgh, and New Orleans all come to mind, all teams that have an established veteran who has two to three more years left.
The Houston Texans/Bill O’Brien connection is one that will be talked about a lot come draft day, much like the Marcus Mariota-Chip Kelly connection was widely debated last year. But honestly, I believe Houston would be the among the worst landing spots for Hackenberg. They don’t have an established starter and, even though Hackenberg is familiar with O’Brien’s system, he simply isn’t ready to start in an NFL game in his rookie year.
That being said, I think it’s safe to place a late day two/early day three grade on Hackenberg (aka late round three/early round four). He’s a project and NFL teams should draft him as such. I believe Hackenberg will ‘wow’ teams at the Combine and in film rooms but, in the end, tape trumps everything.
I believe Christian Hackenberg can be a good NFL quarterback. Heck, I think he can be a great NFL quarterback. But not right away. He needs time to sit and learn. Get him in your building, point him to your veteran starter and say, “Watch everything he does.”
And in two to three years you might have something pretty special at quarterback.