Premature indoctrination is not just a phenomenon which affects kingdoms of ancient Egypt or Winterfell, but seeps into the world of college football, as well. When fresh faced Christian Hackenberg landed at Penn State, expectations were high for the true freshman starting quarterback. Hackenberg entered the college realm as the top ranked pocket passer and unanimous five-star recruit from Fork Union Military Academy in Virgina.
As a freshman, Hackenberg impressed the nation and led the Penn State Nittany Lions to a 7-5 season and a 4-4 record within the Big Ten. While Hackenberg's stats were fairly pedestrian (2,955 yards and 20 touchdowns), he proved he could manage a pro-style offense curated by former Patriots offensive coordinator and future Houston Texans head coach Bill O'Brien.
The subsequent seasons weren't as good for Hackenberg. After O'Brien bolted back to the NFL, the promising sophomore quarterback would have to re-learn an offensive system tailored by new head coach James Franklin. By the time Hackenberg's Penn State career would end, he'll have thrown for under 3,000 yards in a season, fail to complete 60% of his passes in any season, and never breach his rookie season total of 20 touchdowns in a year. Considering Hackenberg's mercurial career at State College, many still view the former five-star recruit as a potential first or second day pick in the NFL Draft. Are teams seeing the silver lining, or has the well dried on his potential?
Quarterback has proved to be a risky proposition virtually anywhere in the draft. A large part of this apparent 50/50 deal has to do with teams looking at a player's positives and viewing the negatives as workable traits. With Hackenberg, it's easy to see how he might satiate a team's desires for a pro-style appetite. Standing at 6'4" and 223 lbs., Hackenberg is the virtual Michelangelo's David when it comes to carving up the prototypical professional quarterback. On the field, it's easy to see how teams may eye Hackenberg as their future franchise quarterback.
When the circumstances are right, Hackenberg is able to show traits befitting on an NFL signal caller. He has the ability to navigate the pocket while keeping his eyes downfield - an inalienable trait for NFL quarterbacks.
Even though Hackenberg largely made a living in the pocket, he's well capable of using his athleticism to escape on-coming rushers - a common occurance behind his offensve line at Penn State.
At the 2016 NFL combine, Hackenberg ranked among the best at his position running under a 4.8 40-yard dash and a 7.04 3-cone. As a true freshman, Hackenberg thrived while throwing on the run. Designed rollouts were a less common occurance under James Franklin, but he was still able to show his ability to throw while running to his left or right effectively.
Ultimately, Hackenberg is short on no physical attributes as a passer. He has more than the prerequisite arm strenth and was able to display it liberally during all three seasons at Penn State. Provided he saw clear skies, Hackenberg was able to show he can effectively operate an offense and make the require throws necessary of a professional quarterback.
One reason why Hackenberg's weaknesses are so well known has to do with the formidabble defenses formed around the maligned passer. Both Hackenberg and his defenders are quick to point to the change in offensive system and it not fitting his play style. Perhaps an even more stringent defense centers around the iniquities found on Penn State's offensive line.
Both are partially valid and the latter has been used as the primary reason as to why Hackenberg was unable to reach his potential. Hackeberg was sacked a total of 103 times at Penn State. For comparison, the projected top passers in this draft, Jared Goff and Connor Cook, who were also 3-year starters, were each sacked for a total of 84 and 45 times, respectively. In Cook's case, he played behind what can be considered a premier college offensive line for the large part of his career. In Goff's insance, he played behind an arguably worse offensve line than Hackenberg, while managing 19 less total sacks.
As is always the story with sacks, the blame can typcally be laid on a number of parties, including the quarterback. According to James Franklin, Hackenberg did have the autonomy to make line checks at Penn State and often didn't do himself, or his line, any favors when it came to identifying blitzes.
Against Temple, the theme was simple for the Owls. Even on five-man blitzes, Hackenberg failed to get the offense in favorable situations on more than one occasion. This is an aspect of his game some NFL coaches may feel they can coach up. If he can do a better job of making life easier for the offense - as well as improving his urgency and awareness in the pocket - then he'll be less likely to spend time on his back when he gets his chance in the NFL.
James Franklin has also shouldered some blame for Hackenberg's stunted growth. Coming from Vanderbilt, Franklin helped turn around a formerly benign football program into a formidable one. Part of that was due to his offensive system which was able to accomodate lesser talents than Hackenberg. While Hackenberg's strengths clearly center around his ability to run a pro-centric offense, there was little excuse for him to not hit the 60% completeion benchmark during his time at Penn State.
To Franklin's credit, there were pro-style elements injected into the offense to better accomodate Hackenberg during his junior season. His slight up-tick statistically may have been proof of concept, but his issues still persisted on passes exceeding 10 yards. Hackberberg routinly made ill-advised and innacruate downfield throws, including those in the "money area" between 11 and 20 yards.
It's imposible to conclude after watching Christian Hackenberg that there isn't anything to like his prospect as a NFL quarterback. His build and even temperment as a player fits well with what the NFL covets at the position. Unfortunately for him, Bill O'Brien's Texans likely won't take a chance on him in the first two rounds after signing Brock Osweiler, as some analysts were predicting.
Hackenberg is best served beginning his career in the same fashion as A.J. McCarron of Alabama, who was drafted in the 5th round of the 2014 NFL draft. Hackenberg deserves a chance to prove himself as a back-up before he's thrown into the NFL fire. Like many later round prospects, Hackenberg is an investment toward the future. Teams like Arizona, Denver, Dallas, and others who already have an established NFL starter entering the end of their careers could be interested in grooming Hackenberg for a future role. Although his NFL path may look different than it did when he was projected as a first overall prospect after his freshman season, there still remains a future in the NFL for the former Nittany Lion.