Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg (14) passes during the first quarter against Central Florida in State College on Saturday.
Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg (14) passes during the first quarter against Central Florida in State College on Saturday. (GENE J. PUSKAR -- The Associated Press)

STATE COLLEGE -- His college career has spanned all of three weeks, yet Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg seems to be succeeding at contrasting goals.

His grasp of the Nittany Lions' offense already has resulted in some gaudy passing statistics and a quick ascension to his role as one of the team's leaders. He said his ability to keep his head down on campus and be recognized only as a regular student is another test at which he is passing.

"I'm here doing the same things everyone else is, just trying to get an education," Hackenberg said. "But I just play football as well."

Fairly well, at that. Penn State is 2-1 with Hackenberg under center, and he faces another winnable test Saturday, vs. Kent State (1-2).

Hackenberg has quickly transitioned his play from one of the nation's top-rated, pro-style high school quarterbacks to Penn State starter under second-year coach Bill O'Brien. It is not something that happens often in Happy Valley -- freshman starters -- but this is a new era of Nittany Lions football.

He will enter the game vs. the Golden Flashes with a completion rate of nearly 72 percent and 851 yards passing.

"You have to establish yourself in your setting," Hackenberg said. "There are guys who have been here a lot longer and you have to understand that. I just tried to earn their respect and eventually as I earned it, we just had more conversations about football.

"I'm away, alone, and it's been difficult at times just getting myself acclimated in the classroom. But football is something I enjoy doing, and I enjoy being around the guys on the team."

Winning helps, of course, and though the Nittany Lions were bit by Central Florida last week, they still have a chance to be 4-1 headed into a showdown with No. 15 Michigan on Oct. 12.

O'Brien, a former offensive coordinator with the New England Patriots, has been impressed by Hackenberg, and is eager to see if he can bounce back after a loss.

"He's a self-confident kid," O'Brien said. "He's just got a really good demeanor. He's sure of himself. He knows he has good ability. He's a good person. He's a calm guy, which is great for me because I'm not a calm guy."

O'Brien this week gave Hackenberg a 'B' grade for his three-game performance. Hackenberg will take it.

"I'd agree with whatever he had to say," Hackenberg said. "I feel like I did some good things, but I feel like there were some things if I could have done them better, I could have affected the outcome of the game."

Hackenberg enjoys dissecting game film and learning from a coach with the stature of O'Brien.

"It's actually fun," he said. "I look forward to going and learning what I can do better, and how it can help the team. That's the goal for all of us."

O'Brien's critique this week was concise. There will be tougher games ahead on the horizon, and it's important to move past performances, both good and bad.

"I told him if he could eliminate six or seven mistakes from his game, that he'll keep improving," O'Brien said, "and he'll help our football team a lot."

The Nittany Lions will play the Wolverines and No. 4 Ohio State back to back in October. There is time to prepare for that stretch, of course, but no matter what his numbers are headed into that parlay, that will probably be his most difficult run.

O'Brien will be with him every step of the way.

"You are the extension (of the coach) on the field," Hackenberg said. "You can sort of see things that he can't sometimes. It's your job to get the team in a situation where we can succeed as a group. You have to be the rock, you have to be the foundation, the leader.

"It's a great opportunity and I'm blessed to have it."