STATE COLLEGE — Christian Hackenberg threw strikes into nets and receivers' chests Wednesday, looking confident and relaxed through the beginning of practice. Earlier in the day, the Penn State quarterback described how he has regained that temperament.
Last year, Hackenberg labored through 44 sacks in 13 games and the attendant toll they took. "The word I use is grind," he said, and the quarterback applied it to his teammates on offense as well.
Following an offseason that began with hunting trips with his dad and continued through winter workouts, Hackenberg said he entered spring drills renewed by the metaphorical reset switch.
"My mind was in a lot of places last year," Hackenberg said before Penn State's seventh practice of the spring. "I kind of lost the ability to sort of focus on myself when I needed to, in the sense of making sure that I'm doing my job. And a lot of these guys have done a great job holding me to that standard this spring. That development is newer more so to this spring, so that's been good for us."
So will keeping the quarterback on his feet. At the Pinstripe Bowl, Hackenberg acknowledged that a long season of hits proved physically wearing. He expanded on that Wednesday, saying the toll went beyond the physical.
Coach James Franklin noticed that as well. Hackenberg had to concentrate so much on staying upright that the finer points of the offense — getting into the right plays, managing the clock, finding his playmakers — became more difficult.
"When you get hit that much, you start falling into bad habits," the coach said Saturday after practice. "You start drifting, your footwork is not as clean, you're falling off throws. Last year, he was so focused on everybody else, trying to help them, that it stunted his development in some ways. I'm glad he's able to get back to being focused on those things."
So is the quarterback. Hackenberg said that he has felt comfortable in both offenses (Franklin's and previous coach Bill O'Brien's) he has run. But last year the quarterback lapsed in a skill set to which he usually excels: tuning out "the noise."
"That's always been a focus for me, but I think I lost that for a little bit," Hackenberg said. "Being able to get that back — being able to be put in extremely tough situations and persevere — is good."
This spring, Hackenberg has worked behind an offensive line with more experience, even though his left tackle has yet to be determined. Hackenberg said the contenders, including Paris Palmer and Chance Sorrell, have shown promise.
So have the young receivers who were thrown into live action last season. First-year receivers DaeSean Hamilton, Saeed Blacknall and Chris Godwin combined for 118 catches (82 by Hamilton) but struggled occasionally with the "grind," as Hackenberg called at.
For instance, after the bowl game, Hamilton said he played the last few weeks of the regular season with a hamstring injury that proved limiting.
"The amount of toll it can put on your body, the amount of [regeneration] you have to do, the amount of time you have to take preparing for games week by week, in the film room and with the coaching staff, is different from high school," Hackenberg said. "For guys like Saeed, Chris, even DaeSean, having that experience helped them.
"You could really see we all were banged up toward the end of the year. That time off we had before the bowl game, you could see we were a different team. Now this spring we have the opportunity to focus on improving our game, to focus on little things in your game."
Franklin said he's helping that by relaxing the rules at practice. The coach has asked his defense to lay off blitzes and "crazy looks" it used during practices last season. Penn State will continue that model in the preseason, which Franklin hopes will lead to more even development.
"Last year our defense built up a lot of confidence, and our offense, with a young offense, was seeing too many looks early on. That, in the long run, is going to be better for everybody," he said.