HEISER: Despite sophomore slump, draft gurus still enamored with Penn State's Hackenberg
That is the only word that can describe my reaction when I first heard the news.
Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg is projected to be the No. 1 selection in a 2016 NFL mock draft released last week by ESPN's Todd McShay, going to the Washington Redskins.
McShay is a well-known and respected draft analyst, and he's not alone in his opinion about Hackenberg's draft prospects.
Nearly every other 2016 mock draft I could find online had Hackenberg among the top 10 overall picks.
There is one serious caveat here. Mock drafts that come out nearly a year ahead of the actual draft won't mean a thing 12 months from now. Even the experts making the predictions will tell you that. They are educated guesses, at best, and should be used for entertainment purposes only.
Still, the fact that Hackenberg is so highly regarded by folks who make a living out of evaluating top college football talent is, in a word, stunning.
Hackenberg hardly looked like a first-round pick last fall.
He completed just 55.8 percent of his passes with 12 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. His passing rating was 109.4, which ranked him 113th out of 123 NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision quarterbacks.
That's hardly the stuff of No. 1 draft picks, and the numbers don't tell the whole, disappointing story.
He consistently struggled with his accuracy, displayed an occasional case of happy feet in the pocket and openly vented his displeasure on the field at his teammates and coaches.
Reasons for his struggles: Were there reasons for his struggles?
After a highly successful true freshman season under Bill O'Brien's NFL-style offense in 2013, Hackenberg was working with an entirely new offensive staff and new system under James Franklin in 2014. There were bound to be some growing pains.
Additionally, his offensive line was banged up, inexperienced and short on talent. The Lions couldn't produce a consistent running game to take any heat off Hackenberg and the passing attack. The pass protection was abysmal, leading to 44 sacks of the immobile Hackenberg, not to mention many more hits after he unloaded the football. He got banged up early in the season and stayed that way the rest of the regular season. Still, he played nearly every snap, displaying some real toughness.
Finally, his young wideouts had serious difficulty stretching the field and gaining separation from the defensive backs.
It was a perfect storm of adversity, and Hackenberg wasn't able to overcome it until the Pinstripe Bowl, when he finally looked like the QB that displayed such potential as a freshman in 2013. He torched Boston College for 371 yards, completing 34 of 50 passes (68 percent) with four touchdowns and no interceptions in PSU's 31-30 victory at Yankee Stadium.
Maybe that performance was enough to make the draft gurus overlook Hackenberg's regular-season woes.
Or maybe the experts were focusing on the potential he displayed during his freshman campaign, when he had 20 TD passes against just 10 picks while completing 58.9 percent of his passes (134.0 passing rating).
More likely, however, the pundits probably regard Hackenberg so highly because he simply looks the part of an NFL-ready QB. He's tall (6-foot, 4-inches), strong (236 pounds) and possesses a howitzer for an arm. Plus, when he played for an NFL coach in an NFL-style system as a freshman, he thrived.
He can't afford junior flop: That may make it possible to overlook his sophomore slump.
If his sophomore slump is followed a junior flop, however, the experts likely won't overlook that. After all, Hackenberg's line and receivers, though still far from great, figure to be better. He's had more than a year to adjust to Franklin's staff and offense. And the first half of PSU's season is Charmin soft. After the opener at Temple, the Lions have five straight home games vs. Buffalo, Rutgers, San Diego State, Army and Indiana. That's not exactly a murderer's row. In fact, each of the Lions' first six foes lost at least five games in 2014. That should give Hackenberg plenty of opportunities to pile up some big early season numbers.
There will be no more excuses.
If he wants to fulfill the projections and become a top-10 pick next spring, he must first produce vastly improved results next fall.
Ranking 113th out of 123 FBS QBs simply won't cut it.
It's up to him. He needs to become a true leader and a productive passer.
If he does that, he'll likely live up to the first-round predictions and become an instant multi-millionaire.
If he doesn't, he'll likely return for his senior season in Happy Valley, hoping to reclaim the lost potential of his freshman season.
In either case, I'll no longer be stunned.
Steve Heiser is sports editor of The York Dispatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.