STATE COLLEGE — With all Christian Hackenberg's physical gifts, and few college quarterbacks have more, he was still at a loss to fix Penn State's issues last season.
New coaches. New offense. Inexperienced teammates. Hackenberg was not at his best and the players around him did not provide much help. The kid with the arm that screams future franchise quarterback often had Nittany Lions fans screaming something very different.
Hackenberg insists the bumps and bruises to his body and psyche have made him stronger. He enters his third — and possibly final — season at Penn State as the Nittany Lions' trump card. If they can give Hackenberg the support he needs, he could become a hero in Happy Valley and accelerate the post-Sandusky restoration of Penn State football. If not, it could be another season-long lesson in how to deal with adversity for the former five-star recruit.
"Overall, the entire thing that has happened, it's been an awesome experience, though it wasn't ideally what I pictured," Hackenberg told the AP. "It was one of the best experiences for me because not only in football but in life there's going to be changes, there's going to be things that don't go your way or not exactly how you planned it. And you've got to be able to adjust to that and make the best out of it."
Growing up Hackenberg meant growing up around sports. His mother, Nikki, was a star college volleyball player. Dad Erick played college football. Both have coached. Erick's father was a longtime high school football coach in Pennsylvania. When Barry Hackenberg died eight years ago, Erick was touched by how many of his father's former players shared stories about how he shaped shape their lives.
The coach-player relationship goes far deeper than playbooks and practices in the Hackenberg family.
"I have a profound respect for the profession," Erick said.
At Penn State, Christian found a coach he could connect with in Bill O'Brien. But after Hackenberg's record-setting freshman season, O'Brien left to become the Houston Texans' head coach. James Franklin took over.
Erick Hackenberg said, "We did go through a slight vetting process" when Franklin was hired. The elder Hackenberg said he owed it to his son to make sure Penn State was still the best place for him.
"He loves Penn State so much," Erick Hackenberg said of Christian.
It didn't always look that way last season.
Showing frustration: Shackled by NCAA sanctions from the Sandusky scandal, Penn State had to piece together an offensive line and rely on freshman receivers. Blocks were missed, routes were busted. Hackenberg threw more interceptions and fewer touchdowns than he did as a freshman. He was sacked more than any quarterback in the Big Ten. He got booed at home. He could not conceal his disappointment.
"Has he shown signs of frustration with that at times? Yeah, but that's natural," Franklin said. "I don't think it ever got to a point where it was a problem on our team."
As Penn State lost six of its final eight games, Hackenberg took it upon himself to fix the sputtering offense. He admits he made mistakes.
"The biggest thing had nothing to do with what anyone saw. It was how I acted throughout it," he said. "When that happens I just kind of shut down as a person. There was a point where I didn't talk to my parents for like two weeks.
"My high school coach called me and he's one of the biggest influences in my life and it took me four, five, six phone calls before I gave him a call back."
Worst of all for Hackenberg, he struggled with how best to lead his teammates. Tough love or positive reinforcement?
"I honestly didn't know what to do," he said.
The transfer rumors ramped up again, but Hackenberg said it never crossed his mind.
Ending season with hope: The end of the season brought hope. Hackenberg threw for 371 yards and four touchdowns in Penn State's 31-30 victory against Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl. Franklin saw it as validation of the point he was making all season.
"If we give the guy time he will pick them apart," Franklin said
Despite the terrible numbers Hackenberg had last season, 12 touchdowns, 15 interceptions and a 55.8 percent completion rate, talent evaluators recognize his vast potential.
"I see I guy who could be everything, I see a guy who could be the No. 1 pick in the draft," said Charles Davis, football analyst for Fox and the NFL Network.
For now it's all about Penn State.
"This spring he has just been a totally different leader for us," center Angelo Mangiro said. "He's one of the most competitive people I've ever been around. I think that competitiveness was getting to him a little bit last year. He was almost competing with himself."
No longer hampered by scholarship penalties, Penn State has more depth and experience. Hackenberg, now a team captain, should have more help and be better equipped to lift the players around him.
"I think this year I'm so much more comfortable because I know what to expect from these guys," Hackenberg said. "I know when to kick a guy in the butt. I know when to pat them on the back."
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