UNIVERSITY PARK — The curious case of quarterback Christian Hackenberg's NFL draft stock won't be going away anytime soon.
This Nittany Lions junior spent part of his offseason quieting questions about whether or not he'll head for the draft after this season after some projected him as high as the No. 1 overall pick. While Hackenberg's 6-foot-4, 228-pound build, coupled with his success in former Penn State coach Bill O'Brien's pro-style offense when Hackenberg was a freshman have helped to raise his profile, the struggles of the Nittany Lions offense raise red flags.
Penn State's 27-10 loss Saturday against Temple raised more questions than it answered on two key fronts. Even though Hackenberg completed 11 of 25 passes for 103 yards, the Lions overall offensive performance created doubts about the his talent and the skills of those around him.
"The biggest thing is that, when he does have the clean pocket, I'd like to see a little bit more consistency with him just setting his feet, stepping into his throw and then just the ultimate result is him being a more accurate passer," NFLDraftScout.com's Rob Rang said in an interview with the Post-Gazette. "My biggest concern is that he seems to be just as inconsistent accuracy-wise when there was no pressure. There's a couple plays where he kind of ran out or scrambled out of the pocket and was on the move and threw passes that were really inaccurate.
"In today's NFL, with so many creative pass-rushers and exotic blitzes, quarterbacks have to be able to handle pressure, and that's where I thought he really struggled."
Since his first collegiate season when he was the Big Ten Conference's freshman of the year, Hackenberg has thrown 16 interceptions and 12 touchdowns. He has absorbed 54 sacks, and, as a result, has at times looked uncomfortable when there is a pocket for him to enter. He said improving his footwork was part of his offseason plan, something he worked at while serving as a counselor at the Elite 11 as well as the Manning Passing Academy.
Hackenberg is supposed to have the deepest receiving corps around him in his three years in Happy Valley, a group that receivers coach Josh Gattis said is eight deep. There's no big-play eraser like second-year Jacksonville Jaguars receiver Allen Robinson, who caught passes Hackenberg's freshman year, another piece that complicates those trying to evaluate Hackenberg's performances.
Penn State's run game and the Lions' commitment to it is something coach James Franklin said the offense needed to do a better job of against Temple. Picking up nine first downs for the entire game and going scoreless after the first quarter aren't the numbers first-round draft picks orchestrate. Hackenberg's biggest completion of the game was a 30-yarder to wide receiver Chris Godwin.
Setting up Hackenberg in the shotgun rather than under center is one way Penn State is trying to help give the big-armed player more time to get his passes off. With an offensive line struggling with communication issues, thus failing to execute blitz pick-ups, Franklin said it's no surprise Hackenberg isn't under center more.
"Our protection issues that we have had there are a reason why we're starting them back at 5 yards from the beginning rather than under center," Franklin said.
Rang said he wouldn't say Hackenberg has happy feet — the unflattering term given to quarterbacks whose footwork is unsettled when the rush is coming — but said that, after 14 games of pressure and uncertainty in front of him, he could be developing it.
The good news for Hackenberg?
"Penn State's struggles will give him plenty of opportunities to adjust and to learn how to handle that [pressure]," Rang said.