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Hackenberg should leave Penn State

(Scranton) Times-Tribune (TNS)

Perhaps this is a much more complicated decision for Christian Hackenberg than most believe it will be.

Quarterback Christian Hackenberg is one of five former Penn State players invited to the NFL Scouting Combine.

Maybe, the questions he’ll ask himself about his future over the next month are much more nuanced than the obvious ones. It could very well be that being a high draft choice in 2017 might mean more to Penn State’s junior quarterback than just being a draft choice next year.

It’s somewhat conceivable, given those possibilities, that Hackenberg will stay at Penn State for his final season of eligibility in 2016.

But, the question here is not whether Hackenberg will come back to Penn State. It’s whether he should.

That is not a question that needs complicated thought or nuanced decision-making to answer.

Because the answer is no.

Hackenberg should go to the NFL.

First-round pick or not.

Starting job or not.

Ready or not.

He doesn't owe PSU a thing: Before we move on, lets get one thing clear: Hackenberg doesn’t owe Penn State a thing, and that includes giving a new offensive coordinator a shot. He could have gone to Alabama or Florida, Tennessee or South Carolina. Yet, he committed to Penn State in its darkest time, committed to a head coach who never coached a game and stayed when the NCAA issued sanctions against the program. He had no guarantee he’d ever so much as play in a bowl game or with a scholarship roster that even compared to his competitors.

Many would have questioned that decision three years later. He has been sacked 103 times since. Think about that. One hundred three. How many quarterbacks could take that pounding physically? How many could take it mentally?

Hackenberg will be the first to admit he didn’t always do the latter, especially when it got really bad in 2014, when getting sacked five times pretty much constituted a normal Saturday. He screamed at assistant coaches and was caught on camera expressing frustration several times that year. But, he also learned from his mistakes.

Through it all, he never criticized the offensive line that couldn’t quite figure out how to protect him. He had an offensive coordinator, John Donovan, who was fired Sunday, and Hackenberg never publicly did anything but praise how hard he worked to get the offense better.

There were more not-so-veiled criticisms of Donovan’s play-calling from James Franklin than there ever were from Hackenberg.

In that regard, nobody has represented Penn State since those sanctions were handed down better than Hackenberg has. Nobody.

He deserves honest evaluation: So for all those reasons, this is a player who deserves an honest, fair evaluation of what he should do from his coaching staff.

What it comes down to is, there’s no way Franklin and his staff can guarantee Hackenberg wouldn’t be putting his own on-field safety at risk if he returns.

In other words, can Franklin and his coaching staff guarantee they can cut Hackenberg’s sack total in half? Can they go from the 40s to the 20s, and preferably, lower? Because if not, how can Hackenberg legitimately expect to show the scouts who have criticized his fitness to be a top draft choice that they’re wrong with another season in college?

Even with the caveat — as much of an unknown as it is — that Franklin will hire an offensive coordinator that will perfectly suit his skillset, can Hackenberg succeed behind the linemen who will be on the 2016 roster? Essentially, it’s the veterans who have not gotten the job done, or the youngsters who have never played. Either way, and even with a combination of both, it’s not a guarantee Hackenberg can stay upright.

No guarantees: In turn, it’s also not a guarantee he can continue to stay healthy. Quarterbacks get hit, and sometimes, they get hurt. Hackenberg has proven remarkably tough and durable, though. Only twice has the backup quarterback had to come in because Hackenberg had to come off the field for an injury. Is that a testament to his toughness? Sure. It’s also a sign of luck. Eventually, even the toughest don’t get back up.

There are just too many questions and too few guarantees to recommend Hackenberg stays at Penn State. Besides, for as many questions as scouts have about development, it’s also clear Hackenberg still has what can’t be taught: ideal height and size (6-foot-4, close to 230 pounds), a rocket arm, poise and leadership abilities. He’ll get drafted for those reasons alone, and the best thing for his career would be if the team that does it sits him behind an established quarterback and lets him watch and learn and get his body to 100 percent after years of absorbing hits.

Christian Hackenberg will never get the credit he’s due for all he has done for Penn State football. Now, it’s time for Hackenberg to do right by himself.