It hardly rates as a surprise Penn State’s two most gifted juniors have asked for evaluations from the NFL on their potential draft status heading into next spring.
It might be considered a bit stunning, however, that one who most everyone figured would leave said he still hasn’t made up his mind on what to do.
Head coach James Franklin confirmed Friday during Penn State’s TaxSlayer Bowl media day that quarterback Christian Hackenberg and defensive tackle Austin Johnson have requested opinions from the NFL Draft Advisory Board on where they might expect to be picked if they indeed declare themselves eligible for the 2016 draft. But Hackenberg staunchly maintained he has been so focused on the Nittany Lions’ clash with Georgia on Jan. 2 that he has not come to a conclusion on whether to stay or go.
“It’s obviously going to be a tool (to use) in that decision when the time comes,” Hackenberg said of the evaluation.
Once considered a near-certain first-round pick, Hackenberg’s struggles the last two seasons behind a rickety offensive line have led many to doubt whether he’s ready for the NFL at all just yet. He was not listed among the 14 Nittany Lions players scheduled to graduate from the university today, but Johnson will. The
6-foot-4, 323-pound defensive tackle finished third on the team with 70 tackles, including 13 for loss and 5½ sacks. Some draft experts consider him a borderline first-round pick.
Franklin said Penn State also provides some information to share with the players who want to measure their draft potential and their families, and he added he has spoken with Hackenberg and Johnson at various times throughout the past few weeks about the subject.
“What we basically decided more than anything else is ... we just want a plan that is organized so whatever we decide, it’s not just going to be someone coming out, throwing something out midweek on a tweet,” Franklin said. “It’s going to be something we do together, and do it the way they want it to be done and represent Penn State the right way. We’re still working through the details, and really, still working through some of the answers.”
About a decade ago, Penn State receivers coach Josh Gattis went through the evaluation process when he was a junior safety at Wake Forest. He said the evaluation was simply a means to garner some information on how much he needed to improve, noting he knew he’d be returning to the Demon Deacons as a senior in 2006.
While he conceded the process might have changed a bit in the last decade, Gattis said the December leading into a potential pro’s senior season is always a nerve-wracking one.
“It’s a very honest feedback the NFL gives you,” said Gattis, who wound up being a fifth-round selection by the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2007. “They kind of tell you what’s in your best interest from their standpoint. Then, obviously, these kids have to sit down and figure out what’s in their best interest as far as their football, as well as their social life and their family life structure.
“They want to make the best decision, but as you can imagine, 19-, 20-year-old kids get pulled in a lot of directions. And it’s not necessarily all for the benefit of the kids. They just have to make sure they’re leaning on the people close to them, making the right decisions not just for their football careers, but the next 40 years of their lives.”
The decision for Hackenberg is one many around Penn State and college football will be watching, as several draft analysts have opined that returning to school — especially with new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead on the scene — might be his best option.
“I’d say go back,” ESPN’s Todd McShay said during a conference call Thursday. “I would kind of hope that that’s the answer, because he’s just not ready.”