JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg wants to coach football when his playing career ends. He's at his talkative best when talking about the position's intricacies, particularly regarding what he does before and after games.
"Practice means the world to me," Hackenberg said recently. "I think that's the biggest part of being a player: really taking pride in how you practice and how you go about your business. At least for me, it's just caring about the game a lot. I want to learn as much about the game as I can."
Once the TaxSlayer Bowl concludes Saturday at Jacksonville's EverBank Field, where Hackenberg continues his football education will be a prime subject. The junior has applied for an evaluation from the NFL draft advisory committee and has until Jan. 18 to declare whether he will enter next year's draft.
Though Hackenberg hasn't spoken publicly about his decision, there's no shortage of opinions regarding his future. Once considered a first-round certainty, Hackenberg now has a draft status that's more complicated to read.
He's still a durable 6-4, 240-pound pro-style quarterback with an NFL body, strong arm and innate skill for the position. He has endured two years of punishment, through 82 sacks and significantly more hits, but missed only a handful of plays.
Accuracy an issue: But, as one analyst said, NFL scouts don't want to see a quarterback's freshman season be his best. Hackenberg's completion percentage has dropped each season, from 58.9 percent as a freshman to 53.3 this season, as he has navigated through two different coaching staffs, offenses and philosophies.
"It's really hard to put a first- or even second-round grade on a quarterback who struggles with accuracy the way Hackenberg has struggled," said Todd McShay, ESPN's director off college football scouting. "Accuracy, to me, is the No. 1 trait when evaluating a quarterback."
As a result, some analysts believe that Hackenberg should return to Penn State for his senior season, provided he's comfortable with the offensive direction under head coach James Franklin and new coordinator Joe Moorhead. If not, Hackenberg might have to be comfortable with getting drafted in a later round.
"It's a tough question on Hackenberg. I would have to sit down and spend time and get honest answers from him," McShay said. "… Where are you going with this coaching staff? What are your concerns? If he was very positive about everything going on there, and thought that the offensive line was going to be better and thought that he's kind of figured out what they want to do and they've come to a middle ground, then I'd say go back.
"And I would kind of hope that's the answer. Because he's just not ready."
Notion of disconnect: This notion of disconnect between Hackenberg and the Penn State coaching staff is common among analysts. During a recent appearance on ESPN's Mike & Mike radio show, analyst Brock Huard described a "broken quarterback" and offensive coaching staff during the three games he broadcasted.
Huard is another analyst who sees a quarterback whose skills have been derailed by sacks, fundamental issues and flaws. He called Hackenberg's draft stock "low," noting that NFL talent evaluators will see the same things.
"If he has any trust in [head coach] James Franklin, or [Hackenberg] played any role in who [Franklin] just hired as his offensive coordinator, it would be best for him to get back on campus and improve that stock," Huard said on the show. "Because the raw goods are there."
For Todd Blackledge, the ESPN analyst and former Penn State quarterback, Hackenberg remains an "outstanding" NFL prospect who needs to be "retooled and re-coached fundamentally."
Blackledge sees a quarterback whose accuracy has diminished because his footwork and fundamentals regressed during a two-year stretch of protection breakdowns. Some of those issues stemmed from protection concerns, Blackledge said. And some stemmed from coaching.
"I just don't know how well he's been coached in that part of it over the last couple years," Blackledge said. "And I just think that whoever gets a hold of him, and whatever he does for next year, I think the key thing for him is, he needs to get back to the basics and get kind of retooled from a footwork and fundamentals standpoint to go along with the arm talent, the brain and his toughness."
History may indicate he should stay: Even beyond the on-field concerns, Hackenberg might benefit from another year in college based on recent historical data. McShay noted that, of the 10 underclassmen quarterbacks drafted from 2006-12, three have been considered successful: Andrew Luck, Cam Newton and Matthew Stafford.
On the flip side, the list also includes quarterbacks such as Robert Griffin III, Mark Sanchez, Josh Freeman, JaMarcus Russell and Vince Young.
Elsewhere, of the last eight quarterbacks to win Super Bowls, two were drafted as underclassmen: Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger. And Rodgers waited his turn behind Brett Favre in Green Bay.
Further, Huard called this class of quarterbacks — including Hackenberg, Cal's Jared Goff, Michigan State's Connor Cook and Memphis' Paxton Lynch — a collection of second- and third-round prospects. As such, another year of college seasoning wouldn't hurt.
"If you study the history of it, everything tells you to go back to school and to do everything you can to get more game experience and develop," McShay said. "That would be my advice, if Hackenberg could make it work [at Penn State].
"I would tell him, 'You need to do everything in your power to make it work, if possible.' But if he looked at me and said, 'It's just not going to work,' then he's a man now. He's got to make his own decisions."
STAY OR GO?
Three reasons why quarterback Christian Hackenberg should, and shouldn't, return to Penn State.
1. Reset his accuracy switch. Former Penn State quarterback Todd Blackledge said Hackenberg's fundamentals, particularly his footwork, need to be "retooled" to improve his accuracy. And ESPN's Todd McShay added that quarterbacks rarely become more accurate in the NFL than they were in college.
2. Pursue a fresh approach. Hackenberg said he was impressed with new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead after they watched film together. Maybe Moorhead's offense would click with the quarterback.
3. Finish what he started (including his degree). Hackenberg is a prime reason Penn State has not had a losing season since the NCAA sanctions were applied. Perhaps he needs one more season to bring closure to his career.
Further, the communications major comes from a family of educated coaches to whom a degree is important. It's important to Hackenberg, too, as is the university itself.
1. His health. That Hackenberg hasn't been injured after absorbing 82 sacks over the past two seasons is remarkable. Why risk it for another year?
2. Tired of change. If he stays, Hackenberg will play for his third different offensive coordinator in four years. That's exhausting — particularly when the system with which you're most comfortable lives in the NFL.
3. A fresh start elsewhere. Several analysts wondered whether Hackenberg fits into coach James Franklin's offensive approach — and vice versa. From a football standpoint, both parties might be best served through an amicable parting.
WHO: Penn State vs. Georgia
WHEN: Noon Saturday
WHERE: EverBank Field, Jacksonville, Fla.
TICKETS: Visit the TaxSlayer Bowl website or call 1-800-NITTANY.