Hackenberg's meaning to PSU was huge

(Scranton) Times-Tribune (TNS)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — You wanted him to be Kerry Collins. Turns out, he was closer in a historical regard and in a sense of significance to Joe Paterno.

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

You wanted him to lead Penn State to Big Ten titles, or more. He didn’t do that, but he may have done you one better. Think, for a second, what your program would look like today without him.

Because if you want to get technical about it, there isn’t one person who has done more to boost the Penn State football program since the fateful November of 2011 as Christian Hackenberg.

Not Michael Mauti. Not Matt McGloin. Not Bill O’Brien. Not James Franklin. Not anybody.

So what if he led the program to just 22 wins in the last three seasons? So what if that’s not success to your satisfaction?

When Hackenberg declared himself eligible for the 2016 NFL Draft after Saturday’s 24-17 loss to Georgia in the TaxSlayer Bowl, it was difficult not to think of significance over the statistics so many have used to paint him as an underachiever.

“First and foremost, I want to thank Christian for everything he done and has meant to Penn State University,” receiver Eugene Lewis said. “For fans. For myself. For everyone on this team. He was just a big part of this after what happened and everything.”

That’s not a sendoff anyone hears very often for a player leaving a program for greener pastures. That can go a few different ways, obviously, with fans and teammates who want next season to be better than the last.

But who can blame Hackenberg, really?

Sure, he has had some struggles on the field. After a promising freshman season in the final year of Bill O’Brien’s two-year tenure as head coach, Hackenberg looked lost at times in 2014 in James Franklin’s offense, needing a four-touchdown performance in the Pinstripe Bowl to get his touchdown-to-interception ratio to a still-dismal 12-to-15.

He improved that number greatly — to 16-to-5 — this season, but those sacks just kept coming. Who could blame him for rolling the dice on a draft some experts believe won’t be kind to him rather than risk a third consecutive season-long beating?

He leaves Penn State as its career leader in passing yards, touchdowns, 300-yard passing games, 200-yard passing games, attempts, completions and total offense. He is the only quarterback in program history with 8,000 yards passing and three 2,000-yard passing seasons. He is one of just eight Penn State quarterbacks to top the 5,000-yard mark, one of only three to surpass the 6,000 career passing yards and one of two 7,000-yard passers.

And he may be remembered, by some, as a gross disappointment on the field.

“If people say that,” receiver DaeSean Hamilton said succinctly and correctly, “quite frankly, they don’t know anything.”

But what’s indisputable is Hackenberg could have thrown 100 interceptions and still been one of the most important figures in Penn State history, simply because of when he showed up.

At a time when most thought Penn State — scandal-ridden and sanction-riddled — would have trouble getting anybody to go there to play football, the Nittany Lions got a five-star quarterback prospect who could have gone anywhere.

Sure, O’Brien and his pro-style offense deserve much of the credit, but keep in mind, Hackenberg didn’t have to be the influence on this program he became. Especially after O’Brien left to pursue a dream of being an NFL head coach in Houston.

So many thought Penn State would wind up being a glorified FCS team because of the sanctions. But Hackenberg led a recruiting class that didn’t let it happen.

He had chances to back out of his commitment to Penn State when the sanctions were announced in July of 2012. Think Alabama and Florida and South Carolina and Tennessee weren’t trying to get him to do that? But he stuck by Penn State. And if a recruit of Hackenberg’s stature was going to do that, why wouldn’t everybody else who had decided Penn State would be their school?

“I don’t know if you can count on one hand any other teams across the country that could have survived, and thrived the way we did,” Hackenberg said. “Just to be a part of that is really humbling. From my freshman year when I made the decision until now, I wouldn’t have realized how impactful it would be in the Penn State community, with the lettermen and with the alumni. It’s pretty cool, and I only have a little taste of it. I still don’t fully realize it.”

Because there’s been so many unrealistic expectations around him and the program the last two seasons, Hackenberg’s full impact at Penn State might not be fully appreciated until years have passed. But here’s a guess: If Hackenberg jumped ship before the 2013 season, nobody would have blamed him, and others would likely have joined him.

What would Penn State look like now, if so? Where would these Nittany Lions have been without him, without his leadership and his guidance? Where would this program be if it couldn’t hold on to the one five-star prospect it had in its grasp? How could it realistically have been expected to land prospects like Garrett Sickels or Chris Godwin after him.

“He has been our leader, the main focus-point of our team,” Hamilton said. “He has shown nothing but the utmost confidence in any situation we had. He has obviously been a great presence for this program. He helped keep this program afloat.”

This didn’t end right, though.

In a fair world, Hackenberg would have been able to tough out one last game, let the outing he knew would be his final one maybe be the catalyst for the next step for Penn State football. Instead, he finally suffered the injury he couldn’t overcome — a sprained shoulder that Franklin said seems to be minor in nature.

It was over at halftime. Yet there was Hackenberg, in sweats, wearing a headset, guiding redshirt freshman Trace McSorley — the odds-on favorite to be the next Penn State quarterback after guiding Saturday’s near comeback against the Bulldogs — through the tough times.

Just like he always seems to do.

“A whole lot. I mean, a lot,” Hackenberg said, asked what Penn State means to him. “There are a lot of different things that went on, a lot of different life lessons learned. Not only on the field, but off it. I think it’s a really, really special place, and not a lot of people understand that unless you’re from there. It’s definitely a place that’s really close to my heart now. Maybe it wasn’t three years ago, but it definitely is now, a lot more than I ever would have thought it would be.”

Now, it’s over. The end. Some quarterbacks have won more. Nobody has meant more.