Christian Hackenberg impresses NFL scouts at Penn State
STATE COLLEGE — There was a brief hiccup early on. As Christian Hackenberg began his routine in front of 31 NFL teams Thursday, two short passes to the flat were fired low and incomplete.
That was a familiar sight in the fall, as the Penn State quarterback’s mechanics and footwork were picked apart.
But Hackenberg quickly recovered at the Nittany Lions’ pro day. Two straight completions became 10. Ten became 20. All of them had some added zip.
And when it was over, the consensus inside Penn State’s Holuba Hall practice facility was that the heavily dissected quarterback had boosted his stock following mixed reviews from last month’s NFL Combine.
Afterward, Hackenberg declined to speak to beat reporters, doing only a few one-on-one interviews with national media. But his trainer, Jordan Palmer — brother of Pro Bowler and Heisman winner Carson — called the day a success.
“I honestly thought it was an ‘A,’ ” Palmer said. “He spun the ball really well, which was something there were questions about from the tape.
“You’re going to start hearing a buzz nationally … the next two or three days about Christian Hackenberg trending upward because of his tape from today.”
In some cases, it may not take that long. Two NFL scouts who asked that their teams not be identified said that their opinion of Hackenberg improved based on his performance on Thursday.
New York Jets general manager Mike Maccagnan was there in person for the performance. Also in attendance was Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Greg Roman, who had previously applied for Penn State’s head coaching job at the end of 2011.
With the exception of the Atlanta Falcons, at least one representative from each NFL team made the trip to Happy Valley.
Hackenberg excelled on his intermediate and deep throws for the gallery, showing off the arm strength that he was known for during his record-breaking three seasons at Penn State. He launched a few bombs on scramble drills that approached 60 yards and was particularly accurate on throws of 20-30 yards.
Of his 50-plus attempts, fewer than 10 were incomplete and only one was thrown where the receiver had no shot at catching it.
One of those receivers was former Lions top target Derek Moye, who most recently played for his hometown Pittsburgh Steelers. Moye said he hadn’t met Hackenberg until recently, after Hackenberg’s agent — another former Penn State wideout, Rich Rosa — gave him a call to see if he was interested.
Moye said he was impressed with Hackenberg and was asked if the 21-year-old reminded him of any other quarterbacks he had worked with.
“I think I know what you’re hinting at,” Moye said with a laugh. “I can definitely see similarities with him and Ben.”
That would be Roethlisberger.
“They both have big arms,” Moye said. “Really big guys and both have an IQ for the game. … He’s pretty cool and calm. As an NFL quarterback, that’s a good trait to have.”
Though Hackenberg is not projected to be a first-round pick when the draft begins on April 28, most evaluations have him going on the second day, which is made up of the second and third rounds.
Palmer said Hackenberg would most benefit most from going to a team where he could learn for a year or two under an established signal-caller, noting that his brother didn’t take one snap as a rookie despite being drafted No. 1 overall.
Hackenberg’s former coach agreed.
“Depending on the situation he walks into, I think he can be a franchise quarterback,” Penn State’s James Franklin said in an NFL Network interview with former Lions All-American LaVar Arrington. “But I think there’s very few guys that are able to walk in from Day 1 and make that transition.
“I think the ideal situation for any quarterback, including Christian, is to be able to come in, be around a veteran quarterback that’s really skilled and learn from that guy (for) a year or so. Now, when you’re able to step in, he is ready to handle that situation.”
• Hackenberg may have had the spotlight Thursday, but defensive linemen Austin Johnson, Carl Nassib and Anthony Zettel drew crowds with Johnson also a potential second-day pick.
Johnson, Hackenberg and offensive lineman Angelo Mangiro all appeared noticeably slimmer from January’s TaxSlayer Bowl.
Johnson said he weighed in at 310 pounds after playing most of the 2015 season around 325.
“Everyone thinks I look a lot smoother and faster,” Johnson said. “Just be in the middle — didn’t want to be too heavy or be too light. Whatever any team wants me to do.”
• Defensive back Jordan Lucas attended the Combine along with some of his teammates but did not get to participate in all of the workouts last month as he recovered from shoulder surgery that ended his senior season.
He was happy to go through all of the paces on Thursday.
“I was anxious,” Lucas said. “A lot of training over the course of two months, and I’m back, I’m healthy. I’m excited.”
Lucas, who played both corner and safety for the Lions, said he told NFL teams he preferred corner.
• Nassib doesn’t have to go far to get advice for this whole draft thing. His brother, Ryan, was a star quarterback at Syracuse and was selected by the New York Giants, where he now serves as Eli Manning’s top backup.
Asked if he’d prefer to play with his brother or sack him, Nassib said, “Either or would be very nice.”
• A host of former Penn State players were in attendance for the event, including a cameo from WVC alum Eugene Lewis, who will play his senior season at Oklahoma.