How Christian Hackenberg landed at Penn State

How Christian Hackenberg landed at Penn State

February 6, 2013, 8:15 am
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Penn state recruits

Richy Anderson, RB (5-11, 171)

Brandon Bell, LB (6-1, 222)

Adam Breneman, TE (6-4, 230)

Curtis Cothran, DE (6-5, 235)

Parker Cothran, DT (6-5, 265)

Tyler Ferguson, QB (6-3, 199)

Kasey Gaines, DB (5-10, 160)

Christian Hackenberg, QB (6-3, 215)

DaeSean Hamilton, WR (6-1, 182)

Tanner Hartman, G (6-5, 255)

Zayd Issah, LB (6-3, 215)

Brendan Mahon, G (6-4, 315)

Andrew Nelson, OT (6-5, 295)

Neiko Robinson, DB (5-11, 170)

Garrett Sickels, DE (6-4, 238)

Anthony Smith, DB (6-0, 184)

Jordan Smith, DB (5-11, 178)

*Courtesy: Penn State's official site

Like many young quarterbacks, Christian Hackenberg, Penn State’s prize recruit, locked onto his target long ago and scarcely averted his gaze, despite the chaos around him. While that might be a serious on-field flaw, in this instance it has turned out to be a very good thing for the beleaguered denizens of Nittany Nation.

Hackenberg, widely viewed as the nation’s finest high school QB, gave the Nittany Lions a verbal commitment at the end of last February, some seven weeks after Bill O’Brien was hired to succeed Joe Paterno as head coach (and five weeks after Paterno died). Hackenberg stayed true to that, even as crippling NCAA sanctions were announced in July as a result of the Jerry Sandusky child sexual-abuse scandal – sanctions that included scholarship reductions and a postseason ban over a four-year period.

Hackenberg, who also remained in the fold as rumors swirled last month about O’Brien’s possible departure for the NFL, is one of 12 PSU recruits expected to sign letters of intent on National Signing Day Wednesday (see story). Five others enrolled in school last month.

A product of Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy (and a native Pennsylvanian), he said Monday afternoon it’s “more of a relief” to reach this juncture than anything else.

“Even though I’ve been committed for almost a year,” Hackenberg said, “it feels like it’s been three years, with everything that’s gone on.”

There were, he said, “definitely” some anxious moments. And definitely some soul-searching.

“Just being a 17-year-old kid, there’s a lot of emotions,” he said.

But he has leaned on his parents – Erick, a former college quarterback himself, and Nikki, who played volleyball at Lehigh and is now a middle-school English teacher. He heeded the advice of his coach at Fork Union, Micky Sullivan. And he grew close to his fellow recruits, especially Adam Breneman, a tight end from Cedar Cliff High School, near Harrisburg.

Hackenberg described Penn State as “a perfect fit … not only from a football standpoint but academically.” It was a conclusion he seemed to reach rather quickly. He was recruited by schools such as Alabama, Miami and Tennessee, but did not receive a scholarship offer from Penn State’s previous coaching staff.

According to Erick Hackenberg, a Fork Union assistant coach named Norman Gee (who has since left the staff and gone into private business) played tight end for Duke when O’Brien was an assistant there (2005-06). After O’Brien was hired at Penn State, Gee talked him up to the younger Hackenberg, emphasizing in particular what a great offensive mind he was – something most evident in O’Brien’s previous job, as the New England Patriots’ offensive coordinator.

Gee asked Christian if he would like him to forward PSU some video. Hackenberg gave the go-ahead, and before long he received a scholarship offer. Not long after, he and his dad visited the campus.

It is familiar territory for the elder Hackenberg, who grew up in the Coal Region town of Tamaqua. While he said he has always held Penn State in high regard, he was not a fan in his younger years. He first played at Virginia, and later at Susquehanna University, in Selinsgrove. (His son, the oldest of four Hackenberg boys, was born in Pennsylvania. The family moved to the Charlottesville, Va., suburbs when Christian was 8, so that Erick, who is in biotech sales, could pursue a better job opportunity.)

Erick and Christian, accompanied on that campus visit early last year by Erick’s father (a retired high school coach) and father-in-law, toured the facilities and met with O’Brien and his staff. It was while they were seated by themselves in a meeting room, Erick said, that his son “kind of elbowed me and said, ‘This is it.’ ”

“There’s a feeling I got, being on campus, being around the coaches, being around the players, the guys I’m committed with,” Hackenberg said. “It just felt like home. Really, that’s the only way to describe it.”

The clincher was that he seems a perfect fit for O’Brien’s pass-happy offense. At 6-5 and 218 pounds, Hackenberg is a classic dropback passer with a big arm and, Sullivan said, “a gunslinger’s mentality.” Hackenberg started the better part of three years in high school, throwing for 2,144 yards and 24 touchdowns as a senior. He was intercepted nine times.
“I really set my limits to going after schools – and sort of limiting schools that are coming after me – to [those fitting] my skill set,” he said. “Coach O’Brien definitely checks all those boxes.”

There were challenges ahead, to be sure. The first of those came from Sullivan himself, who retired as coach after last season, his 29th, but remains Fork Union’s athletic director. In his time on the sideline he notably coached running back Eddie George, who won a Heisman Trophy at Ohio State and starred in the NFL. (Eagles great Mike Quick once played for Fork Union’s post-graduate team, coached by John Shuman, as did Vinny Testaverde.)

As is the case with all his highly recruited players, Sullivan played devil’s advocate with Hackenberg.

“I’m going to argue with them, because I want them to think,” he said. “It’s the most important decision in your life, and you’re making it at 17 or 18. What happens if you break your leg? What happens if the coach leaves? What happens if you’re not the starter? Do you like the dorms? Do they have your major? What about tutoring? Do they have summer school?”

“It got heated at times,” Hackenberg said of those conversations. “Not anything crazy, but they were really productive and really helped me open my eyes to what I really need to look for out of a school.”
The central question was this: If an injury or other circumstances prevented him from ever playing a down at Penn State, would he still be happy there? Hackenberg assured Sullivan that he would be.

Then came July, and the announcement of the sanctions. Erick Hackenberg said he and his son learned of the seriousness of the penalties while listening to their car radio as they drove home from the airport, having taken a red eye back from the Elite 11 camp in California.

The elder Hackenberg remembers his son saying, “This [stinks], because I love that place.”
“That right there,” Erick said, “was confirmation to me that it was the right place, because he didn’t want to run away from it.”

Just to be sure, they conferred with Sullivan. They also huddled with the families of some of the other top recruits at PSU’s football facility. (“We kind of poured our hearts out,” Erick said.) Some of those recruits elected to go elsewhere. Hackenberg did not.

Throughout that time and the months that followed, Erick Hackenberg said he and his son were in “constant communication” with O’Brien, for while there are restrictions on the number of times a coach can contact a recruit, the opposite is not true. That’s why the Hackenbergs were not blindsided when rumors surfaced in January about O’Brien being a candidate to fill head-coaching openings with the Eagles or Browns – and why they believed all along that O’Brien would remain at Penn State.

Erick Hackenberg recalls a conversation with O’Brien early that month, while his son was preparing to play in the Under Armour All-America Game in St. Petersburg, Fla., in which the PSU coach told him, “You may hear some stuff this week, but never lose faith in everything I’ve told you.”

“I trusted Coach O’Brien wouldn’t be leaving,” the elder Hackenberg said.

“As a professional, you have to look,” Sullivan told a reporter. “If someone called you up and said, ‘I’m offering you $3 million to be the sports editor in Bangor, Maine,’ wouldn’t you at least go look?”

At the same time, Sullivan said, “I was not worried about it, because of what they were telling me. … I never had the feeling they were pulling our chain.”

Now the question is what happens this fall, when the competition at quarterback will be between Steven Bench, a largely untested sophomore, newly arrived junior-college transfer Tyler Ferguson and Hackenberg. And the question within the question is whether it might not be better for Hackenberg to redshirt, so that he might have a chance to play in two bowl games following the expiration of the postseason ban, rather than one.
Sullivan and Erick Hackenberg both dismissed the latter question as irrelevant.

“I don’t see how two games define your career,” the elder Hackenberg said.

Sullivan wondered what’s so bad about a player missing a month of pre-bowl practices, seeing as in the end all he gets is a chance to play in a game that is usually of dubious worth. He also receives some swag – “a new pair of sweats and a chance to go to Disney World,” Sullivan said with a scoff – that might be described the same way.

There are a few other things that are clear to Sullivan and the elder Hackenberg, the first being that the best man will start, regardless of class or experience.  And Erick Hackenberg said his son received no guarantees in exchange for his signature on a letter of intent.

“All he’s been promised is, he’ll be given a chance to compete for the job,” the elder Hackenberg said.

There is little doubt he will do just that.

“I get my playbook right after signing day,” Christian said, “so I’m going to come in there as prepared as I can, mentally and physically, and hopefully be to the point where I can step right in there and start taking [practice] reps, and understand what’s going on. If that’s the case, I’m just going to go in there and compete and let the cards fall where they fall – let Coach O’Brien be the decider of the whole thing.”

As Sullivan said, “He hasn’t gone through all the stuff he’s gone through, to go to Penn State and sit on the bench. That’s not the way he’s put together. If he’s not playing they’re going to be pretty good, because one of those guys is playing pretty well.”

Finally, Christian Hackenberg’s eyes are locked on a new target. And he figures to hone in on it with the same focus he’s displayed over the past year.