Christian Hackenberg Becoming 2016 NFL Draft's Dated Savior

Justis Mosqueda@justisfootballFeatured ColumnistJanuary 8, 2016

Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg (14) plays during an NCAA college football game against Michigan in State College, Pa., Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

How long are you allowed to dwell in the past? For one prospect in the coming NFL draft class, the entire basis of his "stock" is credited to his production from the 2013 season, two years removed. That player is Christian Hackenberg.

On the surface, Hackenberg was a phenom who lost it after early success. He's college football's Freddy Adu. In the 2013 recruiting class, he was graded by 247Sports as the top quarterback coming out of high school and the seventh overall prospect from the graduating class.

The names ahead of him on that list are some of the biggest stars in college football. Robert Nkemdiche, an Ole Miss Rebel, is being looked at as a potentially generational athlete at the defensive tackle position. His teammate, Laremy Tunsil, an offensive tackle, is generally viewed as the leading candidate to land with the Tennessee Titans as the first overall pick.

Chris Jones of Mississippi State and Vernon Hargreaves III of Florida are two other potential first-round picks coming from the SEC ranks. Jaylon Smith, a linebacker from Notre Dame, had some top-five buzz surrounding him before a knee injury threw his projections in a whirlpool.

The only player ranked above Hackenberg who isn't thought to be a lock to enter the 2016 draft class is Eddie Vanderdoes, a defensive lineman at UCLA who blew out his anterior cruciate ligament in September and missed his true junior season.

From this perspective, Hackenberg fits with outgoing underclassmen in the 2016 draft pool, but in many ways, he's an outlier. He committed to Penn State to play under head coach Bill O'Brien, who took over the Nittany Lions program in 2012. Hackenberg signed his name off to play under the man who had been rubbing elbows with Tom Brady since 2007, not the school that was under a scholarship restriction and bowl ban.

That at least seems to be the consensus in the NFL and Penn State community. Matt Millen, the former general manager of the Detroit Lions and a former Nittany Lion himself, has gone on record about that exact topic with Fox Sports' Bruce Feldman, who literally wrote the book on modern quarterbacks.

'I can’t undersell how huge [former PSU head coach] Bill O’Brien was to this whole thing,' said Penn State great Matt Millen when asked about Hackenberg earlier this year.

'Christian committed to Bill. He didn’t know anything about Penn State. The part that he committed to, was after Bill left, and that was a big decision because he really could’ve done anything. So I got a lot of respect for the kid because he’s got a lot on his shoulders. He’s the face of the program. Everybody tied their wagon to him.'

This is where the trouble started. The marriage between O'Brien and Hackenberg was great. The 6'4" quarterback was named the Freshman of the Year in the Big Ten, as well as receiving plenty of Freshman All-American nods for his 2013 campaign.

After a 231-of-392 season for 2,955 passing yards, 20 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions, he was being viewed from the draft world as the next savior passer. The next Peyton Manning. The next Andrew Luck. The next Jameis Winston. The next first overall pick.

The problem is the marriage didn't last. The romantic notion of the O'Brien-Hackenberg combo resurrecting the Penn State program was cut short when the coach left for an NFL opportunity in January 2014, when the Houston Texans asked him to be their head coach. In his second year with the Texans, O'Brien took Houston to the playoffs.

Hackenberg hasn't dealt well with the breakup. 

Now, there have been those who have taken the nose dive from hero to zero before.

Jevan Snead of Mississippi was in the first overall pick conversation one preseason and went undrafted in 2010. Logan Thomas was projected as a young Cam Newton as a sophomore but was drafted in the fourth round by the Arizona Cardinals in 2014. Thomas, in his second year as an NFL quarterback, has already been cut by the Cardinals and is now moving up and down the Miami Dolphins, bouncing between the active roster and the practice squad.

There is a difference between Hackenberg and Snead and Thomas, though: He isn't being blamed for the majority of his flaws.

Penn State's offensive line has been in shambles for years, so he seems bulletproof whenever his Blaine Gabbert-like ghost-seeing is brought up in conversation. How can you throw under pressure when you're always under pressure? That flaw is deflected.

The other big excuse that gets kicked around is the offensive systems Penn State head coach James Franklin has used in State College compared to O'Brien's.

Hackenberg was allowed to audible and essentially run a pro-style system with Brady-like control under O'Brien. Under Franklin, he basically had his hands tied, orchestrating a run-of-the-mill Big Ten offense. He was neutered for his sophomore and junior seasons, some might say. If you want to write off his flaws, the opportunity is in arm's reach.

When Hackenberg declared to the world he would be turning professional after this season's TaxSlayer Bowl, he thanked just about everyone other than Franklin, the head coach he played under for two seasons.

Mark Wogenrich @MarkWogenrich

Here's a fuller transcript of #PennState quarterback Christian Hackenberg declaring for the NFL draft. https://t.co/jj205PgZ6t

After his freshman year, Bucky Brooks, a former scout in the NFL and now a member of NFL media, ranked Hackenberg as the eighth overall quarterback prospect in college football, even though he would not be eligible for another season. Over the next two years, the narrative on the passer would change, which could have led to what looks to be obvious friction between Hackenberg and the Penn State staff.

His sophomore numbers dropped drastically from his freshman year. His completion percentage slid three percent. His yards per attempt dropped almost a yard-and-a-half, and his overall quarterback rating leaked 25 points. He threw eight fewer touchdowns and five more interceptions, giving him 12 and 15 in those respective categories.

If you're throwing more interceptions than touchdowns at the college level, more often than not, you're not even getting a look from NFL scouts.

After the season, he would call it "the best thing that could have happened" to him. What else is a leader supposed to say? He was locked into the coaching staff for another season, unless he wanted to transfer schools, which would involve him sitting out 2015 and postponing his NFL decision until the 2017 class. He treated the chink in his armor as a chip on his shoulder publicly, taking the high road.

The next summer, he would throw at the Manning Passing Academy, where the majority of elite college quarterbacks go to spend a week with the first family of football. At 6'4" and 228 pounds with a quality arm, he looks good in a shirt and shorts. The hope was this Franklin-Hackenberg struggle would only last a season and that after another offseason, the quarterback who had it all mentally and physically would bounce back.

Unfortunately for Hackenberg, the chink in his armor would only grow into a gaping wound while he managed to gain another chip, one for each shoulder, in 2015. His numbers rose slightly, other than his completion percentage, which dropped all the way down to 53.5 percent. Still, he was much closer to his sophomore effort than his stellar freshman season.

His year was littered by frantic sacks, poor interceptions, air balls on screen passes and missed opportunities. So what do we do with Hackenberg? Scouts are going to fall into two categories: Those who do and do not put the blame on Penn State, as a coaching staff and personnel grouping, for ruining the passer.

Can he become his old self at the professional level? Sure. Carson Palmer was a highly touted player who took five years to turn into the guy while at USC. In the NFL, he turned into a superstar before injury and a personal battle with management led to his fall and trade to the Oakland Raiders, where he hit rock bottom.

When Palmer was traded to Oakland, it was for first- and second-round picks. When the Raiders traded Palmer to the Arizona Cardinals two years later, it was for sixth- and seventh-round picks. Linking up with Cardinals head coach and noted quarterback whisperer Bruce Arians revived the former Trojan into an All-World player.

There is an active example of a passer meeting expectations after effectively losing it. He might even win a Super Bowl this season. But if we're setting aside two years of college tape for a prospect who hasn't even turned 21 years old, then we're measuring the quarterback purely on his tools. We're back to the drawing board, judging Hackenberg as basically the same player he was coming out of high school. He's a big, strong, smart passer who needs to link up with a Bill O'Brien type to progress in his career.

At the same time, trusting a player from that background has backfired, too. Jake Locker is the most recent example of this. Locker was looked at as a candidate to go first overall in the 2010 draft class, but he returned to the University of Washington for one final season, which he struggled in.

Many questioned whether he could return to his former self but credited him for sticking around a struggling program, which had hit an all-time low in 2008 when the Huskies went 0-12. When Locker was thrown into a shirt and shorts at the combine and on his pro day, he looked great zipping the ball with his strong arm and then-6'3", 231-pound frame. Sound familiar?

The Tennessee Titans shocked the world by taking Locker eighth overall in the 2011 draft, one pick ahead of offensive tackle Tyron Smith, who is now a $100 million man with the Dallas Cowboys.

The Titans forgave the accuracy and efficiency regression Locker had in his final season, which included a two-game sample against the Nebraska Cornhuskers that saw him complete only nine of his 36 attempts, for his raw talent. They viewed him as coming from a struggling program and believed they could save the fallen star.

The result? After four up and down seasons, which leaned more toward the latter, Locker took it upon himself to retire from the NFL.

It's simple. Christian Hackenberg isn't who he used to be, which is tricky phrasing for a 20-year-old, but the question of whether he could become who he should is unanswered. That is what is going to keep general managers up at night from now until April.


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