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Christian Hackenberg: The Mystery Man of the NFL Draft

Published by Bleacher Report on Tue, 19 Apr 2016

STATE COLLEGE, Penn.Christian Hackenberg will never forget those long, languid Sundays in the autumn of 2013. Those were, he realizes now, some of his happiest college days.Surrounded by a few of his football buddies, Christian would sit in his dorm room at Penn State and watch the New England Patriots. Leaning in close to the bluish glow of the television screen, Christian would listen carefully as Tom Brady called the signals at the line of scrimmage. Hearing Brady's cadence before the ball was snapped, Christian excitedly would tell his friends the precise play New England was about to run.He's checking to a Sluggo Seam! He's calling a draw! He's throwing a slant!At first, his teammates rolled their eyes at the fresh-faced, apple-cheeked quarterback. But then, seconds later, the Patriots would execute the exact play that Christian had divined. This happened over and over as they all feasted on pizza."We ran the Patriots playbook basically verbatim my freshman year," Hackenberg said. "I watched more tape of Tom Brady than probably anyone outside of the New England organization. I loved the fact that it was a quarterback-driven system and that I had the ability to change things at the line, just like Brady."It was in this Patriots system, taught to Christian by then-head coach Bill O'Brien, that the 6'4", 223-pound Hackenberg flourished as a freshman. Named the starter after preseason camp, Hackenberg in his first three games completed 71.7 percent of his passes for 851 yards. He was twice named Big Ten Freshman of the Week and was voted the Big Ten Freshman of the Year.But it was the way he played that seduced NFL scouts.He displayed the arm strength of a young Jay Cutler and the pocket presence of a young Brady, allowing himself to be sacked only 21 times in 12 games. He needed to improve his touch on intermediate routes and long throws, but he exhibited such arresting promise that it was taken as an article of faith among NFL scouts that, if he kept improving and turned pro after his junior season, he would be a top-five pick in the 2016 draft, if not the No. 1 overall selection."He had all the characteristics of a future franchise NFL quarterback as a freshman," said one longtime NFC scout. "There wasn't a throw he couldn't make, his accuracy was good and he was clearly the leader of the team as an 18-year-old kid. Older guys followed him and he was a film junkie. The kid almost seemed too good to be true."Christian Hackenberg will never forget those long, languid Sundays in the autumn of 2014. Those were, he realizes now, some of his most unhappy college days.He'd spend the mornings in the football complex watching the horror show that was his performance in the previous day's game. Four starting offensive linemen had departed from the '13 teamtwo guards were now former defensive linemenand Hackenberg spent most fall Saturdays running for his life. He also was without his top two receivers from the previous year, Allen Robinson and Brandon Felder, and during the '14 season, his callow wideouts struggled to break open.He was also now piloting the spread offense of head coach James Franklin, who replaced O'Brienthe man Christian had come to State College to play for, the man he viewed almost like a second fatherafter O'Brien left for the Houston Texans.Franklin's offense was tailor-made for a fleet-footed, zone-read quarterback, not a classic pocket passer like Christian. The sophomore signal-caller also no longer had as much freedom to change plays at the line of scrimmage.Defenses teed off on Hackenberg like bulls to a waving red flag; he was sacked 43 times, tied for third most in the nation. In response, a shell-shocked Hackenberg forced throws into coverage and launched prayers off his back foot. More worrisome to NFL scouts, his line of sight shifted: His eyes, especially late in the season, were more trained on the defensive linemen chasing after him than on his receivers sprinting down the field.As the losses and interceptions mountedPenn State would finish 2-6 in the Big Ten and Hackenberg would throw 15 picksChristian became increasingly withdrawn. On the sideline he often stood apart from his teammates with a distant stare carved on his face. In postgame press conferences his mood could be sullen as he pulled his baseball cap low and gave clipped answers to reporters. NFL scouts took note of a possible attitude problem.During the week, Christian didn't want to leave his on-campus apartment. He stopped returning phone calls from his parents, high school friends and former coaches. And on Sunday afternoons he typically watched NFL action alone, still replaying his own game from Saturday in his mind, throw-by-throw, play-by-play, pondering what he could have done better."I wanted to create plays that weren't there as a sophomore and a lot of times it washed out and ended badly," Christian said. "I struggled to accept the fact that there were things that I couldn't control. I wanted to make perfect plays and that would lead to mistakes. I got very frustrated with myself. It got to the point where I became an introvert."On the eve of the 2016 NFL draft, these two images of Christian Hackenbergthe successful, confident freshman diagnosing Tom Brady's plays versus the struggling, shattered sophomore who holed up in the Nittany Apartments complexdistill the quandary now facing NFL teams when it comes to the former Penn State quarterback. Indeed, according to many scouts, Hackenberg is the greatest mystery in the 81st annual NFL player selection meeting that will be held in Chicago's Auditorium Theatre April 28-30.Is he worth a first-round pick, a player who one day could become the face of a winning franchise' Or is he a mid-round project, a quarterback who will need time to regain his confidence and refine his mechanics before he'd be capable of just becoming a serviceable backup'"There is no doubt in my mind that Christian Hackenberg can be an elite player in this league if he's coached properly," said one NFL head coach. "He developed a lot of bad habits in his last two years at Penn State. He got beat up really bad, and as a consequence, his footwork regressed and his throwing mechanics got all messed up. That is what happens to young quarterbacks who get the s--t beat out of them."But that same coach said if Hackenberg sits for two years, learns and regains that lost muscle memory that he started developing as a freshman, "he could be damn special. He's got all the arm talent, he's got the desire, he's got the work ethic and he's got the charisma to be a leader. He just needs to relearn a lot of things and forget a lot of bad habits. This is hard to do, but it can be done, especially with a kid like Christian who wants it so bad."The process of rebuilding Christian Hackenberg already has begun. Last Jan. 5 he moved into a house in Dana Point, California, to train with Jordan Palmer, the younger brother of Carson who played parts of six seasons in the NFL as a backup quarterback. During his first 10 days in Orange County, Hackenberg didn't throw a single pass. Instead, he and Palmer watched every play from his Penn State career, dissecting the three to five seconds from snap to whistle like detectives in search of clues.Hackenberg's biggest problem, Palmer believes, was his poor starting point on many of his throws. Sometimes the relentless defensive pressure caused Hackenberg to begin his throwing motion from an unorthodox angle, but other times it was as if he simply forgot the fundamentals first taught to him by his dad in their backyard when Christian was five.For one week in late January, Palmer had his pupil play the role of his older brother. During the six days that the Arizona Cardinals prepared to play the Carolina Panthers in the NFC Championship Game, Hackenberg mirrored Carson's preparation, from film study to drills to even nutrition.Hackenberg spoke to Carson on a conference call. He spent hours diagramming Cardinals plays on a dry erase board as his coachJordanbombarded him with questions. In every way possible, Jordan simulated an NFL game week for Christian.During that week, hoping to improve his accuracy, Christian started many mornings at 5:45 a.m. with Jordan focusing on his footwork. One drill had Palmer flipping a ball on the ground and Hackenberg chasing it, picking it up and then quickly hopping into the proper throwing position. Over and over, as the morning sun rose into the California sky, Christian ran after the bouncing ball as if chasing a chicken, grabbing it, setting his feet and holding the ball with two hands near his right ear.In spite of the work, Christian struggled with accuracy at the NFL combine in Indianapolis in late February. In his throwing session in front of scouts, he overthrew several receivers and forced a few others to jump to make the catch."Hackenberg didn't look comfortable at the combine," said a longtime scout. "He seemed jittery the way that Mark Sanchez looked jittery to me at the combine."But three weeks later at Hackenberg's pro day, held at Penn State's indoor practice facility, he once again looked like an elite NFL prospect. He attempted 60 passes; only a few failed to hit his receiver in stride. Facing no rush, he displayed a feathery touch on intermediate routes and flashed the arm strength to connect with receivers 60 yards down the field.The performance amplified the nagging question about Hackenberg: How good can he consistently be'For as long as he can remember, football has been Christian's magnetic north, the compass that has guided his life. His father, Erick, was a quarterback at Virginia and Division II Susquehanna. He later became a volunteer assistant high school coach at Marian Catholic in Tamaqua, Pennsylvania, where Christian's first memory is of being a water boy for the team.The oldest of four boys, Christian grew up in locker rooms and on sidelines. (His mother, Nicole, had been a standout volleyball player at Marian Catholic and became the team's volleyball coach.) Little Christian constantly asked his dad to throw a football after games and after school. Erick didn't push football on Christian, but he insisted on one thing: If his son was going to play quarterback, he had to master the fundamentals."If we played catch and I was throwing the ball the wrong way, my dad would just stop throwing," Christian said. "I had to do it the right way. He didn't want me to form bad habits. He subtly sculpted my throwing motion.""As a kid Christian was tall and long for his age, and one bad habit that tall kids can develop is having a long release," said Erick. "I wanted him to build good muscle memory from the start. So we practiced how to hold the ball correctly, proper footwork and having a quick release. My dad was a high school football coach and that was what he did with me."The Hackenbergs moved to Palmyra, Virginia, when Christian was in third grade. Erick was a volunteer football coach at a private high school in Charlottesville, where he was the team's play-caller.Beginning in fourth grade, Christian became a fixture on the team's sideline, standing next to his dad, watching him watch the game, analyzing what his dad, the coach, was looking at during plays. Afterward, father and son would discuss certain plays deep into the night, the strategy of the game sparking a fire in young Christian's imagination.In fifth grade Christian began playing Pop Warner football. His dad was his coach and taught Christian, the team's quarterback, to do everything with precision. By midseason, rival coaches marveled at how little Christian could carry out a ball fake on a play-action pass like he'd been doing it since he could walkwhich essentially he had."When Christian and I played catch, we always used a big ball that's used in high school," said Erick. "So when he started playing with a little ball, he could wing it."At the start of 10th grade, Christian enrolled in Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy, located 15 miles from their house. As a lanky sophomore Christian began the season playing sparingly as the team's quarterback in its two-minute offense, slinging the ball all over the field in Fork Union's pro-style attack."Christian was so good that by midseason we made him the starter," said Mickey Sullivan, Fork Union's head coach. "The thing that stuck out was that Christian, as a young kid, felt that he was the best player on the field. He wasn't arrogant. It was just his belief. But that thinking can get you in trouble."We got into it a few times on the sidelines because he didn't mind taking chances. But he usually was smarter than I was. When we'd look at the tape later, the guy who I said wasn't open actually was. Some of the throws Christian made were just spectacular."Passing for 1,165 yards as a sophomore, Hackenberg led his team to the state championship. Scholarship offers from around the nation started to fill the Hackenbergs' mailbox. Christian and his parents developed a quick rapport with Alabama's Nick Saban, who visited Fork Union to check out the 5-star quarterback. Midway through his junior season, Christian listed the Crimson Tide as his top school.Like most college coaches, Saban was particularly impressed with Hackenberg's maturity. Though he didn't live on campus like most students, Christian had to be standing tall at Fork Union at 6:45 a.m. each weekday for inspection.If his uniform was not perfectly pressed or his shoes spotlessly shined or his face freshly shaved, he would be punished. But he never missed a single inspection in three years. And in a class populated with future Ivy Leaguers, he graduated 12th out of 115 with a 3.89 grade point average on a 4.0 scale.Midway through his junior year, Bill O'Brien was hired at Penn State. Hackenberg's roots run deep in Pennsylvania coal countryone of his great-great uncles, Michael Paslawsky played for the Coaldale (Pa.) Big Green, one of the nation's first pro football teams. When Christian met O'Brien at Penn State's junior day in February 2012, he immediately was bewitched.Christian and his parents talked to O'Brien for about an hour in his office. O'Brien, who had been New England's offensive coordinator in 2011, showed the family video clips of Tom Brady and the Patriots offense, telling them how Christian would be an ideal quarterback in his pro-style, QB-centric attack.Later that afternoon, as Christian and his dad listened to O'Brien speak to all of the recruits in the team meeting room, Christian elbowed his father. "This is it," Christian whispered. "I want to play for this guy." He soon verbally committed to play for Penn State.Five months later, Christian and Erick were driving through Richmond, Virginia, when a news report crackled over the radio: The NCAA hammered Penn State for violations stemming from the Jerry Sandusky scandal. The sanctions, considered the harshest in history at the time, included a four-year postseason ban and scholarship reductions. (In 2014 the NCAA lifted the bowl ban and restored all the scholarships.)A few Penn State commitments from the 2013 classincluding wide receiver Will Fuller, who would go to Notre Damechose to attend different schools. The Hackenberg family, along with the families of seven other recruits, met with O'Brien in July 2012 in Happy Valley. "This won't be easy," O'Brien told the families, "but it will be huge for the program moving forward if you come here."After the emotionally charged hour-long sit-down, Christian conferred with his parents, then walked into O'Brien's office. "Let's do this," he told his coach. The two embraced, and Hackenberg immediately became one of the most important players in Penn State history, because he gave the country's largest dues-paying alumni base (over 177,000) something it sorely needed:Hope.Charlie Fisher can still recall his aha Hackenberg moment. Christian had only been on the Penn State campus for two weeks of summer camp in 2013 when Fisher, the Nittany Lions quarterbacks coach, put his true freshman signal-caller in a red-zone drill.Dropping back to pass at the 10-yard line and facing tight zone coverage, Christian spotted the tiniest of windows to throw through as a wide receiver ran along the back of the end zone. Christian unleashed a fastballFisher could practically hear the ball hiss through the airand threaded it past two diving defenders in bracket coverage and into the hands of his receiver."That was when I realized Christian was different," said Fisher, now the head coach at Western Illinois. "I had Jay Cutler at Vanderbilt, and that was a Jay Cutler kind of throw. But it wasn't just his arm that made Christian special. He had great pocket management and he was ahead of the curve in terms of intangibles. He was intelligent, older guys were drawn to him, and he had this thirst to prepare. You could tell he came from a football family."A week before the first game of 2013, Christian was in his dorm room when he spotted a story about him with a headline that read: "The Savior Has Arrived.""I hadn't even played down a yet," said Hackenberg. "I was like, 'What the heck is going on here''"In his first college game, Hackenberg looked the part of a program-changing player. In the fourth quarter against Syracuse at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, he threw a thing of beauty to wide receiver Geno Lewis on a deep post route for a 54-yard score. The play sealed Penn State's 23-17 winand further embellished the growing myth among the Nittany Lions faithful that Hackenberg would somehow redeem their school and lead the program out of the Sandusky-era darkness."The whole fanbase put so much on Christian," said Fisher. "I've never seen anything like it. But Christian just kept getting better."His final game of 2013 was his finest. Facing No. 15 Wisconsin on the road at Camp Randall Stadium, Hackenberg was nearly flawless, unleashing one highlight throw after the next. Changing plays at the line like a young Peyton Manning and making full-field reads, Christian often connected with this third option against the Badgers. He completed 21 of 30 passes for 339 yards and four touchdowns as Penn State, a 24-point underdog, toppled the Badgers 31-24.Watching the game on television from afar, an NFL scout, breathing heavy at what he had just witnessed, scribbled in a notebook: C. Hackenberg might be the best NFL QB prospect as a freshman that I've seen in a decade.His cell phone rang on New Year's Eve 2013 at about 10:45 p.m. Christian was at a friend's house in Virginia. "Hey man, I want you to know that you are going to do great things in the future," Bill O'Brien said. "But I'm going to be moving on to coach the Houston Texans."Christian felt like he'd just been whacked by a two-by-four in the back of the knees. Before he had left Happy Valley for winter break, he and O'Brien had talked in the coach's office about the golden promise that the distant horizons held. "As you continue to learn I'm going to give you the ability to call what play you want," O'Brien said to Hackenberg then. "It will take some time, but I want you to have the keys to drive the car of our offense."But now Christian was crestfallen at O'Brien's news, though he hid his emotions from his coach. "I understand, Coach," Christian told O'Brien on New Year's Eve. "You have to do what's best for your family."As soon as word spread that O'Brien was leaving Penn State, coaches in Tuscaloosa let it be known through back channels that Christian would still be welcome at Alabama if he wanted to transfer. But Christian's eyes never wandered, and two weeks later he met with new Penn State coach James Franklin at the Nittany Lion Inn in State College.The two never hit it off like Christian had with O'BrienChristian met one-on-one with O'Brien, his play-caller, virtually every day; he rarely had individual sit-downs with Franklin, who turned over the running of his offense to assistantsand the marriage of Hackenberg's talents and Franklin's spread attack failed almost from the start."I was never given as much freedom at the line to change the play in Coach Franklin's offense, but a lot of that was because we were so young at so many positions and it would have been hard to pull off," said Hackenberg, who was the first sophomore in Penn State history to be voted team captain. "We struggled with our identity. It was hard, but I learned from it."Playing behind a patchwork offensive line, Christian was sacked 83 times over his final two seasonsthe most of any quarterback in college football in any division over that stretch. He typically only had time to look at his primary receiver, and if he wasn't open, Christian would then scramble or try to make a perfect throw to a covered receiver."Christian got hit a lot and I should have done a better job coaching him and getting him to stay true to his fundamentals," said Ricky Rahne, Penn State's quarterbacks coach last season. "The hits take a toll on a quarterback and that's when they lose their fundamentals. But the thing about Christian was that he kept getting up and kept trying to make plays."Just how inept was his O-line' Against Northwestern in 2014, linemen Brian Gaia and Andrew Nelson wound up blocking each other on a key 4th-and-1 play that was stuffed for a two-yard loss. And against Temple in 2015, the Owls, on a 3rd-and-15, rushed only two players against six blockersand still sacked Hackenberg in less than three seconds."Penn State's offensive line was so bad during Christian's last two years, they didn't even know how to hold correctly," said Mickey Sullivan, Hackenberg's high school coach. "I mean they couldn't even have played dead in an old Cowboy Western. I'm sorry, but they were awful. So many times Christian didn't have a chance."In his final two years Christian never looked like the quarterback he'd been as a freshman. His completion percentage dropped from 58.9 percent in '13 to 55.8 in '14 to 53.5 in '15. But one thing did change in his junior year: his demeanor.A professor in one of his classes suggested that he take off his cap and smile more in postgame interviews, which Christian did. He took up golf and discovered that, alone in the pines, he could unwind and let the pressure of being Penn State's quarterback blow away in the breeze. Self-taught, he quickly became a 15-handicap."I tried to enjoy each moment of my junior year, even if people were writing bad stories about me and things were tough on the field," Christian said. "All the close people in my life reminded me of how lucky I was just to be playing college football at Penn State."On Jan. 2, after the Nittany Lions lost to Georgia 24-17 in the TaxSlayer Bowl, Christian walked into a concrete hallway at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Florida, and, without notes, told reporters he was leaving Penn State to enter the NFL draft. He thanked six different people by name, starting with O'Brien, but never mentioned Franklin.Hackenbergwho finished his career as Penn State's all-time leader in passing yards (8,457), completions (693) and passing touchdowns (48)later called his head coach to apologize for the oversight and thank him for his support. (Franklin was not made available to Bleacher Report for this story.)"There were things that could have been handled better, but what matters most is that Christian stuck it out at Penn State and never left," said Fisher, his quarterbacks coach in '14. "He got hit a lot and that takes a toll on a quarterback in any league. You get gun-shy. But he fought through the adversity.""Not many NFL teams have called me to pick my brain about Christian," said Rahne. "This leads me to believe that teams are lying in the weeds and hiding their interest in Christian."It's a sun-splashed April afternoon in State College, and the quarterback is behind the wheel of his 2001 Chevy Silverado. He's telling the story of meeting Peyton Manning at the Manning Passing Academy the previous summer and peppering the five-time NFL MVP with questions about how he prepared for games."You've got to watch film with purpose," Manning told Hackenberg. "Don't just put in the hours studying, put in quality hours."The Silverado nears Beaver Stadium. As Christian gazes at the structure that stretches high into the blue sky, so many memories rush at himthe touchdowns and the sacks, the triumphs and the trialsand his eyes lock on the stadium for three, four, five seconds."Some really good things and some tough things happened here," Christian said. "I know I need to be more consistent, but I'm super confident that my ceiling is through the roof. Who knows how good I can be' My biggest fear is not being able to maximize my potential. I know I'm not even close to where I can be."The Silverado and its driver roll on. Where Christian Hackenberg is actually heading...is the great unknown of this draft.
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