UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Cliche as it sounds, Christian Hackenberg really does make throwing the deep ball look easy. When he drops backs to throw these passes -- as he has to Geno Lewis and Allen Robinson for big gains this season -- his arm barely seems to move, and words generally used to describe long passes, such as fling or heave or launch, do not fit as descriptions.
It is more of a toss, maybe even a flick. Hackenberg flicks his elbow forward, and the ball spirals through the air for 40, 50 yards then lands perfectly on target, provoking a thought that likely has crossed many a Penn State fan's mind this year, and maybe has crossed through the brain to the vocal cords, the expression coming out as a loud and enthused, "My God, what an arm!"
Hackenberg threw a 54-yard pass to Lewis against Syracuse, a 45-yard pass to Robinson against Eastern Michigan and a 46-yard pass to Robinson against Central Florida. These weren't little swing passes that were turned into huge gains because of the wide receivers. These were longs balls, sailing about as far as the total yardage illustrates.
"He's a big, strong guy," Penn State coach Bill O'Brien said, "and he's got a strong arm."
While many of the highly recruited, strong-armed quarterbacks take private lessons for years, Hackenberg's father, Erick, taught him the nuances of throwing.
Erick played quarterback for two years at the University of Virginia, primarily as a third-stringer. He left school disenchanted and sold Lexus cars in Pennsylvania until a friend helped to convince him to re-enroll in school, this time at Susquehanna University. There, Erick threw for more than 3,000 yards in two years and ranks eighth all time in passing yards at the school.
He and his wife, Nikki, didn't pressure their son into football -- Christian Hackenberg continued to play baseball and basketball through his junior year of high school -- but he did want to ingrain the skills of proper footwork and elbow placement from a young age. Based on his experience and watching other quarterbacks, he knows that early habits stick and muscle memory can't easily be broken.
"If you see guys that have an 'A' arm, their mechanics and fundamentals are strong and they get their hips and lower body into it," Erick Hackenberg said. "They learn how to throw with their entire body; they're going to have an 'A' arm."
To mold his son's arm, Erick Hackenberg had him strengthen his leg and core muscles. He had him learn how to position his feet for given throws and situations. He always had him keep that release as swift as possible.
Part of young Hackenberg's throwing skill was natural. As a 10-year-old, he was pitching against 12-year-olds. The power he had cultivated in that sport translated to football.
At Fork Union Military Academy, where Hackenberg played high school football the past couple of years, coach Micky Sullivan said he didn't have receivers who could run fast enough to get the ball when Hackenberg threw deep.
"He has the uncanny ability to do things that people can't do with arm strength," Sullivan said.
So how far exactly can he throw and how much farther can he go? Sullivan remembers watching Hackenberg stand on the 50 and throw the ball into the end zone with ease. In Hackenberg's junior year at Fork Union, Erick Hackenberg remembers his son throwing a pass for about 67 yards. The wide receiver dropped it.
The physical limits of a quarterback's arm seem to top out around 65-70 yards.
Unlike most feats of physical prowess, little exists in the way of cataloguing the longest football throws, this particular record being unofficially decided by boasts on message boards and YouTube videos.
A few months ago, Slate's Josh Levin set out to find the longest throw in football history. He watched the video of a college-aged Kordell Stewart throw a desperation pass for Colorado that appeared to travel about 70 yards. He read a story about early 1990s Syracuse quarterback Kevin Mason throwing for 80. He found the results from an old NFL quarterback challenge in which Vinny Testaverde threw for 80 and Randall Cunningham for 71.
Hackenberg said he has no idea how far he can throw the ball and estimated his farthest throw at 60-65 yards.
O'Brien is just pleased to have a quarterback with a strong arm, one he believes will get stronger as Hackenberg continues to refine his fundamentals and add strength.
"His arm strength will continue to improve as he becomes stronger himself," O'Brien said. "He's only 18-years-old and, as he gets more into our weight program, he will continue to get stronger."
By the numbers
Mark Dent: email@example.com, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05.