Big-time recruits are ‘old,’ thriving stars at Penn State

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — They sounded like old men already. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg and tight end Adam Breneman were discussing the series of decisions and events that brought them to Penn State, and they couldn’t help but dramatize, tingeing their stories with perspective and a feeling approaching wistfulness.

“We’ve come a long way,” Breneman said.

Hackenberg and Breneman are freshmen, who a year ago were taking high school courses. They aren’t the porch-sitting types. But it does seem like they’ve been here forever. Hackenberg and Breneman committed to Penn State in the spring of 2012, before the Freeh Report and before the sanctions over the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal. In the ensuing months they spent defending the program and challenging other recruits to join them as Nittany Lions, they formed a bond, and Saturday against Purdue marked another step of this process, as Hackenberg threw his first touchdown pass to Breneman.

It happened in the second quarter. On a bootleg, Hackenberg lofted a pass to Breneman, who was guarded closely by a defender. Hackenberg said he knew Breneman would have the leverage, and he did. He grabbed the pass and then leaned over the goal line just far enough to score.

“I knew I had to get in the end zone,” Breneman said. “So I just made the best effort I could.”

Neither Breneman nor Hackenberg remembers exactly when they first became friends, but Breneman believes it was some time in their junior year of high school. They were recruits, but not for Penn State. They bonded over a common interest in Virginia. They chatted about the school, the coaches and each other.

In a few months everything would change. The Sandusky scandal led to the firing of coach Joe Paterno and the hiring of Bill O’Brien. Breneman had been reluctant to play in Paterno’s tight-end averse offense but was now interested in O’Brien, known for his mentorship of tight ends in New England, and committed in March 2012.

At the same time, the new staff began reaching out to Hackenberg. When he and his family met O’Brien, they were impressed by his genuine demeanor and soon Hackenberg committed, too. In April, they met in person for the first time, at a Penn State spring practice. The coming months would test their belief in Penn State.

When the sanctions came down, Hackenberg was on the West Coast at the Elite 11 football camp. Breneman was in rehabilitation for a recently torn anterior cruciate ligament. News organizations ranging from ESPN to CNN wanted to ask Breneman for his thoughts. Under this microscope, Hackenberg and Breneman took the lead in keeping the recruiting class together, sometimes organizing 12-way phone calls.

Hackenberg became the starter by the end of fall camp. He has illustrated particular strengths in play-action and at throwing long passes, and even ran for a touchdown Saturday. For the season, Hackenberg has 2,399 passing yards and 14 touchdowns.

The transition wasn’t quite as rapid for Breneman. In high school he almost never blocked, he said. Though he was a tight end, he essentially acted as a wide receiver.

“Coming here I’ve had to block 270-pound defensive ends now,” Breneman said. “It’s all technique and all will and heart. I think we’ve definitely improved a lot in that category.”

He has been on the field more often the past few games. For the season he has 11 receptions for 106 yards. O’Brien recently commented on his improvement at blocking and then commented on Breneman in a way that could extend to Hackenberg.

“Boy I’m glad we’ve got him for three more years,” O’Brien said.

Mark Dent:, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05.

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