2nd-year Penn State QB Hackenberg faces changes, challenges


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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- A few weeks ago, Penn State coach James Franklin posted a mutant Christian Hackenberg picture on Twitter. Rather than display the quarterback in normal fashion, the picture featured Hackenberg with a Nittany Lion logo photoshopped on each of his eyes. Hackenberg looked slightly like the X-Men character Nightcrawler.

It was funny, if also creepy, but Hackenberg approved of it. It also was something former coach Bill O'Brien never would have done. The joking and tweeting are purely a Franklin thing.

With the Blue-White game set for 1:30 p.m. today, this is a new era for Hackenberg. And, if Penn State is to have a successful first season under Franklin, his staff and Hackenberg will need to be seeing the offense in the same way.

"We've had a strong relationship, no different than any other guy on this team," Hackenberg said of Franklin. "He expects for me to come in and work my hardest and vocally sort of take a role with being an older guy."

Hackenberg had a close relationship with O'Brien, as did former Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin. While quarterback coach Charlie Fisher's specific job was to develop quarterbacks, O'Brien still spent a fair share of his time mentoring Hackenberg. To this day, Hackenberg said he still communicates with O'Brien.

Shortly after O'Brien left, Hackenberg father, Erick, said his son would wait to see who Penn State hired before he made any final decision about his future with the program. Less than two weeks later, Penn State hired Franklin.

Franklin knew quickly what he needed to do. The weekend he was hired he met with Hackenberg privately. Hackenberg said he got to know Franklin on a personal level and appreciated his enthusiasm and confidence.

He spent the next few weeks of winter participating in Penn State's conditioning program and studying film largely of Vanderbilt. Now that spring has come around, he is getting his first true taste of working with the new staff.

Most of the time, Hackenberg said, quarterback coach Ricky Rahne and offensive coordinator John Donovan have guided him. He has spent less time with Franklin. As for the offense, Hackenberg has found it comparable to O'Brien's so far.

"Every offense is going to vary a little, but the particulars of it are very similar with pro style," he said. "After you run one for a year and start getting used to it, it's tough to learn a completely new one, but, really, they're pretty similar."

However the new offense looks, Hackenberg will face a challenge created by the absence of talent and depth at wide receiver and in the offensive line. He has spoken favorably about the players at both positions, but significant changes await.

Last year, Hackenberg completed 42 percent of his passes to wide receiver Allen Robinson, who left early to pursue his NFL career. His second-leading receiver, Brandon Felder, graduated. Though tight ends Jesse James, Adam Breneman and Kyle Carter return, Hackenberg will be throwing to a group of wide receivers that count Geno Lewis and his 18 receptions last year as the most experienced.

The offensive line is in greater trouble. The only returning linemen who started last year are tackle Donovan Smith and Miles Dieffenbach, who has been reported to have sustained a serious injury.

"It takes a lot more than a quarterback to be successful on offense," Franklin said.

Hackenberg said he weighs about 235 pounds now, 10 more than last year. His 40 time of 4.73 is faster. Mentally, he said the game has slowed down around him, allowing him to better understand coverages, as well as the new offense he is trying to learn.

Some of that newness appeals to him, particularly at these spring practices.

As he embarks on his second year at Penn State, Hackenberg is embracing the change and unpredictability. "You never know what's around the corner," he said.

Mark Dent: mdent@post-gazette.com, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05.


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