UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — He looks like a true pocket-passer. Christian Hackenberg stands 6 feet 4, weighs 234 pounds and already is being talked about as a potential No. 1 overall draft pick in the mold of an Andrew Luck rather than a Robert Griffin III.
But this is college. This is a Penn State team with an inexperienced offensive line. This is a coach, James Franklin, with a history of using his quarterbacks as runners. Considering all that, Hackenberg might need to add mobility to his game this fall. He might need to run.
“I actually think that Christian is a lot more mobile and a lot more athletic than people realize, but he has not been asked [to run] or used that way,” Franklin said.
Hackenberg was named the Big Ten’s freshman of the year in 2013 and has been placed on multiple award lists this preseason. He clearly did not receive those honors for his running skills. Hackenberg had 49 rushing attempts for minus-68 yards last year. Almost half those attempts were sacks (Penn State allowed 22). When Hackenberg actually ran the ball, he showed a few flashes of athleticism, memorably and notably against Illinois.
Penn State faced second-and-goal from the 9. After a passing play broke down, Hackenberg scrambled, juked past a defender, then reached over the goal line to score a touchdown. Then-coach Bill O’Brien complimented Hackenberg’s mobility after the game, saying he wanted him to try running more often.
“We’ve shown him the tape and worked with him at practice in scramble drills because he can run,” O’Brien said at the time. “He’s a good athlete. He took advantage of that on that play. I think we have to teach him to get his pads down, though.”
In high school, Hackenberg had few opportunities to run at Fork Union Military Academy. His coach, Micky Sullivan, said Hackenberg routinely worked on agility drills and other ways to strengthen his running, but his offense only called on him to run if he needed to scramble. This strategy was based as much on Hackenberg’s passing abilities as the belief that a five-star quarterback with a full scholarship to Penn State shouldn’t be running the ball too often.
“I’m not the most brilliant person in the world,” Sullivan said. “But I’m not getting that guy hurt.”
Franklin and his staff say they tailor their game plans to their personnel. At Vanderbilt, that meant plenty of rushing attempts for their quarterbacks. From 2011-13, Vanderbilt’s top two quarterbacks ran 401 times, accounting for about 26 percent of the team’s total rushes.
Jordan Rodgers started at quarterback for Vanderbilt in 2011 and 2012 and ran 208 times. Like Hackenberg, Rodgers was considered a pro-style quarterback. For Franklin, he acted as a dual threat.
Penn State’s personnel this season could necessitate a similar transformation. Though Penn State has three quality backs in Bill Belton, Zach Zwinak and Akeel Lynch, Hackenberg could face pressure on passing plays given the offensive line’s inexperience, and he’ll need to scramble.
Like Sullivan had to at Fork Union, Franklin must weigh how much Hackenberg could help the team running the ball against how smart it would be to run a prized quarterback.
“It’s not like we are going to be running quarterback powers and read-options with him,” Franklin said. “But there is a way to take advantage of those things. And what we are going to need Christian to do is … take the negative 6-yard sack and turn it into a 6-yard gain and get down.”
Mark Dent: email@example.com, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05.