Bill O’Brien scored a major recruiting coup in 2013 when he landed Christian Hackenberg. The 5-star prospect took on a unique challenge when he committed to O’Brien’s Penn State program–a program that had finished just its first of a four-year bowl ban and faced years of potentially crippling scholarship reductions.
Hackenberg offered hope that the Nittany Lions could emerge from the most severe NCAA sanctions since SMU’s death penalty not simply able to compete, but built to compete for Big Ten championships.
O’Brien’s praise for Hackenberg on National Signing Day 2013 was high, and went beyond the usual rhetoric a coach shares of a new recruits.
When you play quarterback at Penn State, that’s very, very different than any other position on the team.
When you play quarterback at Penn State, you have to really learn how to balance the classroom with being the bestprepared quarterback you can be, working in the weight room, studying the playbook, studying the game plan, your opponent, then obviously going to class, which is number one, and will always be number one at Penn State.
We think Christian is a guy that’s going to come in here and do all those things and we feel really good about our room at that position.
After a freshman year in which he threw for 2,955 yards and 20 touchdowns, Hackenberg has the full support of his Penn State teammates, as well as a new coaching regime.
O’Brien left Happy Valley for Houston, taking the head coaching position with the NFL’s Texans. In his place is James Franklin, the energetic sideline general who turned perennial SEC cellar dweller Vanderbilt into a contender.
The coach may be new, but the sentiment toward Christian Hackenberg is no different.
“He’s just so charismatic and smart, he’s caring about people,” Franklin gushed to Bob Flounders of The Patriot-News. “He’s thoughtful and he’s intelligent. So he has that natural [leadership] ability.”
Hackenberg’s “natural ability” to lead manifested Wednesday in his being named the first sophomore captain of a Penn State football team in the program’s history.
Earning such distinction from his teammates and coaches isn’t just a gesture for the 2014 season, either. Christian Hackenberg now has a tangible designation as the future of Penn State football.
Using the next two seasons to build for the post-sanction era is critical if the Nittany Lions are to remain relevant in the Big Ten. Despite the NCAA agreeing to pull back on the scholarship reductions somewhat last fall, their grip is tightening this year and will leave the Lions with little wiggle room in the years to come.
A road map through this tumultuous time is essential, and in throwing support so vehemently behind Christian Hackenberg, Penn State’s chosen its navigator into the new era.