Christian Hackenberg Takes Over as Best QB in Big Ten

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Not only is it a tragedy for Ohio State, but Braxton Miller’s season-ending injury is bad for college football and devastating for the Big Ten Conference. Miller was without doubt one of the most exciting player to watch on Saturdays, as his flashy style of play landed him two straight Big Ten Player of the Year awards.

Now that Miller has accepted a medical redshirt—and we pray that he’ll suit up for the scarlet and gray once more in 2015—someone else must step up and take the reigns to represent the Big Ten.

It’s not Rose Bowl winner Connor Cook, who leads new conference favorite Michigan State. It’s not Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt, who was announced Illinois’ starter the other day. It’s not Indiana gunslinger Nate Sudfeld, Rutgers veteran Gary Nova, the erratic Devin Gardner with Michigan, or Northwestern QB Trevor Siemian, either.

It’s Penn State sophomore Christian Hackenberg that takes over as the best quarterback in the Big Ten.

Hackenberg, who was given a perfect rating by 247Sports as a five-star prospect for recruiting the class of 2013, became the second true freshman to start an opener for the Nittany Lions since 1911—and he certainly lived up to his billing early.

Penn State went 7-5 (4-4) with Hackenberg under center during his freshman debut. This might not be that impressive to you, but when you think about the sanctions and lack of scholarship players Bill O’Brien had to work with, anything over six wins is quite exceptional.

Hackenberg went 231-of-392 (58.9 percent) for 2,955 yards, 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions last season, posting a 134.0 Passer Rating and a 56.6 QBR. He averaged 7.54 yards per attempt and led Penn State to the No. 48 team passing efficiency in the country (5th in the Big Ten).

These numbers don’t jump off the page at first glance, but let’s take a closer look.

Hackenberg set a school passing record by a freshman with 311 against Eastern Michigan, reset it with 340 vs. Indiana and then came up two yards short of breaking it again in the finale at Wisconsin (339).

Arguably his best performance was when he guided the game-tying fourth-quarter drive against Michigan (completing 29- and 36-yard passes) before orchestrating an eventual four-overtime win. Hackenberg showed that he had the determination to overcome a few vital mistakes (two interceptions in the second half) to help his team win a milestone victory, showing the composure of a true leader.

“I think [everything clicked] when the season really kicked in and we really started Big Ten play. Michigan was huge,” Hackenberg told statecollege.com. “That was a huge moment for us as a team, and I think for me individually understanding how much one game can affect the total momentum of the season, how much one game can affect the fans’ respect for us as a team.”

He then went on to complete 21-of-30 (70.0 percent) attempts for 339 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions in the season finale against defensive powerhouse Wisconsin (on the road, mind you), giving us all a teaser of what’s to come in the future. Penn State won that game 31-24, as the Badgers went on to play in the Capital One Bowl.

“Overall, it was understanding how much the fans really base their entire week on how well we do and how well we do as a team the whole football season. I think those two moments were big for me,” Hackenberg said. “Especially after Wisconsin I was feeling, ‘All right, now it’s the next step. Take it to the next level with the guys. Get ready for next season and try to come back better and faster, stronger in every way.'”

Hackenberg recorded a QBR of 60 or higher in six different games, including two 90-plus ratings in his final three appearances of the season. Five Big Ten quarterbacks had more: Connor Cook, Devin Gardner, Braxton Miller, Nathan Scheelhaase (Illinois), and Jake Rudock (Iowa). Of those five, four are seniors this year, and one has already graduated. All had better offensive units to work with.

In further comparison, California started true freshman Jared Goff—another highly-rated quarterback prospect from the class of 2013—for all 12 games last season. The Golden Bears went 1-11, as Goff posted a 123.2 Passer Rating and a 53.5 QBR.

This will be a telling year for Hackenberg, who now has a new head coach (James Franklin), a new offensive coordinator (John Donovan), and a new quarterbacks coach (Ricky Rahne). Hackenberg is also without his top wide receiver from last season in Allen Robinson, and the offensive line returns just one starter.

But great quarterbacks make everyone about him better, and Hackenberg is already a great quarterback.

“I think there is going to be more pressure on me. But for me, my mindset, it’s less,” Hackenberg said. “I feel more confident than I did last year, without a doubt – having been able to experience everything I experienced. It really helped being able to get a full off-season with my teammates and understand what they expect out of me and what I expect out of them, being able to get a spring (practice season) and now a summer (workout program).

“I’m going to be more confident. I’m not going to feel nearly as much pressure,” he added. “That’s going to be good for us as a team. All of us, the ones that played last year, feel the same way. There is going to be a little more spotlight on the guys who played last year, with people wondering how we’re going to step up and play this year. Only time will tell.”

More confidence? Scary.

The Big Ten Freshman of the Year has the prototypical body frame (6-foot-4, 235 pounds) and has the kind of arm strength that has NFL scouts drooling even at this stage in his career. Hackenberg shows great anticipation and awareness in the pocket and gets the ball out quickly to his targets.

In terms of overall potential and skill set, there is no other quarterback in the Big Ten that compares. Hackenberg is on the verge of becoming an elite force, with All-American capabilities. I wouldn’t put a Heisman Trophy past him, but we saw that the best prospect doesn’t always win it. (see: Andrew Luck.)

CBS Sports ranks Hackenberg as the No. 1 quarterback prospect for the 2017 NFL Draft, but it’s almost inevitable that he leaves for the pros after the 2015 season as a sure-fire top-10 selection.

With Miller sidelined, Hackenberg becomes the quarterback to watch in the Big Ten. Franklin and the Penn State coaching staff have a huge opportunity to develop him into not only one of the best in the country, but possibly college football history.