Whose Expectations Will Christian Hackenberg Meet?


Depending on your source, Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg is either the second coming of Andrew Luck: a prototypical playmaker with all the tools necessary to thrive in the NFL, and thus a surefire candidate to go No. 1 in the NFL draft.

Otherwise, Christian Hackenberg is an overhyped product of both the recruiting punditry machine, and NFL’niks’ salivating over a particular physical mold, on-field results be damned.

OK, so maybe opinions on Christian Hackenberg are not exclusively polarized. But few players in college football seem to be quite as divisive in 2015.

ESPN NFL draft analyst Todd McShay tabbed Hackenberg as the No. 1 overall pick on his premature 2016 board, a decision that was met with a flood of resistance. The crew at Pro Football Focus is especially adamant that Hackenberg has a long way to go to earn such distinction.

Hackenbergwas pressured 32.5% of snaps, was sacked on 23.5% of them. Jared Goff pressured 31.6% of snaps, sacked on only 13.6%

— Steve Palazzolo(@PFF_Steve) May 8, 2015

And mentioned before, but on pure missed throws (non-INT worthy), Hackenbergwas less accurate than Brandon Bridge last year

— Steve Palazzolo(@PFF_Steve) May 8, 2015

Comparisons to Cal’s Jared Goff present a paradox. Goff plays in a variation of the air-raid offense, which some in the professional ranks still look down on.

Still, there’s no doubt who the more productive quarterback has been individually in two years. Both Jared Goff and Christian Hackenberg started 2013 as true freshman, but Goff made tremendous strides as a sophomore. Hackenberg did not.

College production doesn’t necessarily predict NFL success. If that was the case, current Lions star Matthew Stafford would have flamed out of the league shortly after coming in from Georgia, where he threw a double-digit total of interceptions each of his three seasons there. Conversely, another former Lion, Joey Harrington, would have flourished based solely on his stardom at Oregon.

That said, Christian Hackenberg is coming off a 12-touchdown, 15-interception campaign in which he regressed across the board from an impressive freshman season: 55.8 completion percentage from 58.9; 0 rushing touchdowns from four; 12 passing scores from 20; 15 interceptions, up from 10; and even where Hackenberg improved, throwing for 22 more yards, he did so in almost 100 more pass attempts.

Hackenberg’s 2013 should and does give him some leeway with NFL types in that he showed promise under current Texans head coach and longtime Patriots assistant Bill O’Brien. The Penn State junior can and has operated in a pro system.

The flipside, however, is that O’Brien’s quarterback-coaching acumen elevated Matt McGloin from on-again, off-again starter and turnover-prone liability to NFL prospect. How will Christian Hackenberg fare left to his own abilities?

The coming season is his opportunity to answer that question. There was an obvious learning curve for Hackenberg, adapting to new head coach James Franklin and his style. Hackenberg was also hamstrung by subpar offensive line play.

Line struggles can be costly to a prospect’s professional resume — just ask Brett Hundley, who went from potential first-rounder to fifth-round selection. Hackenberg’s success will be tied directly to the improvement a line that was one of the nation’s youngest a season ago made in the offseason.

Regardless of what or who Christian Hackenberg’s 2015 is tied to, ultimate judgment of his pro worthiness will land solely on his play. No matter how he performs, rest assured that one of two camps will be ready to say, I told you so.

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