QB Curve, Preseason Edition: Can Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg Be the Big Man on Campus?

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The 2014 college football season is rapidly approaching. Are you excited? We’re excited! We’re also here to help you prep for the impending campaign with a steady stream of preview content. So check back daily (well, not on weekends!) for more on the players, teams, leagues, trends, and emojis destined to define this season. Roll Tide. Or War Damn Eagle. Whichever. 

Quarterbacks: There are a lot of them! Each week, QB Curve will keep you up to speed on the game’s most important position by putting a different college signal-caller in the spotlight and putting the rest of the field in perspective.

QB of the Week: Penn State Sophomore Christian Hackenberg

Typecasting — The BMOC: Whatever happens over the next three years, Penn State fans will always embrace Hackenberg, because he embraced them. They could hardly have blamed him if he hadn’t: As a coveted, blue-chip prospect who could have played just about anywhere, Hackenberg had every incentive to bail on his verbal commitment to a PSU program still in the throes of post-Sandusky chaos. By sticking with his pledge, Hackenberg was signing up not only to serve as the face of a scandalized program, but also to forego any chance at a bowl game or championship until NCAA sanctions lifted in 2016, his senior year.1 Who knew what Penn State football would look like by then, or whether the crown prince of the probation era would still be a part of it?

If anyone is asking the same question now, it’s only to wonder whether the NFL’s siren song might prove more enticing than the prospect of a postseason. At 6-foot-4, 234 pounds, Hackenberg is well on his way to fitting the template for a prototypical pocket passer at the next level, and PSU coaches didn’t hesitate to use him like one last year: As advertised, the freshman was largely in full command from the get-go, ultimately putting the ball in the air more often over the course of the season (392 times, or 32.7 per game) than any other Big Ten passer except Illinois’s Nathan Scheelhaase, a fifth-year senior on a team that faced large, must-pass deficits on a near-weekly basis. Among true-freshman quarterbacks who have started a majority of their teams’ games since 2008, only four2 have turned in a better efficiency rating in their debut than Hackenberg’s 134.0 in 2013, and none were asked to throw nearly as often.

James Franklin and the new coaching staff inherit a depth chart rife with prominent question marks, most notably at the two positions that will most directly affect their young quarterback’s success, offensive line and wide receiver. But there’s no question who holds the keys.

At His Best: Hackenberg immediately dispelled any doubts about his arm strength with a pair of opening-day touchdown bombs covering 51 and 54 yards, respectively, in a 23-17 win over Syracuse. In early October, he let it rip for a national audience in a wild, quadruple-overtime win over Michigan, memorable mainly for an exhilarating 36-yard heave to Allen Robinson to set up a game-tying touchdown at the end of regulation. The other knockout throw from that game is this flat-footed, third-and-long laser that put PSU on the board in the first quarter, because it’s 99.9 percent arm:

So, the kid can spin the laces off the ball. (If you need more proof, note that he led the conference and tied for eighth nationally with 14 completions that covered at least 40 yards, despite playing one fewer game than most QBs.) There was the usual dumb freshman stuff: Hackenberg threw two picks against both the Orange and the Wolverines, and two more in a straight-up debacle at Ohio State. Predictably for a green quarterback learning on the fly, his mistakes tended to stem from (a) locking in on his receivers, and (b) getting rid of the ball a beat or two too late, a lethal combination that became something of a running theme over the first half of the season. This was still the case as late as the midseason trip to Columbus:

That game went in the books as Penn State’s most lopsided defeat in 114 years, which may as well be forever. By November, though, the cannon was far more evident than the inconsistency. After the meltdown in Columbus, Hackenberg finished with eight touchdown passes to just two interceptions in the final five games, including a gem of a performance in the finale, a 31-24 upset at Wisconsin that marked Penn State’s only road victory of the season. Barely a month after the flop against OSU, there was the same quarterback, playing against a superior defense in Madison,3 showing the patience and wherewithal to move his eyes off his primary target and make a vastly better decision for a big play:

But Hackenberg’s arm was never a secret. If the finale offered a glimpse of the future, it was in Hackenberg’s improving grasp of the down-to-down intricacies of the offense and how to operate efficiently within it. (His 208.9 passer rating at Wisconsin was the best by a Penn State quarterback in a Big Ten game since 2009.) The more consistently he makes the routine decisions, the more vulnerable secondaries will be to his haymakers.

At His Worst: Moving the ball was a boom-or-bust proposition. Despite his penchant for big plays, fewer than a third of Hackenberg’s pass attempts went for first downs, and the offense as a whole ranked next to last in the conference in third-down conversions, ahead of only Purdue. On first down, when the Lions preferred to keep the ball on the ground about 70 percent of the time, Hackenberg benefited from the emphasis on the run by completing nearly two-thirds of his attempts without an interception; roughly one first-down pass in five went for at least 15 yards. (Refer back to the long touchdown pass against Wisconsin embedded above, which was a play-action pass on first-and-10.) By contrast, on second and third downs, his passer rating fell by more than 30 points compared to his efficiency on first down, and the rate of explosive plays (15 yards or more) plummeted by nearly half. In other words, the offense worked hard to maintain a run-first mentality — the top tailbacks, Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton, combined for nearly 1,800 yards rushing — and Hackenberg often struggled to pick up the slack when down-and-distance took the ground game off the table. He certainly wasn’t a threat to run himself.

The upcoming season will present additional learning curves, including adjusting to first-year offensive coordinator John Donovan’s new scheme and learning to play with a new supporting cast featuring four new starters on an already banged-up offensive line and a green-as-can-be receiving corps that could rely on a trio of incoming freshmen. Hackenberg leaned heavily last year on Robinson, a human highlight reel who frequently bailed out his young quarterback on erratic throws; Robinson also happened to rack up more receptions for more yards and more first downs in 2013 than the rest of the PSU receiving corps combined. Aside from utilizing Robinson, the old staff’s passing attack seemed concerned primarily with concocting new ways to get the tight ends open for six-yard gains in the flat. And this is an impressive group of tight ends. But it’s no substitute for a guy like Robinson, who is now a Jacksonville Jaguar, and who could can stretch the opposing secondary as far as Hackenberg’s arm will allow.

To Saturday and Beyond: Penn State opens its season Saturday in Ireland, of all places,4 against Central Florida, which served notice of its impending BCS run last year with a 34-31 upset in Happy Valley. Hackenberg played pretty well against the Knights (21-of-28, 262 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT), especially for a rookie still earning his coaches’ trust early in the season, and compared favorably to his opposite number in that game, Blake Bortles, the third player drafted this past May. Assuming UCF’s new starter, redshirt freshman Pete DiNovo, isn’t yet on Bortles’s level, the Lions shouldn’t need 35 points to win this time. Given the number of alarm bells waiting to go off over the rebuilt line, however, it would be very reassuring if they got them anyway.

On some level, though, Hackenberg seems likely to transcend his team’s fate in general and the offense’s in particular in a way very few quarterbacks do. He signed up for a tenuous, against-the-odds experience, and he’s getting it: If the offensive line is as serious of a liability as it appears to be on paper, he could spend most of his sophomore season being buried by opposing rushers. In that case, the prevailing theme will be endurance, or (if things really go to hell) survival in a difficult but very predictable situation amid crippling scholarship restrictions. On the other hand, any semblance of success will serve as proof of Hackenberg’s burgeoning greatness.

Quick Outs

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• It’s a testament to the blandness of Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave that, even after his 19 starts, I have to stop and remind myself not to refer to him as “John Stocco.” Apparently Wisconsin coaches don’t find their incumbent all that memorable, either, as Stocco will reportedly begin the season on the bench in favor of a converted safety, Tanner McEvoy. That’s not quite as surprising as it sounds: McEvoy was recruited as a quarterback out of junior college, and drew high praise at QB in spring practice after filling in at free safety in 2013. And frankly, it’s hard to ignore a guy who boasts an NFL-ready, 6-foot-6 frame and is athletic enough to play in the secondary. Still, a prime-time opening-night date with LSU is a hell of a place for an experiment.

The ACC will be a showcase for new starters, including newly available transfers at Boston College (Tyler Murphy, by way of Florida), NC State (Jacoby Brissett, also by way of Florida), and Virginia Tech (Michael Brewer, via Texas Tech), plus true freshmen at Miami (Brad Kaaya) and Wake Forest (John Wolford); at North Carolina, redshirt freshman Mitch Trubisky remains very much in the mix to unseat incumbent Marquise Williams. The main newcomer to watch on Saturday, though, is Clemson freshman Deshaun Watson, who should see significant snaps off the bench in the Tigers’ trip to Georgia. Although he’s the nominal backup behind fifth-year senior Cole Stoudt — who has little relevant experience himself after three years backing up Tajh Boyd — Watson is one of the most decorated quarterback recruits in school history, and Clemson coaches appear willing to give him a real chance to assume the starting job as quickly as possible.

No, Alabama still hasn’t named a starting quarterback for Saturday’s opener against West Virginia, fueling speculation that senior Blake Sims and junior Jacob Coker will both get a fair shot at leading the offense against the Mountaineers. Nick Saban has never accommodated a two-QB system for long, but this wouldn’t be the first time he’s wanted to see his candidates in a game situation before making a final call: In 2011, AJ McCarron shared snaps with Phillip Sims in an opening-day win over Kent State. WVU is a slightly stiffer challenge, though not so stiff that Saban can’t afford to keep his cards close to the vest. And given that Alabama has a pair of tomato cans in Florida Atlantic and Southern Miss on deck before the SEC opener against Florida, there’s no hurry.

Reggie Collier “Athlete” of the Week: Keenan Reynolds, Navy 

The Reggie Collier “Athlete” of the Week honors scramblers, scrappers, option types, and other nontraditional talents who embrace the dual-threat ethos of their namesake. 

At 5-foot-11, 195 pounds, Reynolds is the latest in a long line of undersized, triple-option Naval Academy ninjas, and he’s coming off a sophomore season in which he tied for the national lead with 31 rushing touchdowns. In light of the suddenly harrowing quarterback situation at Ohio State, he’ll also be front and center this weekend in a legitimate upset bid against the Buckeyes. Given the rest of the Midshipmen’s schedule, if they manage to chop-block their way past OSU, it’ll be time to start wondering about the possibility of a 12-0 service academy. 

QB Curve Preseason Power Hour!

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Ranking the nation’s best quarterbacks entering Week 1.

1. Jameis Winston, Florida State. The standing assumption here is that the Heisman is difficult enough to win once and impossible to win twice. More so than anyone else on this list, Winston is competing against himself: How much will voters hold it against him when he (inevitably) comes up shy of last year’s outrageous stat line?

2. Marcus Mariota, Oregon. Because he didn’t miss any time, the fact that Mariota played the final month of the 2013 season on a bum knee probably didn’t get the attention it deserved. When healthy, he’s been unstoppable.

3. Bryce Petty, Baylor. Baylor christens its brand-new stadium Sunday against SMU. Goggles and earplugs will be provided.

4. Brett Hundley, UCLA. It says a lot about the expectations in L.A. that I consider myself a skeptic regarding Hundley’s consistency and UCLA’s potential as a national contender, yet still wonder if this ranking is too low.

5. Nick Marshall, Auburn. A converted cornerback, Marshall is the first true option QB to stick atop an SEC depth chart in many, many years, and the most dangerous triple-option threat in college football since Eric Crouch. No matter what they say, the Tigers are going to miss him for as long as he sits Saturday against Arkansas.

6. Taylor Kelly, Arizona State. For all the Hundley hype, when it came time to vote for the All-Pac-12 team last winter, opposing coaches preferred Kelly as their second-team quarterback behind Mariota.

7. Christian Hackenberg, Penn State. As long as the line keeps him in one piece, all lights are green.

8. Shane Carden, East Carolina. If this is your first time coming across Carden’s name, it won’t be the last. He’s embarking on a potentially Bortlesesque senior season.

9. Connor Cook, Michigan State. The Spartans offense began the 2013 season as a laughingstock and ended with arguably the best quarterback in the Big Ten.

10. P.J. Walker, Temple. The Owls were bad before Walker took over as the starter in October, and they were still bad after. But they were far less bad, and Walker emerged as the first Temple player in many, many years worth going out of your way to watch.

Waiting: Rakeem Cato (Marshall), Kevin Hogan (Stanford), Devin Gardner (Michigan), Trevor Knight (Oklahoma), Sean Mannion (Oregon State)

Filed Under: 2014 College Football Preview, College Football, College Football Preview, QB Curve, Quarterbacks, Penn State Nittany Lions, Christian Hackenberg, Heisman Trophy, ACC, Freshmen, Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota, Bryce Petty, Brett Hundley, Nick Marshall, Wisconsin Badgers, Keenan Reynolds, Navy Midshipmen, NCAA, NCAAF, Matt Hinton

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Matt Hinton is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ MattRHinton

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