The confident 18-year-old is completing 71.7 percent of his passes for the 2-1 Nittany Lions and has already been named Big Ten Freshman of the Week twice. Heading into this week's home matchup with Kent State, Hackenberg leads the Big Ten in completions per game (22).
“Football is the easy part,” he said in a conference call with reporters Wednesday afternoon.
“He's a self-confident kid,” PSU coach Bill O'Brien added. “He's just got a really good demeanor. He's sure of himself. He knows he has good ability.”
During the week, however, the 6-foot-3, 220-pounder does his best to blend in with the rest of the student body on Penn State's sprawling University Park campus. If other students happen to recognize him, they are not making a big deal of it.
“People understand,” Hackenberg said. “I usually just try to keep my head down. I just want to be recognized as a regular student during the day. I'm here doing the same thing everyone else is, trying to get an education.
“I just play football, as well,” he added.
Hackenberg enrolled at Penn State in June, and went through the university's bridge program for new students in the second summer semester. This semester, he's had to adjust to a full load of classes while absorbing O'Brien's complicated pro-style offense. He is taking general education classes so far, which is typical for a PSU freshman.
“Just trying to get that under my belt and get the credits I need headed toward my major,” Hackenberg said. “It really hasn't been that difficult balancing that with football. We have a lot of academic support here, and really it's up to me to focus.”
On the field, his tasks have been two-fold.
Since quarterbacks are leaders by nature, the freshman has had to prove himself to his older teammates. He began doing that when he arrived on campus, by working as hard as possible in the weight room and getting in as much summer throwing as he could.
“You have to establish yourself in a setting,” Hackenberg said. “Guys have been here longer than you, and you have to understand that. So, I just tried to earn their respect. Eventually as I earned their respect, we had more conversations about football and that type of stuff.”
“In the past few months, he's come so far and learned so much,” senior offensive tackle Adam Gress added. “I'd say one of the biggest things is leadership. He takes control in the huddle. He's making sure that everyone's doing what they have to do. He's not afraid to yell a little bit and make sure everyone's in line with everything.”
Along those lines, Hackenberg also has had to digest O'Brien's complex attack, which the coach developed as offensive coordinator with the New England Patriots.
“You just have to take it one day at a time,” Hackenberg said. “Just focus in on getting really good at the basics of the offense. Then once you get the basic understanding of it, you can start going into more complex details.”
Through three weeks, Hackenberg has completed 66 of 93 passes for 851 yards and four touchdowns. On the negative side, he has tossed three interceptions, lost one fumble for a touchdown and has been late getting rid of the ball on occasion, which has led to a few sacks.
“In this offense, the quarterback truly is the field general,” O'Brien said. “He runs the show. If you can eliminate those mistakes, you're going to really help your team out a lot. He understands that. He's a great kid and fun to coach.”
Under former Penn State coach Joe Paterno, true freshmen were rarely allowed to speak to the media. But O'Brien has made Hackenberg available to the press after every game so far this season. And Wednesday, the rookie had a conference call with 19 reporters.
One asked Hackenberg if he was aware of all of the publicity he's received after only three games.
“Not really,” he replied. “I'm just focused on getting better and helping the team in any way I can. Publicity … whatever … at the end of the day I'm just playing football. It's more about the team to me than any of that kind of stuff.”