Six games into his college career, Christian Hackenberg has secured a place in Penn State football history. Surely the Nittany Lions' freshman quarterback understands that on some level. There is evidence of such atop his Twitter page (chackenberg1), where he has posted a picture of himself sneaking a yard for the tying touchdown with 27 seconds left in regulation last Saturday against Michigan, capping a drive of the above duration and leading to PSU's pulsating 43-40 victory in quadruple overtime.
At the same time he is going to great lengths to depict himself as just another guy, as someone who is one small part of a greater whole. The lightning-quick march, which consisted of two passes to Allen Robinson, one to Brandon Felder, a spike and his sneak, “gives the whole team confidence,” he said, not just him.
His Big Ten Freshman of the Week honor (his third such designation)? “It's a great honor,” he said, “but it's more of a team thing.”
But surely it must be tough to blend in on campus, right? Surely he must be mobbed by his fellow students all the time after a game like that. “I just try to keep my head down and focus on the goals I have here,” he said.
It is a noble attempt on Hackenberg's part, one that is no doubt appreciated by his coaches and teammates. But it is quite clear that he is not just another guy, that he is everything Penn State expected him to be when he was recruited out of Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy.
That he is fast becoming a very big deal.
“I think the kid is going to be some quarterback in this league, that people are going to have to contend with,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said Tuesday. “I think the system is perfect for him.”
It is, in the estimation of Hackenberg's dad, Erick, “probably one of the more sophisticated offenses in the country.” Erick played QB, at the University of Virginia and Susquehanna University. He also served as an assistant at Fork Union while his son was there. Watching each week from the stands this season, he said, “I find it hard not to watch a game as a coach.”
He has seen his son mesh with his teammates, adjust to the speed of the college game (always a biggie, as Christian admitted) and soak up as much of Bill O'Brien's multi-faceted attack as is possible.
“It's a lot,” Erick said.
There is surely more to learn, more to do. “They're not putting it all on his shoulders, all the time,” Hoke said.
It's nonetheless true that Hackenberg has put the ball up 99 times in two Big Ten games, completing 53, for 645 yards and six touchdowns, with two interceptions. And at the end of regulation last Saturday O'Brien had no choice but to put the game in the freshman's hands. Hackenberg then displayed everything Hoke had seen on film -- a big arm, an ability to move about the pocket and extraordinary grace under pressure.
As Hoke put it, Hackenberg is “pretty daggone poised.”
Everyone saw that during that 23-second sliver of time at the end of regulation, when Hackenberg, 23-for-44 for 305 yards and three TDs in the game, hit Robinson for a gain of 14 as he straddled the left sideline, Felder for 29 amid a pack of defenders near the right sideline and a leaping Robinson for 36, to the 1.
Hackenberg took it in on the next play. Since then he has been quick to credit his receivers for their efforts during that drive, as has O'Brien. Not without reason, either; Robinson's final grab, a soaring grab with the Wolverines' Channing Stribling in decent position, was particularly impressive.
“I knew that if I put it up to a spot where he could catch it, he had a good chance at winning the one-on-one battle with his defender,” Hackenberg said. “In the heat of the moment I don't really remember anything. I just remember releasing the ball and just watching him go up and catch it, which was a huge relief for me. But it was sort of just crazy in the moment.”
And what of Hackenberg's efforts on the three pass plays? “I think they were good reads,” O'Brien said.
Overall Hackenberg has completed 58.4 percent of his passes, for 1,672 yards and 11 touchdowns. He has been intercepted six times, twice against Michigan. O'Brien pronounced himself “very pleased” with his QB's progress, believing the freshman has shown improvement each and every week.
“Every time he sees something, it's basically the first time he's seeing it at the college level,” the coach said, noting that the next game, at Ohio State on Oct. 26, offers as big a challenge as any.
Indiana coach Kevin Wilson, who saw Hackenberg go 30-for-55 for 340 yards and three touchdowns in a 44-24 loss to the Hoosiers on Oct. 5, said that with the PSU QB, as with IU youngsters Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson, it's a given that better things are ahead.
“You're looking at a guy, you just know there's so much more growth,” Wilson said. “He's got a (good) skill set, but just his calmness (stands out). Looks like mentally he can handle a lot for a young guy. There's a lot of growth in him.”
“I'm happy where I'm at right now,” Hackenberg said. “I just feel there's always room for improvement, in every aspect -- mentally, physically and in terms of my mechanics. I'm just trying to improve my game as a whole.”
He mentioned specifically his ability to fully grasp the entire offense -- to get through his reads, make checks at the line of scrimmage, etc.
“I feel pretty comfortable with that,” he said, “but we're just trying to simplify it and make it so we can all be working on the same page and seeing things with the same set of eyes as an offense.”
But for now, he prefers to be seen as just another guy. As a guy who likes to golf, having shot a 39 for nine holes -- “I was on fire,” he said -- and would hunt and fish if he had a car on campus. As a guy who is happy his dad and one of his three brothers are visiting this weekend, when the Lions have a bye.
Surely, though, he knows his life is going to get a lot more complicated, that his star is on the rise. Maybe equipment manager Brad “Spider” Caldwell and head athletic trainer Tim Bream knew what they were doing when they advised Hackenberg, who didn't care what uniform number he wore, to take No. 14 -- the same number worn by Todd Blackledge and John Shaffer, the school's national-championship-winning QBs.
“It's a quarterback number here traditionally, so I just sort of went with it,” Hackenberg said.
Just as he's going with the flow now. Just as he's aware he has already secured a place in PSU history, but would rather not dwell on it.
“Right now I really haven't had the opportunity to sit back and understand it,” he said. “We're sort of in season, so my mind's really focused on Ohio State. Being able to sit down and watch the (Michigan) game on the Big Ten Network, I think it's a real testament to our team and the resilience we've had all year, and even carrying over from last year.”
Just another guy? Not anymore. Not ever again.