Seeking Greatness

Christian Hackenberg

Christian Hackenberg believes he is better than he was a year ago. And he needs to be. Surrounded by a patchwork offensive line and rebuilt receiving corps, it is incumbent upon Penn State’s sophomore quarterback to set the tone, to shoulder his share of the load (and then some). Especially early. Especially given the fact that the season opener is a unique one, and against a formidable opponent.

"I would definitely say that I feel a little more confident with everything I’m doing,” he said during a conference call with reporters Tuesday morning, hours before the Nittany Lions jetted to Ireland for Saturday’s Croke Park Classic against Central Florida. “I’ve done it now. I have spring under my belt, summer and now fall camp. I feel a lot more confident going into this first game, but really my mindset hasn’t changed much. I’m just going to go out there and try to do my role to help the team win.”

Asked later to amplify that point, he said, “It was a little bit different feeling last year to this year, I can definitely say that.”

Then, he was a freshman coming of Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy – a celebrated freshman, to be sure, but still a freshman – leading his team against Syracuse in a game played in the Meadowlands. And he was good that day, throwing for 278 yards and two touchdowns, but also with two interceptions -- but not as good as he was later in the season, in which he broke 11 school records en route to being named Big Ten Freshman of the Year.

Now, he said, he has improved his “total understanding of the game.” Now, he said, his fundamentals and accuracy have been honed. And he believes in himself and his Penn State teammates, more strongly than ever.

“I feel like we have a great opportunity ahead of us, and we’re all going to take advantage of it,” he said.

He is just 19. Sometimes that’s hard to remember. Doesn’t turn 20 until next Valentine’s Day. Yet his bearing is that of someone much older. Adam Breneman, the now-injured tight end and one of Hackenberg’s friends, said in early July that everyone on the team noticed that from the time Hackenberg arrived on campus last fall.

Knowing that, it is not surprising that Hackenberg became the first sophomore in team history to be named a captain. It is a “huge honor,” he said, and one he obviously takes quite seriously.

He was at his statesmanlike best during Tuesday’s call, using the word “great” no fewer than 16 times in a call that lasted some 16 minutes. Everything was great – the offense of new head coach James Franklin and coordinator John Donovan, the progress of freshman wide receiver Saeed Blacknall, Hackenberg’s relationship with new center Angelo Mangiro, everything.

There would in fact appear to be promise in the new group of wideouts, which has the daunting task of trying to replace Allen Robinson, the departed All-American. Blacknall is in the mix. So too are sophomore Geno Lewis (18 receptions last year) and redshirt freshman DaeSean Hamilton, who missed last season while recuperating from a wrist injury.

“He was one of the guys that was with me every day this summer when I went out (to work out),” Hackenberg said of Hamilton. “He and I have developed a very good relationship and a very good connection.”

The tight end corps is deep and talented, even without Breneman. Ditto for the running backs. The line, however, features four new starters alongside veteran tackle Donovan Smith, while guard Miles Dieffenbach mends from a knee injury of his own, in hopes of returning at some point late in the season.

Smith has 20 career starts. The other four? Zero. Mangiro has at least played in every game the last two years, as a sub at center and guard. That should help, as should the fact that he and Hackenberg are close.

“Now it’s his shot to be the man up front,” Hackenberg said.

Redshirt sophomore Brian Gaia, a converted defensive tackle, is the right guard, with either redshirt sophomore Derek Dowrey or redshirt freshman Brendan Mahon at the other guard. Redshirt freshman Andrew Nelson is expected to open at tackle.

“It’s starting to click for them,” Hackenberg said. “You can see that in the film, and even out there on the field. They’re come a long way.”

It would behoove them to be on point right away, seeing as Central Florida returns nine starters on defense. Franklin said during a conference call Tuesday that linebacker Terrance Plummer, who had 110 tackles last year, is “a difference-maker,” and that cornerback Jacoby Glenn and safety Clayton Geathers were among those “that really jump out.”

“It’s going to be a great challenge for us,” Hackenberg said.

That word again -- great.

Now he needs to try to be the same.

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