Christian Hackenberg leads the Big Ten in completions and completion percentage. Penn State’s quarterback is third in the league in passing yards and fourth in total offense.
“At this point I’d give him a B,” coach Bill O’Brien said.
A little harsh? Maybe for a true freshman. But the point is that O’Brien and the Nittany Lions aren’t treating him like a rookie. And the 18-year-old from Virginia doesn’t certainly doesn’t act like one.
So there’s no learning curve being applied here. That B-grade from O’Brien comes mainly from Hackenberg’s four turnovers and a handful of avoidable sacks.
And Hackenberg devours it all in the film room. Including the mistakes.
“It’s actually fun,” Hackenberg said Wednesday. “I look forward to learning what I can do better. That’s the goal for all of us, not just at the QB position. We’re trying to better ourselves.
“For me, it’s one of those things where I probably just need a better understanding of when to check the ball down, not take as many sacks. I had a couple bad ones this weekend. So you just continue to get better this week.”
Like with the old regime, the O’Brien-led Lions typically don’t make true freshmen available for interviews. Hackenberg, though, has been the exception, speaking after each game and now during the week as well.
Much of that comes from an even-keeled personality, which often runs counter to O’Brien’s brief sideline outbursts during games.
“He’s a self‑confident kid,” O’Brien said. “He’s just got a really good demeanor. He’s sure of himself. He knows he has good ability. He’s a good person. He’s a calm guy, which is great for me, because I’m not a calm guy. It’s really good.”
It’s a different dynamic from a season ago when both O’Brien and Hackenberg’s predecessor, Matt McGloin, were well-known to get fired up during the games.
O’Brien said both leadership styles can work well.
“Matt and I last year, sometimes obviously we had similar personalities,” O’Brien said. “Christian is a calm guy, and that’s good. I think the team feeds off of that. The guys have a lot of confidence in him.
“Any time you’re completing balls and running the offense the way he is right now, which is pretty decent, guys around you have confidence. That helps your whole role on the team, too. He’ll continue to improve with that.”
Hackenberg credits his father, Erick, and the rigid structure of Fork Union Military Academy for helping him develop as a leader.
But obviously it takes time for a teenager to command the attention and loyalty of teammates who are 22 and 23, some of whom are in their fifth year with the program and have a shot at the NFL.
“He takes control in the huddle,” said tackle Adam Gress, one of a handful of those fifth-year seniors on offense. “He’s not afraid to raise his voice a little bit. … He’s a confident kid and he works hard.”
Hackenberg said it just comes from repetition and experience in games.
“It comes pretty naturally to me,” Hackenberg said. “You just have to establish yourself in that setting and you have to understand that you have to earn their respect.”
That respect, O’Brien said, comes when you perform on the field and win games.
Already Hackenberg has become the first Penn State freshman to throw for 300 yards in a game. He has won two of the first three Big Ten freshman of the week awards, making him the first Lions player to win more than one since it was created in 2010.
Through three games, he is 66-for-92 (71.7 percent) for 851 yards, four touchdowns, three interceptions and one lost fumble.
That, he said, is just the start.
“You’ve gotta be the rock. You’ve gotta be the foundation, the leader,” Hackenberg said. “I’m excited to play football in front of 100,000 fans every Saturday in a great league in the Big Ten.
“It’s a great opportunity, and I’m blessed to have it.”