Maybe the most dangerous thing in all of sports is hype. Whether it’s hype that someone is the next great point guard, pitcher, or quarterback. There are years of evidence that, for some young guys, too much hype at a young age can be, well, too much. Just look at one of SLAM’s favorite guys: Sebastian Telfair, who was hyped to be the NBA’s next great point guard but never quite panned out for various reasons.
This kind of hype—”the next great anything”—is dangerous in any sport, but especially in football, and especially if you’re a quarterback. How often do fans see a QB come into college or the NFL, get talked up as being a “team/program savior” and not pan out? Just look at last year’s No. 1 pro-style quarterback recruit, Gunner Kiel. Kiel was supposed to be Notre Dame’s next great quarterback in the mold of Ron Powlus or Brady Quinn. Things didn’t work out, and now he’s sitting out for a year after transferring to Cincinnati.
Penn State is used to quarterbacks never reaching their potential. Since 2004, several highly touted quarterback recruits—Anthony Morelli, Pat Devlin, Kevin Newsome, Robert Bolden, and Paul Jones—have all come into Happy Valley with at least four stars from various recruiting services. For all intents and purposes, none of them panned out. Morelli had a nice but unspectacular college career, while the other four transferred.
In Saturday’s game at MetLife Stadium, Penn State coach Bill O’Brien trotted out the Nittany Lions’ newest shiny quarterback recruit, Christian Hackenberg. A four/five-star recruit out of Fork Union Military Academy in Fork Union, Virginia, Hackenberg became the first true freshman to start Penn State’s season opener since Bolden in 2010. Prior to that, the last time the Nittany Lions started a true freshman in its opening game was in 1910.
According to O’Brien, the plan was for Hackenberg to start and for Tyler Ferguson, a junior college transfer from College of the Sequoias in California, to play the third series of the game.
For the last few weeks on the Penn State beat, reporters have been waiting for O’Brien to make his final announcement on who would be the starting quarterback. It went from “two weeks before the game,” to “a week before the game,” to “you’ll find out when the ball gets kicked off.”
While O’Brien never named a starter, one thing was obvious: it was scary how quickly Hackenberg, who arrived on campus a month before the season began, closed the gap on Ferguson, who has been on campus since January. At Penn State’s media day, O’Brien said that Ferguson had the advantage. A week later, they were even, something that stayed constant, even after O’Brien told the team that Hackenberg would assume the starting job.
“I’d say say it was pretty even,” O’Brien told reporters after the game. “I wouldn’t say that it was something where one guy blew the guy out of the water, I think it was fairly even. I had to make a decision for the team.”
As for the game, Ferguson played one drive, fumbled the ball, and never saw the field again.
Meanwhile, Hackenberg started the game 6 for 6 with 36 yards, sat out the one possession that Ferguson played, came back in, and finished 22 for 31 with 278 yards, with two touchdowns and two interceptions.
Anyone with basic knowledge of football can tell that Hackenberg possesses special arm talent—just look at his second touchdown pass to redshirt freshman Eugene Lewis. Hackenberg fired a missile over two Syracuse defenders to Lewis for a 54 yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter, although both O’Brien and Hackenberg said that all he had to do was throw it.
What people may not notice is the poise and polish that the Hackenberg possesses. He turned 18 in February, only recently came on campus because his high school didn’t let him graduate early, and was asked to learn one of college football’s most complex offenses. Despite all this, the freshman wasn’t fazed, something he told the press when he spoke to the media after the O’Brien finished his press conference.
“You know, a freshman coming in, the first snap was always big for me,” Hackenberg said. “But once I got that out of the way and started getting a little bit more completions under my belt, the team started moving the ball, I definitely felt more comfortable.“The guys really helped me through that and once the game starts, at the end of the day it’s just football.”
The fact that Hackenberg was allowed to speak to the media was in and of itself a testament to the poise and polish that the freshman possesses. Penn State, like other schools around the country, is very conservative with the media availability of their freshmen, rarely having them speak to the media. This isn’t a slight on the media, it’s just a way that programs protect their players from heavy scrutiny so early in their college career.
However, Hackenberg has an obvious confidence and composure about him, something that O’Brien recognizes.
“I think he’s a confident kid,” O’Brien said. “I think he believes in himself, believes in his teammates, he’s got great poise, got a real good demeanor. He’s a smart football player football player for a guy that’s 18 years old. You gotta give a lot of credit to Fork Union, and Mickey Sullivan and the guys that coached him there. They did a real nice job with him because he’s a well coached guy coming in the door here. He understands things. He made some mistakes today but there’s a lot to build on.”
This sentiment is shared by Jesse James, a sophomore tight end had two grabs for ten yards against the Orange.
“He’s done a great job,” James said. “He knows what he’s doing. We’ve got confidence in him, he’s just a confident kid. He knows what he’s doing.”
Has Hackenberg completely lived up to the hype placed upon him? Of course not. He has one more game as a college football player under his belt than this author does. Sure, he was very impressive in that game, and he showed why he’s been getting (unfair) comparisons at a QB to Peyton Manning with his size, arm strength, accuracy, composure, and football IQ.
But he’s also a freshman, prone to making freshman mistakes. His two interceptions—safety Jeremi Wilkes jumped a route on the first one, and defensive end Robert Welsh had the second one by dropping back into coverage, a defensive scheme that led O’Brien to say “I’m not sure Christian’s ever even seen that before in a live game”—were both bad reads by a freshman quarterback.
Regardless, the hype machine for Hackenberg is going. Whether that’s fair or not isn’t for any of us to decide, but after one game, the true freshman showed that he’s more than capable of living up to it.