Evaluating Christian Hackenberg (Penn State)
Christian Hackenberg is a QB prospect who people really don’t seem to have a general consensus on. Within the NFL scouting community exists a tremendous variance of opinion while attempting to holistically evaluate his college career and objectively predict how his entire skill set will translate to the next level.
The story goes like this. Touted as one of the most polished, ready to play Pro-Style high school recruits in the nation in 2012, Hackenberg committed to a then sanctioned heavy Penn State program who had just hired Bill O’Brien, (one of the NFL’s best young offensive minds, a guy who understood the nuances of QB play) as their Head Coach.
From the get go, the two hit it off as Hackenberg not only earned the starting job as a true freshman in 2013, but flourished within coach O’Brien’s pro style, highly detailed system. In fact, the two worked so well together in 2013, that O’Brien, received an offer to become the head coach of the Houston Texans and took the job after only one year in State College. Penn State ended up hiring another up and coming young coach except this time, it would be a defensive minded one, James Franklin. Franklin was in stark contrast to O’Brien in how he approached the game from a philosophical standpoint. Although Hackenberg remained the starter for two more years, it quickly became evident just how much of a disconnect existed between Hackenberg and the offensive philosophy in which the new coaching regime envisioned. The past two years were a real test for Hackenberg. He was pigeon holed in a system that did not cater to his strengths and played behind a porous offensive line. Having to go through a coaching change and the adversity of adjusting to a new system should only help him as he transitions to the next level.
With the backdrop in place, lets go ahead and take a look at Hackenberg as a thrower. Our objective will be to evaluate his overall throwing ability within the short,intermediate and long game operating from the pocket.
Short Game– He has shown a consistent ability to make decisive and correct decisions pre snap. The accuracy he displays within the short game is a definite strength of his game. The ability to place the ball on the correct shoulder, away from leverage and at the face-mask level is something he has continually excelled at. We must also take into account his understanding of coverages and his ability to throw on time and with sound fundamentals from the waist down.
Intermediate thrower– This is an area that Hackenberg has also shown the ability to excel in. In 2013 while playing behind a stellar offensive line, he developed great timing while throwing the intermediate game. We also saw a guy who was advanced for his age in terms of manipulating the secondary with his eyes. As we can see here against Michigan from 2013.
Here, we see the QB under center in the red area diagnosing a single high safety look (safety is just outside the reach of the screen. Hackenberg knows his TE who is lined up to his left is running a vertical route. Additionally, the cornerback (top of screen) is showing off man coverage pre snap which serves as a confirmation to Hackenberg that his TE will be his primary read on this play.
As the ball is snapped, Hackenberg uses high level eye discipline in hope of holding the FS in order to sustain the throwing window down the seam to his TE who at this point in the play is establishing his route from the LOS.
As the play develops, the pocket begins to sustain itself and Hackenberg continues to hold the FS with his eyes. This is critical because now we can see that not only is Hackenberg holding the FS, but he is manipulating the 2nd level of Michigan States defense (Linebackers) as they are flowing in the direction Hackenberg is looking.
Now at the top of his drop, he is still showing veteran level eye discipline within a condensed area of the field. Notice the green grass developing to the left of Hackenberg down the field. At this point, he has successfully manipulated the Wolverine defense to his liking.
As the ball is released, the TE finds himself in ideal position due to widening his route just a bit while feeling the under-coverage drifting away from him.
Hackenberg demonstrates touch, timing and the ability to put the ball in a spot over defenders and away from the FS essentially throwing his TE open into the endzone.
As we see, the FS is too late getting over resulting in a touchdown for Penn State. This is just one play but it shows the ability Hackenberg possesses of being a highly nuanced thrower within the red zone while displaying elite level touch, eye manipulation and ball placement.
Deep Game- Having the rare combination of high end (for NFL Standards) arm strength while still being a natural thrower with an effortless release is something seldom seen. Aaron Rodgers, Derek Carr, Joe Flacco are some names that come to mind. Hackenberg has that same combination of traits. However, Hackenberg does not throw the ball consistently well down the field despite having the arm power and touch to be capable of doing so. This is an area he must improve upon in order to become a starting NFL quarterback.