Analysis: Lions asked to mature quickly
(Editor's note: For the cover story of our preseason magazine, I sat down for a one-on-one interview with Penn State sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg in mid-July. Though he was officially announced Wednesday as the first Penn State true sophomore captain in the program's 128 year history, his comments regarding the composition of the Nittany Lions' scholarship roster and its sheer volume of young players continue to be relevant.)
He's exactly six months removed from his 19th birthday and Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg has been designated with one of the biggest responsibilities in his young football career.
Named one of a record seven team captains by head coach James Franklin Wednesday morning, the respect of Hackenberg's teammates and coaches is now marked officially, just one year into his tenure as a Nittany Lion.
This is nothing new to Hackenberg, though. The Fork Union Military Academy product has been shouldering a significant load even before arriving at Penn State last spring.
Exceeding any reasonable expectation for his first season, Hackenberg completed 231-of-392 passes for 2,955 yards, 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions while earning five Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors along the way.
He's not the only one, though.
Across the field, young players can be found who are expected not only to start this season for the Nittany Lions but also are being counted on to play a significant role in the team's success. In other words, the Nittany Lions are counting on the possibility that youth can be camouflaged by experience.
"I think the guys that did play last year that were younger," Hackenberg noted, citing himself, Brandon Bell, Jordan Lucas, Trevor Williams and even special teams contributors who were in their first or second years of action. "Those guys got reps and they're relatively young. So you think about it, those guys have to play a crucial role and they've gotta grow up quicker, myself included, and be able to act as almost juniors and seniors because in some ways, we have just as much playing experience."
That said, playing experience does not necessarily equate to personal maturity on and off the field. Using a rough estimate, more than 50 of the team's projected 72 scholarship performers are 20-years old or younger.
While Hackenberg was the only non-senior named a captain for the Nittany Lions this year, showing that there are still key contributors among the upperclassmen on this team, he still acknowledged an impetus throughout the ranks of younger players to mature faster than they might need to otherwise.
"It's a responsibility on our shoulders to grow up a little quicker, but at the same time, it is good. We've got a lot of young guys that are anxious and ready to play," he said. "So we'll see where that ends up after everything plays out after camp and they start picking up the offense and start getting reps."
Senior running back Bill Belton echoed Hackenberg's thoughts, noting the heightened sense of dwindling time that accompanies every senior's final year of action.
"We have a young team, so we're going to ask young guys to grow up now," Belton said. "We can't have the younger guys who are freshmen and sophomores have little mistakes like freshman mistakes. We don't have time for that."
None of this, of course, denies the challenges that will exist for a program with so few players with junior and senior eligibility this season.
As Hackenberg noted, for all of the reps gained last year when he and some of his true freshman teammates jumped in head first, they will still need to be better than opponents having the luxury of years - plural - of experience.
"It's going to be tough because you look around and you have other teams that have guys that are three, four year starters that have been around for a while," he said. There's definitely a big learning curve there, I went through that last year and I understand that, so it will be fun though.
"I know that we have a lot of talent, we have a lot of guys that are excited and we're looking forward to this season."