Column: Hackenberg catching undue flak
Christian Hackenberg deserves better.
Within the walls of the Lasch Building, there hasn't been a problem. His teammates and new coaching staff are fiercely protective, his family and other supporting figures are strong and caring, and his circle of friends tight-knit.
In that context, he couldn't reasonably ask for much more.
Of course, that's not the only reality at the star position for one of the biggest programs in the most popular sport in the country. In recent weeks, the atmosphere surrounding Hackenberg has mirrored the abrupt change in seasons outside.
Biting, cynical, and in many cases deeply flawed, some of the criticisms of the 19-year old's performances have been over the top; laughable, in fact. Making matters worse, the most vocal judgements are coming from within a community that has benefited immeasurably from Hackenberg's mere presence within the program, let alone through his direct influence on actual wins.
Especially given the circumstances, it's an embarrassment that any fans have chastised him so relentlessly or called for his benching, and that some media members have treated these behaviors as reasonable.
It's a slap in the face, and the frustrations of Hackenberg, head coach James Franklin and the rest of the program are becoming more and more evident the longer it continues.
Even Franklin, who has been diametrically opposed to former coach Bill O'Brien in his ability to be diplomatic and non-confrontational, left little to read between the lines during his brief session with the media following Wednesday's practice. Asked about the "bad habits" Hackenberg has fallen into this season, the first year head coach at Penn State bluntly countered the question's very premise.
"I don't agree with you," Franklin said. "I think Christian has done some things that we'd like to get corrected. He's made a few choices that I think he'd like to have back. His footwork has been not like what he'd like it to be at times.
"But I would not describe it the way you've described it."
Nor would most others with any rudimentary knowledge of the game or the constructs Penn State has played its season under.
To be entirely clear, few would argue that Hackenberg is having the outstanding season he had just a year ago. Self critical beyond any reasonable standard, Hackenberg himself has at times shown discouragement while attempting to maintain a positive outlook toward improvement.
No doubt, named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year for his play last season, Hackenberg's quarterback efficiency (134.0 vs. 106.4), touchdowns (20 vs. 7) and interceptions (10 vs. 14) are not what they were.
But neither are many of the circumstances.
Discussed ad nauseum already, the boredom of the conversation does not mitigate their very existence. Even upon the improvement of Penn State's running game against Temple and deceivingly successful numbers at Indiana, the very encouraging signs for the Lions' offensive line are not a magic elixir to everything else that has ailed the offense all season. As Franklin said at his Tuesday press conference, "It's not like those other things go away and everything just falls into place after not being as consistent as you wanted to be the weeks before."
Oddly enough, some of the other numbers by which quarterbacks are typically defined have managed to go overlooked in Hackenberg's performance this season. His completion percentage (55.5) is just a few points off of the 58.9 rate he finished the 2013 season with. At 2,318 yards with two games to play, his 231.8 yards per game average puts him third among conference quarterbacks and just short of his 246.2 ypg average a year ago.
Adding some much-needed context to the mix, consider this:
By the end of the year, Christian Hackenberg will have the most carries by a Penn State quarterback in a season since Michael Robinson in 2005.
Through 10 games, he is credited with 77 rushes for 167 yards gained, 228 yards lost, and has been sacked 37 times (a near record number). Among 125 teams, the Nittany Lions are ranked No. 121 in the country for sacks allowed and are last in the Big Ten, surrendering 3.7 per game. And, aside from a few throwaway series for D.J. Crook, Hackenberg has been the sole quarterback to take snaps for the Nittany Lions this season.
The physical and mental damage has not been discussed, partly due to Franklin's in-house policy, but also because Hackenberg has not let on in any obvious way how badly he's been bruised and battered.
For some unknown reason, though, perseverance and a will to keep going hasn't been one of the popular narratives surrounding Hackenberg this season.
Instead, the person who earned the respect of his teammates in becoming the program's first-ever sophomore to be named captain, the No. 1-rated quarterback in the Class of 2013 who committed first to Penn State among three four-stars that would follow his lead shortly thereafter, and the kid who has completely avoided off-the-field pitfalls, he has not been given the benefit of the doubt.
And a natural crisis of self-confidence has followed.
As much as Franklin would like to shield his players from the uneducated opinions of some fans and media, he acknowledged this week that impossibility. In a world of social media and direct lines to players and their families, access is unfettered to sometimes greater impact than many realize.
With two games and a bowl left on the schedule, the shape of the public narrative moving forward is still to be determined, largely affected by Hackenberg's performances and maybe even more so the wins or losses that accompany them.
What is clear, however, is the disservice already done to Hackenberg.
"It affects you. And it affects you because you care so much, and that's what I want. I want them to care," Franklin said. "People making comments or saying things, it doesn't bother you unless you care about what you're doing and what you represent."
While he wasn't talking about Hackenberg specifically, he might as well have been.
For the kid who cares all too much, one can only hope the assurances from that support structure are enough to drown out the noise.