Playing it cool

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By Nate Bauer
Blue White Illustrated
There's no pretense in Christian Hackenberg. He doesn't have time for it.
Hackenberg has a year's experience leading one of the most prestigious college football programs in the country. He's playing a key role at a critical moment in its history, helping a damaged brand regain its place among the elite. He has quickly become a star at the game's most visible position, has received as many preseason accolades as any player in the Big Ten and understands that the hopes of the Penn State football team and its enormous community of fans rest largely in his hands.
Head coach James Franklin, teammates, parents and even Hackenberg himself, the Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2013, all readily acknowledge the realities that come with the position.
"Obviously," Franklin said, "being Christian Hackenberg, at Penn State and in this community, is a big deal."
More than a year has passed since Hackenberg left Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia to enroll at Penn State. The most heralded quarterback prospect in the country, he studied intently under Bill O'Brien last fall, directed the Nittany Lions to a 7-5 season that included two victories over Top 25 opponents and was named Big Ten Freshman of the Week a remarkable five times along the way.
Following the season, Hackenberg watched helplessly as O'Brien departed for a job with the NFL's Houston Texans, publicly embraced Franklin upon his arrival and helped to stabilize a difficult and emotional transition.
All of this before his 19th birthday.
No wonder, then, that the people close to him are just as impressed with Hackenberg's performance as a public figure as with his passing and game management. "I'm proud of the way Christian played. Who wouldn't be as a parent? That's great," Hackenberg's father, Erick, said. "But what I'm probably most proud of with Christian is how he has handled it. So many alumni, probably the strongest lettermen's association of any school in the country, a top-three fan base in the United States of America, and you're 18 years old. At the end of the day - I'm not saying this because he's my kid - that's been on his shoulders."
Maturity has never been an issue for Hackenberg. In high school, he was a starting quarterback by the end of his freshman season, gravitating toward the team's upperclassmen for guidance as he transitioned into the role. Upon his arrival at University Park last June, he did the same thing, leaning on veterans such as Ty Howle, John Urschel and Allen Robinson as he took the reins of O'Brien's offense.
"I felt like I definitely had to grow up quicker in order for the team to succeed, and I think they definitely helped me a lot doing so," Hackenberg said. "Guys who have been there, who have been in the limelight, who have lived up to the expectations. They really helped me understand that role and understand the expectations and just roll with it, because that's what you've got to do. You've got to keep your focus on what the goal is at hand and just roll with the punches and try to stay as tight to that line as you can."
Inevitably, it's easier in theory than in practice to walk that line.
On a campus of more than 45,000 students, temptations are ever-present - some innocuous, some not. Throw in the ubiquity of camera phones, and Hackenberg's college experience is anything but anonymous. The fact that so many people are drawn to him - Franklin called him "the alpha male" this spring - only magnifies the possibility that any random moment could end up on Twitter or Instagram or Vine.
"My parents talked to me about that before," Hackenberg said, "but I was like, 'Yeah, whatever. Whatever. It's not going to happen. I'll be all right.' So you get out and it actually happens and it's one of those things where you realize quick what the repercussions can be and you learn how to fix those and straighten it out as quick as you can."
The attention has forced him to keep a tight circle of friends. He wants to be the guy out on the field playing, making the calls and leading the team, so as a freshman he consciously made a trade: He would forgo the relative anonymity, relaxation and fun of college life for a crucial year of hands-on development and enormous responsibility.
He doesn't regret the choice.
The oldest of four brothers, Hackenberg said he's always felt a need to set a good example. In addition, the faculty at Fork Union instilled discipline, and when he got to Penn State last year, he was put in charge of a complex offense in which success required total commitment. Those factors all dovetailed in a way that kept him out of trouble.
"For me to come here and be able to play last year, I think that ultimately helped me stay away from things where I could have made worse decisions off the field," he said. "Understanding the light that I was in and the role that I had on the team, I think that that helped me stay focused and stay on that line."
His approach could hardly have worked out better. Hackenberg completed 231 of 392 passes for 2,955 yards and 20 touchdowns, breaking Penn State freshman records for attempts, completions, passing yards and touchdowns, and earning freshman All-America recognition from multiple publications.
The hype has only gotten stronger leading into the 2014 season, as Hackenberg has earned a spot on the Maxwell Award preseason watch list and was even projected as the No. 1 quarterback to eventually come out in the NFL Draft - whenever that might be.
But the sophomore signal-caller isn't getting ahead of himself. Calling the accolades "an honor," he said he is focused on getting acclimated to a revamped offense and a supporting cast that will look very different than it did a year ago.
Hackenberg's focus, his ability to remain on-task despite facing a seemingly endless series of ego-inflating distractions, has made a big impression on his new coach. Franklin said he hasn't seen any signs of attitude or arrogance from his starting quarterback. Just the opposite, in fact.
"I see a humble, hardworking, curious, competitive guy. I watch him interact with his teammates, I watch him interact with the coaching staff, I watch him interact with recruits and people in the community, and I haven't seen" any sense of entitlement, Franklin said.
"That's one of the things I've been so proud of - how he's handled that. I think that speaks volumes about the kid. I think that speaks volumes about his family and how he was raised, because I have not seen a whole lot of that. I really haven't. I think that's why he's going to have a chance to be really good - because those things are not going to limit his development."
Hackenberg says it's simply a matter of having "blinders." He's so focused that he doesn't just study film regularly; he also watches game replays from last season whenever they happen to appear on the Big Ten Network. Oblivious to the novelty of seeing himself on national television and unwilling to sit back and revel in what's already been accomplished, he imagines that he's back on the field, reading the defense and calling the signals. Sometimes, he regrets his failure to call out an alert or make an adjustment.
The goal, he says, is to feel as though he could operate the offense blindfolded.
In a larger sense, he's already doing that, blocking out the sort of distractions that might keep him from achieving his goals. He's well aware of what surrounds him but is zeroed in on football. The approach is as straightforward as can be: "Just dive into it and just go play ball. I think that's how we're approaching it, and there has to be that understanding, because we are playing with younger guys. It could go one way, it could go another way, but whatever way it goes, we're going to do it 1,000 miles an hour, 110 percent.
"It's going to be fun."
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Now, let's take a look at what's in our special preseason issue!
2014 Football Preview
James Franklin Q&A - BWI editor Nate Bauer caught up with Penn State head coach James Franklin this month for an exclusive one-on-one interview to get a grasp on the NIttany Lions as they enter his first preseason camp at the helm. How is he feeling as Season One quickly approaches? Find out, here!
Phil's Corner - Blue White Illustrated publisher Phil Grosz is back for yet another year as the helm. This year, he explains what Penn State will need to do to exceed expectations this season, and the factors that have everything to do with whether or not they'll be able to. Don't miss his expert analysis leading into the season, here!
James Franklin's Long Game - Challenges extending from the NCAA's sanctions against the program continue to haunt Penn State, but as Blue White Illustrated editor Matt Herb writes, new head coach James Franklin has his sights on the long game and its eventual outcome.
Jersey Boy - Returning to his native Northeast, new Penn State offensive coordinator John Donovan can't wait for the opportunity ahead, BWI's Tim Owen explains in this exclusive Q&A.
Quick Study - For all of the anticipation built in around Christian Hackenberg's second season at the helm, the immediate plan at backup - true freshman quarterback Michael O'Connor - has his work cut out for him, but is very much up for the challenge, BWI's Tim Owen writes here.
Fuel Injected - Using every piece of doubt as motivation, Penn State senior running back Bill Belton is anxious to put to rest any and every doubt about his performance this season, BWI editor Nate Bauer writes.
Calling the Shots - BWI editor Matt Herb caught up with Penn State's new defensive coordinator, Bob Shoop, to find out how he'll put his stamp on the Nittany Lions' traditionally stout defense. Learn more in this exclusive one-on-one Q&A.
Impact Player - Coming off a nagging injury that tried to hinder Mike Hull's 2013 season, the senior linebacker is back at full strength and ready to lead the Nittany Lions' defense this year, BWI editor Nate Bauer writes.
Hot Corner - He's always got something to say, and this year, cornerback Jordan Lucas is planning to do more than just back it up by shutting down opposing receivers, BWI editor Matt Herb writes.
World Premiere - Though he might have chosen a home game to kick off his career as the Nittany Lions' head coach, the James Franklin era will begin 3,300 miles away from Penn State when they open against Central Florida in Dublin, Ireland.
BWI 2014 Opponent Preview
Once again, we've got you covered for a mid-summer preview of the Nittany Lions' upcoming opponents in the 2014 season as it quickly approaches. From conference newcomers Maryland and Rutgers to the powerhouse programs to non-con match ups against UCF, Akron, UMass and Temple, the complete breakdown is here.
Additionally, in a retrospective on the anniversary of Penn State's magical 1994 undefeated season, BWI special contributor and Penn State historian Lou Prato remembers what made that group of Nittany Lions so special. You won't want to miss this special look back.
Class of 2015 continues to expand
Blue White Illustrated recruiting analyst Ryan Snyder has the latest on the verbal commitments of Manny Bowen, as well as a look with BWI publisher Phil Grosz at what's left on the Nittany Lions' recruiting board and where they currently stand.
These are just some of the stories featured in this special Blue White Illustrated 2014 Preseason Penn State Football Issue.
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