Season of adjustments for Hackenberg

For The Sun-Gazette

STATE?COLLEGE?- Christian Hackenberg probably won’t have much time to throw the ball this season because of a suspect offensive line, which means he will have to find some new ways to protect himself and be effective.

Penn State’s star sophomore quarterback already is being billed as a future top 10 NFL draft pick, and perhaps possibly even a No. 1 overall selection. Everyone got to see how impressive he can be last season when he has a lot of time to throw and when he has a sensational receiver like Allen Robinson.

Hackenberg won’t have either of those luxuries this year, at least to start the campaign.

His offensive line has only one returning starter – left tackle Donovan Smith – and is one of the least-experienced units in the country, while Robinson is now in the NFL.

First and foremost, Hackenberg must stay upright and healthy for PSU to have any chance for success. If the line fails to protect him, it will be up to him to buy more time.

“There’s ways where I can get the protection, with whether it be with my (middle linebacker read) or just getting the ball out when I need to on time or taking the flat route rather than waiting on the curl,” Hackenberg said during Saturday’s Lift for Life event.

“It’s just one of those things that I’ve got to adjust to, but I think as the year goes on and we start gelling more and (the linemen) get more experience, it will be good.”

The easiest ways to get around O-line issues are a lot of quick passes, short drops and shotgun formations. Count on Hackenberg to be doing all of those things.

But some of the skills that make Hackenberg so dangerous are his ability to go through his progressions, check off his primary or even second target and find a hole in the defense. Even as a freshman, he excelled in those very difficult areas.

All of those things take time, however. And time doesn’t figure to be Hackenberg’s friend this season.

“I’ve just got to take what I can get,” he said.

Which, he added, will be a big adjustment.

“For me it is because I’m always that guy that’s trying to wait on that big play, that big throw,” Hackenberg said. “But I think it’s going to help improve my game, just being able to adjust to that.

“It’s going to be fun. I worked on it in spring, came around a little bit, and I think (preseason) camp’s going to give me another great opportunity to really start working on that.”

Fortunately for Hackenberg, he will have proven offensive weapons around him, even though his receivers are largely young and inexperienced.

Penn State’s stable of tight ends is as impressive as there is in the country, with Jesse James, Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman all capable of giving Hackenberg a big target on quick routes.

Running backs Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak have proven they can be productive on the ground, and both also can leak out of the backfield for dumpoffs.

One of Hackenberg’s most impressive attributes last season was his ability to throw accurately and get velocity on the ball while scrambling. So even if things break down around him, he can extend plays and allow receivers a chance to find open territory downfield.

“I feel like I’ve gotten a little faster, I’ve gotten stronger, so I think that’s just going to help me be able to get outside the pocket, break contain and be able to throw the ball,” Hackenberg said.

The tight ends and running backs undoubtedly will be major parts of what the Nittany Lions do offensively. But ultimately, a great deal of Hackenberg’s and PSU’s success will hinge on whether redshirt sophomore Geno Lewis or some of the other young receivers – including freshmen – can fill the huge shoes left behind by Robinson.

Lewis said he and the receivers have been doing everything they can this summer to improve the chemistry, rapport and timing with Hackenberg. They watch a lot of film and go out and throw together as much as possible to fine tune as many things as they can.

“They’re explosive, they’re tall, really rangy guys, show a lot of ability and a lot of talent,” Hackenberg said of his talented yet raw freshmen receivers. “But we’ll see when the pads come on when camp comes around the corner.”