Christian Hackenberg On Three: Synchronized Passing

Like any good researcher, Mark Schofield despises a small sample size. Unfortunately, prospect evaluation is almost always too early, or without all the information necessary. Thus, we have our series: On Two, in which Inside The Pylon examines two, and sometimes three, plays from a quarterback that address traits that scouts are talking about.

During his freshman season, Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg looked every bit the part of a potential first-round draft choice. Under the tutelage of current Houston Texans head coach Bill O’Brien, Hackenberg completed 58.9% of his passes for 2,955 yards and 20 touchdowns, with 10 interceptions. But when O’Brien left Happy Valley for the NFL, his former quarterback’s statistics, and film, suffered. When Hackenberg’s performance dropped, so did the idea of him being a first-round quarterback. Despite the drop in production, some of the traits that Hackenberg showed as a freshman were on consistent display throughout his final two seasons. So when NFL scouts and evaluators conduct their review of the quarterback it is possible, perhaps even likely, that what they see keeps the passer near the top of their boards. Once such trait is Hackenberg’s feel for the game, in terms of his timing and ability to make anticipation throws.

On One

During his freshman year, the quarterback displayed this trait on many occasions, including in this late-season game against the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Midway through the second quarter of that game, the Nittany Lions face a 3rd and 8 on the Nebraska 49-yard line, and line up with 11 offensive personnel. The tight end aligns to the right, while the three receivers set in a bunch to the left side of the formation, and Hackenberg (#14) stands in the shotgun. Nebraska has their 4-2-5 personnel in the game, and they show man coverage across the board with all 11 defenders within six yards of the line of scrimmage:HackenbergOnThreeOneStill1

Penn State runs a variant of the sail concept on this play. Freshman wide receiver Geno Lewis (#7) is the middle receiver in the bunch, and he runs a deep post route using a dino stem. Sophomore Allen Robinson (#8) is the inside WR, and he runs an out-and-up, executing a short out route before breaking vertically. Finally, Brandon Felder (#85), a senior, runs an intermediate out pattern:HackenbergOnThreeOneStill2

Against man coverage, the out route from Felder breaks open. The out-and-up from Robinson, as well as the post pattern from Lewis, clear out the sideline. Hackenberg takes the shotgun snap and executes a solid three-step drop, and once his final right foot drives into the turf, he uses a hitch step to gather himself and bring his momentum forward for the throw. He delivers the pass with precise timing, anticipation, and accuracy. Just as Felder makes his cut, the ball is coming out. Hackenberg’s pass hits the receiver right between the 8 and the 5 on his jersey:

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But the pass is dropped:

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We can see how the quarterback’s footwork and throw match the footwork and route from the receiver. Just as Felder plants his right foot to the inside and makes his break, Hackenberg begins his throwing motion. This play is one of those moments where the footwork of the receiver and quarterback are completely in synch, and we get an insight into the thought process of the quarterback. This is a confident throw and decision from Hackenberg, made with complete understanding of the route, scheme, and coverage. He knows Felder will break open based on the route design, and shows great timing, anticipation, and feel for the game with this throw. He doesn’t wait for the receiver to finish his break and flash open, which would give the defender a chance to break on the pass.

On Two

As stated, Hackenberg’s numbers took a drop during his sophomore year, and his first under head coach James Franklin. But the traits remained. On this throw against UMass, the QB displays the ability to make a full-field progression read before delivering a deep comeback with precise timing and anticipation. When you add in that the throw is delivered from the hashmark to the opposite sideline, what you see is a Sunday throw from Hackenberg.

Penn State has the football on the Minutemen 21-yard line, and face 1st and 10. Hackenberg stands in the shotgun and the Nittany Lions 11 personnel line up with pro formation to the right and slot alignment to the left. Across the line of scrimmage, Hackenberg sees 3-3-5 personnel, showing Cover 4 in the secondary, with a safety lined up in press alignment over the TE and an outside linebacker walked toward the slot, using inside leverage on the slot WR.

Penn State runs two concepts on this play. To the pro side of the field they use an NCAA Mills design, with the tight end running a post, WR DaeSean Hamilton (#5) running the underneath in route, and running back Bill Belton (#1) executing the shallow route. To the left side of the field the slot WR runs a seam out, while Lewis runs the deep comeback pattern:HackenbergOnThreeOneStill4

Watch as Hackenberg works his progressions, starting on the right side of the field. He checks the in route from Hamilton first, and seeing the underneath coverage in place to take away this option, Hackenberg checks the post pattern from his tight end. This is covered as well, so the QB moves to the other side of the field, first checking the seam pattern. With the linebacker in an underneath zone and the safety over the top, this is covered. So he comes to his final read, the deep comeback route. This is a great option against this coverage, as the cornerback lacks deep help on the outside and needs to respect the vertical route:

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Again, notice the timing, and how the footwork and throw from Hackenberg synch up with the cut and break from Lewis. When the receiver plants his feet to break back down the stem, Hackenberg begins his throwing motion. But he shows great feel and understanding of the route and the coverage with the placement of the throw. Rather than put the football right on the receiver, he leads Lewis back down the stem a bit, toward the offensive backfield. This does sacrifice a few yards, but it puts the receiver in a position to make the catch leading him away from the defender. This increases the chances the throw is completed, and sets Lewis up for yardage after the catch, which is exactly what happens. The receiver is able to secure the pass and break the tackle, picking up the first down.

On Three

While Hackenberg’s numbers dipped once more his junior year the timing, anticipation, and feel remained. All three traits were on display on this red zone throw against Illinois. Facing 3rd and goal, the Nittany Lions align with 10 personnel. Hackenberg stands in the shotgun with dual inverted slot formations. The Illini have their base 4-3 defense in the game and they show a red zone Cover 2 scheme, putting linebacker T.J. Neal (#52) into the middle zone presnap.

Sophomore Chris Godwin (#12) lines up in the slot, and he runs a stick-nod pattern on this play. When he reaches a depth of five yards, he will plant and look to cut to the outside, selling the defenders on the out cut with a “nod” of his head to the outside. But after the fake, he cuts back to the inside, breaking vertically up the seam:HackenbergOnThreeOneStill5

Once more, the timing and footwork match up in orchestral precision with the cut from Godwin. Just as Hackenberg hits the final step in his drop, Godwin nods to the outside on his fake. So when the receiver breaks vertically, the QB is ready to drop in a perfectly placed pass between three defenders:

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What is very impressive about this play is the area on the field where it takes place. Scoring in the red zone is difficult. With the decreased amount of real estate available to the offense, the field constricts and the throwing lanes are incredibly narrow. Hackenberg fits this throw in between three defenders, and is able to do so because of the synchronization between receiver and passer. If Hackenberg continues to hit these high notes through the draft process, he must might find his name called earlier than draft evaluators anticipate.

Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.

Mark Schofield has always loved football. He breaks down film, scouts prospects, and explains the passing game for Inside the Pylon.

All video and images courtesy Draftbreakdown.com.

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