Christian Hackenberg On Two: Progressions and Pocket Awareness

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 plays from a quarterback that address traits that scouts are talking about.

Having highlighted the ability of Christian Hackenberg to deliver throws with timing and anticipation, another area where the quarterback shows promise is his ability to remain calm in the pocket, slide from pressure and make progression reads. His ability to deliver on throws to his third or fourth read, while subtly avoiding pass rushers, was evident early in his career at Penn State under Bill O’Brien, and later in his career under current Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin.

Play One – Freshman Year

On this play from his freshman season, Hackenberg and Penn State face a 1st and 10 on their own 29-yard line against Nebraska. They trail by one point late in the first half, with under a minute remaining. The QB stands in the shotgun with 10 personnel on the field, with trips formation to the right and a single receiver split to the left. Nebraska’s 4-2-5 nickel defense shows Cover 6, with the weak-side cornerback in press coverage while the strong-side cornerback gives around seven yards of cushion to the outside trips receiver. The nickelback slides down into the box, using off man technique over the middle trips WR:HackenbergOTPStill1

While the defense stays with Cover 6, Penn State runs a sail concept to the trips side of the field. From the weak-side, the X receiver runs a deep dig route:HackenbergOTPStill2

Watch how well Hackenberg executes this play:

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From the time the ball is snapped to the moment he hits the first step in his drop, he has verified the coverage and is working through his progressions. You can see his helmet scan the safeties, verify the Cover 6 scheme, and as his first right foot sticks into the Beaver Stadium grass his facemask has swung to the outside, reading the three receivers on the sail concept.

By the time he hits his depth and starts to hitch forward, he sees that the Nebraska defense has covered the sail concept well. The nickelback rotates to the flat, and covers the short out route. The strong-side linebacker and cornerback have rotated to the intermediate out route, while the safety to this side of the field has the deeper corner route handled in coverage. So as he finishes his hitch, Hackenberg peels his helmet to the weak-side, to check the dig route before the running back on a route in the flat. That’s when he shows the subtle nuance that you see from a calm QB in the pocket. The edge defender to his right has beaten the right tackle and is starting to bend toward Hackenberg. As the quarterback climbs the pocket, he feels this pressure and ever-so-subtly adjusts the ball carriage as he moves forward:HackenbergOTPGIF1

By doing this, Hackenberg reduces the risk of a strip-sack. He then finishes the play by hitting his fourth progression read, the dig route, with a strong and accurate throw. From the processing speed Hackenberg shows when confirming the coverage on his first step, to the quick decision to peel off the sail concept and check the weak-side, from the subtle moves while climbing the pocket, to the final decision to throw the weak-side dig route, this is a very well-executed play from the quarterback.

Play Two – Junior Year

As we saw with timing and anticipation, some of Hackenberg’s positive traits carried through his entire collegiate career. His ability to work progressions while evading pressure in the pocket is another. On this play against Illinois in 2015, Penn State faces a 3rd and 3 on their own 37-yard line. With the football on the right hashmark and 10 offensive personnel in the game, Hackenberg stands in the shotgun and the offense has dual slot formations. The Illini’s 4-2-5 nickel defense shows Cover 4, but the strong safety is cheating down toward the box, perhaps an indication to Hackenberg that the secondary will roll their coverage at the snap. In addition both linebackers show blitz, with one in the A Gap and another over the B Gap on the right:HackenbergOTPStill3

The Nittany Lions run two different passing concepts on this snap, using a smash route to the right, and a drive route to the left:HackenbergOTPStill4

Illinois does alter their defense as the play begins. Neither linebacker blitzes, as they both drop into underneath zone coverage. The secondary indeed rolls their coverage, to Cover 3 Buzz. But the strong-safety, who was showing Hackenberg a biltz alignment before the play, is the defender who drops deep, while the free safety changes places and rolls down into the box to cover one of the hook zones:HackenbergOTPStill5

Similar to the previous play, Hackenberg verifies the coverage quickly, and by the time he finishes his first step he sees the free safety rolling down into the box. The quarterback then reads this play to the smash concept first, checking the out route in the flat. But with the linebacker foregoing the blitz to drop into the underneath zone, this is covered. Hackenberg then checks the corner route, but with the Cover 3 coverage the CB is squatting on this route as well. The QB then works to the back-side, and reads the drive concept:

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The subtle footwork in the pocket is impressive on this play. As Hackenberg reads the drive route, looking first at the drag and then finally throwing to the dig, he subtly adjusts his feet while moving from one read to the next. By resetting his feet each time, he is in perfect position to release the football by the time he finds an open receiver. Hackenberg works to his fourth read in the progression and delivers a well-throw pass late in the play, allowing Penn State to convert on the third down.

There are reason why, even with his drop in production during his Penn State career, Hackenberg is still considered by some experts to be a day two selection. As we have seen, his ability to make timing and anticipation throws is still present on film. And in the plays above, we see a quarterback who can quickly process information, work through progression reads, and deliver strong, accurate throws late in the play. And to add to this impressive display of traits, Hackenberg does this all while subtly moving in the pocket, feeling the pressure around him and keeping his feet ready to deliver the pass. In both examples Hackenberg delivers a strong throw in the intermediate passing game, moving the chains for Penn State. At any level of football, the ability to extend drives on these throws keeps an offense on schedule and opens up the entire field for the bigger play later in the contest.

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 Draft Breakdown.

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