#1 best-selling author Mark Schofield reveals his list of the top quarterback prospects for the 2016 NFL Draft. Schofield, who wrote 17 Drives – a chronicle of the 2015 college football season – has ranked Christian Hackenberg as his 15th ranked prospect. Click here to look at all of his work on the 2016 QB class.
Penn State football was in desperate need of help during 2012, as the allegations surrounding former coach Jerry Sandusky shined a bright – and deserved – spotlight on the school and the football program. Two new additions to the program helped to rehabilitate the product on the field, new head coach Bill O’Brien, formerly the offensive coordinator with the New England Patriots, and 5-star quarterback recruit Christian Hackenberg. The highly-recruited signal caller committed to the school prior to the scandal breaking open, but honored his commitment to the university.
As a true freshman in 2013, Hackenberg looked every bit the part of a quarterback with a first-round future. He was able to operate in O’Brien’s NFL-style offense and seemed to execute the scheme with poise and precision. He completed 59% of his passes for 2,955 yards and 20 touchdowns, with 10 interceptions, all very impressive numbers for a true freshman – while leading the Nittany Lions to a 7-5 record.
But after the season, O’Brien left campus for the head coaching job for the Houston Texans, and new head coach James Franklin arrived from Vanderbilt, bringing a similar offensive style to Death Valley. However, the end results failed to match the promise of Hackenberg’s first season. As a sophomore the QB saw his completion percentage dip to 55%, and his touchdowns drop from 20 to 12, while interceptions rose to 15. Part of this might have been the talent depletion finally taking hold as a result of the sanctions imposed by the Sandusky scandal, but Hackenberg’s tape also shows a drop off as well. The QB bounced back a bit as a junior, throwing for 16 touchdowns and only six interceptions, but his completion percentage dropped to a career-low 53%, leaving him with a career mark of 56%, well under the 60% benchmark many NFL evaluators look for in a college quarterback. Hackenberg decided to forgo his senior year and enter the NFL draft.
On paper, Hackenberg might just be the dictionary definition of an NFL quarterback. He has prototypical size (6’ 4”, 228 lbs) and arm strength for the position, with experience operating in two different NFL-style offenses, including one under current NFL HC, O’Brien. At times the QB displays good to great anticipation for throws and the ability to throw receivers open, as well as precise timing and the ability to sync up his footwork with various route concepts and time his throws right at the ideal moment to create big plays in the passing game. Hackenberg has average to above-average athleticism for the position, with the ability to extend plays with his feet, as well as the play-strength to break a tackle from an initial defender in the pocket and keep a play alive.
Hackenberg also displays on tape the ability to work progressions, both in terms of making a full-field read, and working two different route concepts on either side of the field, reading the coverage and making the right decision with the football based on the mechanism of the secondary. He shows solid footwork whether dropping from center or operation out of the shotgun, and is adept at both the “hitch step” as well as the “hit-and-throw” aspects of QB footwork. In addition, he is generally not afraid to challenge narrow throwing windows in the intermediate passing game.
Accuracy is a big question mark with Hackenberg, and it is born out not only in the statistics but also the film review. The QB misses on throws to all levels, whether checkdowns out of the backfield, screens to the outside, routes in the intermediate game such as dig routes or comebacks, or even on vertical routes where general accuracy and not pinpoint precision is the name of the game. Reviewing his film it is hard to identify a mechanical flaw that could be the root cause, but this is definitely a concern for Hackenberg moving to the NFL. His decision-making is also questionable at times. There are moments when he is able to work quickly through progressions and throw to the right target, but there are other moments when he fails to identify the coverage, or a defender dropping into an underneath zone, that leads to disaster.
Hackenberg also is adept at identifying the blitz, but there are times when his reads in such situations become too slow, or robotic, to take advantage of the opportunity given him by the defense. Finally, while he has the ability to make throws with anticipation and throw receivers open, there are times that he missed a chance for a big play when he didn’t trust his eyes and / or wasn’t sure he was on the same page with his receiver, allowing the defense to converge on the potential target and negate the chance for a big play.
Given the success that he displayed during his season with O’Brien, it is likely that Hackenberg’s best fit is in a similar Erhardt-Perkins type offense that looks to attack in the intermediate and shorter areas of the field. This would also suit Hackenberg’s play speed and decision-making levels best.
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:
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:
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-thrown pass late in the play, allowing Penn State to convert on the third down.
Round projections vary on Hackenberg, with some bigger media members having him among their top five quarterbacks. This must be based in large part on the potential and the freshman year tape, as the film and the statistics showed a drop off over the past two seasons. Given the trajectory on tape and the flaws highlighted here, Hackenberg looks to be a 6th round selection.
One- to Three-Year Projections
More than anything, Christian Hackenberg needs a bit of stability from a coaching staff, who can afford him some time and be patient with his growth and development. He arrived on a campus in turmoil and was thrown to the fire immediately, and then was forced to learn a new offense and adjust to a different coaching staff one year later. In his three-years in college he played under two different head coaches, and with different offensive coordinators and quarterback coaches as well. He needs a year or two of development in one system. He looks to be a backup quarterback initially, and in the ideal situation and with some refinement to the flaws identified above, he could eventually grow into a competition-level starting quarterback.