Christian Hackenberg's poor performance is no surprise
During the fourth quarter of Penn State’s 27-10 loss to Temple on Saturday, ESPN commentator Brock Huard illustrated a replay of a Christian Hackenberg sack. He pointed out that not only were all four of his receivers completely covered downfield, but three of them were bunched together in the same spot, leaving Hackenberg with nowhere to go with the ball before being overtaken by the Owls’ pass rush (he was sacked 10 times during the game, and was under pressure on 16 of his 36 dropbacks).
While Hackenberg is going to take the heat for this loss — because that’s what comes with being Penn State quarterback and a player who has long been projected as a future NFL player based on his talent — the entire Nittany Lions offense is responsible for the struggles seen both on Saturday and last season.
That is important context to keep in mind when evaluating Hackenberg, but there is no question that his poor on-field production stands in stark contrast to the reputation he has for his ability to throw the football.
Last season, Hackenberg was our lowest-graded QB against Power-5 competition in the country. He was No. 76 out of 76 qualifying QBs. He didn’t fare much better in any of our signature stat categories, either. He struggled on deep throws and when under pressure, ranking near the bottom of those categories as well.
No matter how significant his teammates’ struggles are (in addition to those 10 sacks, he dealt with his receivers producing a very high drop rate of 12 percent), or how much blame head coach James Franklin and his coaching staff deserve for the offense’s issues (and odds are he’s going to get plenty this week), his poor production stands out as a huge red flag.
Colleague Jim Seki explored last month whether Hackenberg would be able to significantly turn things around in 2015, but the early indicators are not good. He earned a -4.4 grade from us for his performance against Temple, which, believe it or not, isn’t as bad as several of his performances last season (he graded the same or lower in eight of his 13 games last season). But his accuracy percentage of just 58.3 would have ranked second-worst in the country last season if translated out to a full year, and his box-score stat line was ugly: 11-for-25 with no touchdowns, one interception and 10 sacks, and a disastrous 4.1 yards per attempt.
A lot figures to be made this week about the lack of downfield passing attempts by the offense in this game, given Hackenberg’s reputation as a gifted passer with an NFL-caliber arm, and there’s something to that: Only two of Hackenberg’s 25 attempts versus Temple were 20 or more yards downfield, and he completed one. But to be fair, deep accuracy wasn’t a strength of Hackenberg’s in 2014.
There is still a lot of time for Hackenberg to turn things around — not just in 2015, but in his career (remember, he’s only a true junior, so his entering the 2016 NFL draft is far from a foregone conclusion). But it appears for now as though expectations for him need to be tempered quite a bit.