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Christian Hackenberg a natural pick to break Big Ten's draft drought

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Is this the Year of the Quarterback in the Big Ten? With NFL draft hopefuls, veteran returning starters and other intriguing prospects taking snaps around the league in 2015, it just might be. All week long, we’re taking a closer look at some of this fall’s most interesting Big Ten signal-callers.

The turf inside Holuba Hall stretches 80 yards from one end to the other. They built it that way so Penn State’s football team would have room to squeeze two fields side-by-side into the indoor practice facility -- one for the offense and one for the defense. The truncated version of a standard 120-yard surface (including end zones) never seemed to be much of an inconvenience until Christian Hackenberg showed up.

The arm strength of Penn State’s prototype quarterback was immediately evident when he arrived in Happy Valley two years ago. Teammates trying to catch his passes had to be wary of smashing into the walls that stand a few yards away from the end of the turf. On deep balls they found themselves running out of real estate on the indoor field before Hackenberg adjusted for the shorter distance. It was their first hint that the new, touted quarterback and his right arm were anything but ordinary.

“I just remember being in Holuba, and he could pretty much throw you from one end all the way to the other,” veteran receiver Matt Zanellato said. “He could throw you right out of Holuba. When you watch (his passes) on film it comes down like it’s coming out of orbit. One of those complete moonshots, first time I saw him throw I was thinking, ‘Now this kid’s got an arm.’”

The arm is attached to a 6-foot-4, 235-pound frame and wired through a brain predisposed to football. Hackenberg was born the son of a coach and raised in the type of Pennsylvania mining town that in past generations claimed coal and quarterbacks as its two major exports. The same environment that produced greats like Dan Marino, Joe Montana and Jim Kelly has spit out another in the same physical mold.

The modern-day image of a quarterback is changing, but no one in this year’s crop of top college quarterbacks passes the eye test like Hackenberg. He was built to the play the position, a natural.

“I guess you could say that,” Hackenberg said. “I grew up on the sidelines. Since I was 2 years old I was a waterboy running around annoying my dad’s quarterbacks. So yeah, I guess you could say that.”

Most NFL draft prognosticators expect Hackenberg will be the first to break the Big Ten’s two-decade drought without a first-round quarterback pick if he opts to leave school after his junior season. The conference hasn’t had a Round 1 pick at the position since fellow Nittany Lions QB Kerry Collins went fifth overall in 1995. That is almost certain to change in 2016 with prolific passers like Connor Cook and athletes like the trio at Ohio State all eligible to jump to the next level. Despite posting much more modest numbers last fall, Hackenberg stands above the rest in the NFL’s eyes.

As a sophomore, Hackenberg threw a disappointing 12 touchdown passes and 15 interceptions. He was also sacked 44 times, which leads head coach James Franklin to believe he didn’t get an honest look at what his quarterback can do in the coach’s first year at Penn State.

“It’s not even fair to evaluate him last year because he was running for his life,” Franklin said. “When you take the pounding that he took, your footwork is going to start to erode. You’re going to move out of the pocket faster than you should. The thing we’ve gotta do for Hack to let him keep developing is get the pieces around him.”

Penn State’s youth on the offensive line and among its wide receivers were major factors for a team that sputtered to a 7-6 record with the worst scoring offense in the conference. The new playbook also caused problems for Hackenberg, who had come to Happy Valley to learn under former and now current NFL coach Bill O’Brien.

Frustration boiled over at times for the young star and his equally competitive coaches. Hackenberg said he has respected the current staff since they arrived, but it took until late last year before he felt like they were speaking the same language. Pressure mounted as the natural thrower learned to struggle for the first time while standing in a national spotlight.

“My mind was all over the place,” Hackenberg said. “I was trying to push the offensive line. I was trying to push the receivers. I was trying to push the backs and myself and the defense. In practice my mind was in 17 different places rather than being able to sit there and hold these guys to that standard and also be able to make sure I got my end of the bargain done. This spring there’s a different focus from everyone.”

The offensive line is a year older and the receiving corps has the potential to be one of the best in the Big Ten this season. The communication gap between quarterback and coach is all but gone now, Hackenberg says. The offense is in a better place for Hackenberg to do what many Nittany Lions fans hoped he would when they got their first look at his rocket arm a few years ago: Help lead the program out of its darkest days and back on the road to national prominence before moving on to what has always seemed like his inevitable future.